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Can you revive something that’s long dead?: the Oxford Majlis

Anuj Mishra looks into the shifting conceptions and re-conceptions of Oxford’s Majlis

Majlis, مَجلِس: noun; an assembly, convivial meeting, congress, council; of Perso-Arabic origin, derived into Urdu.

The words ‘Oxford Majlis’ have re-entered the collective consciousness of Oxford. The 2023 iteration of the society has made headlines with a controversial invitation to the Russian Ambassador, and makes a tall order by claiming continuity from the original society. 

Majlis has had a myriad of functions over the years, growing from a small association of students from British India in the 19th Century to a political behemoth which fostered generations of anti-imperial activists from South Asia, to a drinking society which was loved for its ball and not much else. Even its name has been fluid, while the society was founded as ‘the Oxford Majlis’, over the years it was known as ‘the Oxford Indian Society’, ‘the Majlis Asian Society’, and, quite simply, ‘Majlis’.

Oxford’s Majlis began in 1896 as a society of students originating from what was then India, now the countries of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The Majlis followed the model of the Cambridge Majlis – which was founded five years prior – as a social and political society and held debates which followed the format of the Union. Over its early history, the Majlis snowballed in importance, becoming a crucial intellectual engine of the independence movement. The society counted among its members Liaquat Ali Khan, Solomon Bandaranaike, and Indira Gandhi, who respectively went on to become prime ministers of Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and India.

The earliest iteration of Majlis was therefore radical and distinctly Subcontinental. The Majlis, as a broadly left-wing, anti-imperialist platform was inherently on the wrong side of British foreign policy and was often targeted by the apparatus of the British State. Nonetheless, the Majlis itself welcomed a diversity of speakers, from prominent Indian nationalists, including Gandhi and Tagore, to a former Viceroy of India, Lord Chelmsford. In the early ‘20s, Majlis members debated Lord Chelmsford over whether his own measures as Viceroy – which included the unpopular imposition of martial law in Punjab in a bid to quash violent protest against British rule, leading to the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre – had been “necessary and successful”.

After the independence and partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, the role of Majlis shifted. Kamal Hossain, who would go on to draft the constitution for Bangladesh after its independence, writes in his autobiography that the 50s marked a change in tack for Majlis: “Much of Asia and most of Africa were still fighting for independence. Liberation wars were still being fought in Indo-China and Algeria, and the cause of national independence concerned us all.”

The Majlis in this period expanded beyond its Subcontinental roots rather than looking inwards. In a way, this expansion of focus was crucial to the Oxford Majlis’ continued survival. By comparison, the Cambridge Majlis ceased to exist because of the tensions stoked among South Asian students at the time of the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971.

By the time of the 80s, Oxford’s Majlis had lost its revolutionary political momentum: much of the global South had been ostensibly freed from the shackles of the imperialist hand, and Oxford itself was no longer the intellectual centre of a sprawling Empire. Majlis became again a particularly South Asian student society.

I spoke to Daljit Singh Makan, who was co-President of the Majlis in 1987, about the state of the society in the mid-80s. Daljit tells me that “by 1985, the society had dwindled to a membership of 20 to 30 people, who were mostly international students from the Subcontinent”. He speaks of a “huge revival” sparked in the years preceding and following his presidency, which saw Majlis’ membership jump to around 300, and established Majlis as a space which welcomed South Asians from across national and religious divides.

The archival records of this period paint much the same story. While information on the Majlis is hard to find from the other periods, the mid-80s offer a goldmine of material. Majlis’ term-card from 1988 is packed with debates, speaker events, cultural performances (Daljit tells me that among these was the first ever bhangra event at Oxford). The term-card also features advertisements from Oxford curry-houses, including one from the legendary Jamal’s. A one-off ‘Majlis Magazine’, published in 1986, records the history of the society as well as providing the transcripts of lectures which had been given at the Majlis in that year. There was clearly a deep interest in what Majlis once was alongside what it might become.

Daljit closes by mentioning that “our revival of Majlis didn’t alter its original raison d’être: we were a hub of inclusivity, welcoming members from all over the Subcontinent, and the world”. I ask him what he thinks of the Majlis as it is being revived this term, with its expanded purview and controversial leanings: his response is one of disappointment.

Crucial to the success of the revived Majlis in the 80s appears to be that it was the only South Asian student society in Oxford. As the years progressed, other South Asian-centric societies sprang up, and in turn encroached upon what had once been the sole remit of Majlis. By the late 00s Majlis had devolved into a mostly social society, which hosted an annual charity ball and little else.

Speaking to Dr. Priya Atwal, now a fellow of the Faculty of History, about her experience of the Majlis, she recalls “being very surprised to learn during [her] undergraduate course about the vibrant political role that the Majlis had once played as a debating society for South Asian students under the British Raj. It was a far cry from the much more muted and purely sociable activities that the society organised during my student years.”

As a result, by 2016, the Oxford Majlis had all but died. The society, without a sense of purpose, held events more infrequently, and the political forum which Majlis had once offered was no more.

It is worth mentioning that the saturation of South Asian societies (which had a large part in killing off Majlis) continues and is unlikely to ever go away. There are numerous societies made up of South Asians now, with national societies (namely, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka societies) as well as the Punjab and Tamil societies. When we add to the mix the faith-based Islamic, Hindu, and Sikh Societies, and even the cultural South Asian Arts Society, OxBolly, and Bhangra Society, there is little room left to go. Given this saturation, it is no wonder that this year’s conception of the society has turned to an extremely broad interpretation of who Majlis is for.

That too, there is already a society which offers the political space that Majlis once did: the South Asian Society. Formed in 2018, the society hosts the panels, debates, and socials that were the hallmark of Majlis. Sameer Bhat, a DPhil candidate who has been part of the South Asian Society since its inception, tells me that it was founded as a policy forum among students at the Blavatnik School of Government, and has since grown into a platform for “meaningful, critical, and progressive engagement with the politics of South Asia”.

Bhat goes on to say that the role of the South Asian Society, in his view, is to “bring the national societies together”. I ask him if, in terms of this transnational and political focus, he sees the South Asian Society as continuing the work of Majlis: “factually yes, but without consciously trying to do so”, he tells me.

While Majlis was no longer active in the late 2010s, its legacy was (and continues to be) potent. An attempt in 2018 by the Oxford India Society to absorb the Majlis Society was rebuked by the re-foundation of Majlis as an independent society. Ali Arsalan Pasha, who was Treasurer of this Majlis, spoke to me about the vision and circumstances which accompanied this attempt at revival. Ali tells me that “Majlis, then, was still part of the popular consciousness of Oxford students, albeit peripherally.”

The revival began with a debate – the first Majlis debate to have taken place in twenty years by that time – with the motion: “This House Believes that India is becoming a Hindu Pakistan”. The focus, therefore, was political, and arose from a core desire which appears to define the Majlis: that the society aimed to be a place for people who cared about what was going on “back home”. I ask Ali what his thoughts are on the vision of this year’s revived Majlis, he replies: “it seems too broad, it’s trying to do too much. At some point it becomes an Oxford Union 2.0.”

After a couple of terms packed with debates, panels, and socials, the 2019 Majlis fell into inactivity once again. Plagued by the curse of ‘the student society’ – for one can only be an undergraduate for three years or so – there was a failure to pass on the baton after the academic year ended.

Coincidentally in 2019, Cambridge Majlis too was revived, the result being decidedly more permanent. The current president of Cambridge Majlis, Ananya Jain told me about how Majlis at the other place continues to run today. Ananya tells me that the Majlis was re-founded as an alternative to the national student societies: “the point of Majlis was to be explicitly political and informative, appealing to those who hail from what was ‘India’ [broadly South Asia] at Majlis’ original foundation”.

The Cambridge Majlis maintains free membership, charging no entry fee for its events, which include speaker events, panels, socials, and debates. As a result, Ananya tells me that it has spawned a “tight-knit community, which, as it continues to grow and find its place in the landscape of student societies, has gone from being less of a Union-style debate platform to a group of people motivated by grassroots politics.”

Finally, I ask Ananya what her thoughts are on the 2023 Oxford Majlis’ activities. Aside from confusion at the Russian Ambassador episode (a recurring theme among everyone I spoke to), Ananya expressed some relief at the Majlis’ decision to platform Husam Zomlot, Head of the Palestinian Mission to the UK: “that, if nothing else, is true to the tenets of what Majlis was.”

So, where does the Majlis of Michaelmas Term 2023 stand? 

Quite simply, there is no licence or badge or mantle which entitles anyone to describe their society as the Oxford Majlis (c. 1896). That the Majlis was hardly ever registered with the University’s Proctors throughout its hundred-year history makes it impossible to claim any sort of ‘official’ continuity. Although the 2023 Majlis does claim the original Majlis’ founding date as its own on its Instagram handle. Nonetheless, any ‘revival’ must be scrutinised within the frame of what Majlis was, and whether this aligns at all with what that revival is trying to be. Therefore, let us take what is before us: The Oxford Majlis (c. MT23) sets out an expansive, if convoluted vision, defining Majlis as “a hub of eastern culture, spirituality, and thought”, and envisaging the society’s objectives “to host eminent speakers, live performances, art exhibitions and political rallies”. 

It is to the expanded purview of the post-Independence era that the Majlis of 2023 attempts to stake its claim. I ask Ibrahim Chaudry, a founder of the 2023 Majlis, whether envisioning Majlis as “a hub of eastern[ness]” truly captures this, whether there is any merit in explicitly grouping together such diverse identities and realities under one ‘eastern’ banner. In response, he paints for me a vivid image of people from across the global South congregating under the banner of Majlis, conversing over matters of literature, politics, religion: “I imagine a Nigerian clad in an agbada, an Uzbek wearing a kaftan, and a Pakistani in salwaar-kameez, all sat together as equals.” A truly transnational aim, yet this fails to quell my reservations about romanticising a monolithic orient. 

As the on-campus activities of students become increasingly subject to the scrutiny of outsider and political figures, the new Oxford Majlis will find itself in a tight knot. The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act of 2023 has made the practice of inviting (and disinviting) guest speakers a perilous one. This new Majlis will, inevitably, struggle with the reluctance of colleges to host guest speaker events in this climate. While this Majlis believes that it will become so much more than a stop on the speaker circuit, it is worth noting that the majority of its advertised events so far are just that.

I ask Ibrahim what his views on the speaker events are, whether inviting the Russian Ambassador and a former Editor of The Independent really align with the goals of the historic Majlis. He tells me that the way of the 2023 Majlis will not be a familiar one, putting forth that speakers will be invited not to parrot a pre-written script, but will instead be confronted by students armed with, for example, a verse of poetry. Ibrahim supposes that these discussions will spiral outwards into conversations about more pressing issues. Ibrahim is adamant that the event will be open to, and most certainly attended by fierce critics of Russian state policy, for whom the event will provide the platform to say their piece before the Ambassador. 

But is such a conception appropriate when one is dealing with a figure such as Andrey Kelin, who has spread disinformation about the Russian massacre of Ukrainian civilians in Bucha, and who, in any case, treads the Russian policy line carefully? A plan to have the event filmed by Russian state television, which has now been scrapped, only added to this scrutiny as students from Russia and of Russian origin would, doubtlessly, have been dissuaded from attending an event monitored by state channels. 

I get the impression that the founders of the 2023 Majlis have thought a lot about its legacy; it is difficult to trace that legacy through many of its present actions. Most of the people I spoke to while writing this article at first expressed their delight to hear of another attempt at Majlis’ revival, although this delight often fell tepid when they realised this new Majlis’ penchant for controversy. To that effect, the question must be posed: is it better to let Majlis die off completely than to have an iteration which risks tarnishing its legacy in years to come?

This article would not have been possible without the generous contributions of Prof Sudhir Anand, Dr Priya Atwal, Sameer Bhat, Prof Amit Chaudhuri, Ananya Jain, Daljit Singh Makan, and Ali Arsalan Pasha.

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