Kashmir University has a new man in charge
Srinagar: Despite the much abused cliché, there is no other way of describing Professor Talat Ahmad, the newly-appointed vice chancellor of University of Kashmir; he is a man on a mission. The mission, in his own words is: “to leave behind a legacy of change in my three-year tenure.” Formerly, a professor of geology in Delhi University, when Ahmad was offered the high seat in Kashmir University (KU), his friend and vice chancellor of University of Delhi (DU), Professor Dinesh Singh, urged him to accept the offer as a mission. Recalls Ahmad, “He told me that we must do what we can for the state.I have come here for a fixed tenure with a firm plan.”
The plan essentially is to give as much exposure to the Kashmiri youth as possible through educational and employment opportunities. “Most Kashmiri children have not seen the world beyond Kashmir,” says Ahmad. “I want to help as many I can to avail opportunities outside Kashmir. Not only will they serve as the brand ambassadors of their state to other parts of the country, but will also bring back impressions about those parts to Kashmir to motivate others.”
Pooh-poohing the contention that educational standards in Kashmir are so poor that they create literate but unemployable youth, Ahmad says that the students in KU are as good or bad as any in other parts of India. Instead of criticising the education standards, he feels that there is a need to commend the dedication of the students and the teachers alike, to keep the University functional, even during the worst of times, including the last three summers. “Classroom education,” he says, “is only one aspect of the learning process. The other is exposure, which helps in developing a worldview. This is basic main reason why I am keen that students from here go out.”
Traditionally, a majority of Kashmiri youth which came to mainland India for higher education preferred the Muslim institutions like the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and the Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI). Though historical universities, in the last decade or so, these have been in news more for campus politics than education, especially the AMU, which at one point became the crucible of conservative religious thinking and politics. Coming from Kashmir and cutting their teeth in this environment only reinforced prejudices and strengthened persecution complex.
Professor Ahmad, having studied at AMU, knows a thing or two about this. Using his connections, KU has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Delhi University (DU), which goes beyond students’ exchange programme. Under this MoU, students of KU can enrol for on-campus or distance research programmes in DU. In addition to this, virtual classrooms would be set-up through which the students can listen to live lectures being given at DU. Additionally, students of DU can avail of similar facilities in KU.
“DU has several MoUs with various universities and institutions,” says Ahmad. “Not all of them are pursued seriously. But here, both I and Prof. Dinesh Singh have thrown our collective weight behind this MoU. We want this process to start at the earliest and we are monitoring it personally.” Ahmad is now trying to work out a similar understanding with Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), another of his alma mater.
Exposure is only one part of the story. The other is revising the attitude towards education. What was true of small town India almost two decades ago is still true of Kashmir to a large extent. People have a limited view of education and the avenues it opens for them. As Ahmad says, “Most students, who study sciences, believe that it offers only two opportunities, medicine or engineering. I tell them that the world does not start and end with medicine or engineering. If you are serious about science, you should consider becoming a scientist and a whole new world will open up for you, not only in India but in other parts of the world. This is what I mean by exposure.”
Ahmad is so focussed on pushing research as an option at KU that he has recently got the position of Dean, Research approved by the University Council. He is convinced that this will not only improve the level of the teachers, but the students as well, by exposing them to international journals and research papers. Since it is a new area, not many even know how to write a proposal for a research project. Ahmad is instituting special counselling for that. “One of the factors instilling victimhood in students is the lack of funding or absence of scholarships,” says Ahmad. “The truth is University scholarships are miniscule. Students must strive to earn fellowships. Research is one area where they can do so. I have also been telling them to prepare and clear the University Grants Commissions’ (UGC) National Eligibility Test (NET) and earn their fellowships. This will widen job options in the academics for them. Why must they remain frogs in the well?”
Most of Ahmad’s plans have already been put into motion. The fact that these are not castles in air can be gauged by the fact that using contacts and friendly coercion, Ahmad is seeking support and funding for them through various sources. For instance, tapping on the geography of the place, Ahmad is trying to open a centre for glaciology in the University. “What can be a better place to study glaciers than Jammu and Kashmir,” he says, having sold the idea to the Department of Science and Technology, government of India, which is willing to fund it. For the career counselling centre within the University, Ahmad is getting funds from the minority affairs ministry. And to temporarily though the ball has been set rolling, Ahmad is only too conscious of the obstacles en route. The biggest of which is the most fundamental one: quality of the teaching staff. As he says, “I can implement all UGC norms in the university and devise the best syllabus possible, imbibing the latest in the world, but it would mean nothing if I don’t have the commensurate teaching staff. Teachers can make or break any institutions.” Taking the road less travelled, Ahmad is urging the teachers at the KU to enhance their skills, through refresher courses and online teaching tools. His has been convincing the teachers to not only embrace new teaching skills but also to set example for the students by indulging in research themselves and publishing papers which could end up becoming reference material for the students. This, according to him, will have twin benefits: one, it will acquaint the teachers with the changes taking place in their field all over the world; two, it will enhance the stature of the teachers among the students.
The other challenge is to ensure that the various colleges affiliated with the University keep pace with these developments. Ahmad admits that this could be the proverbial black hole. The most that he or the university can do is persuade the colleges, a large number of which are located in remote areas, to imbibe these changes. He cannot, even as the vice chancellor, force his initiatives on them. And this could be the weakest link in his doctrine of change. “Ideally, in a state like J&K where far too many years have been lost and politics has overtaken day to day lives, counselling should start at the school level,” he says. “Many children do not go to college and fewer still reach the University. Hence, for change to take effect we have to reach the school children.”
To bridge this gap between the University and the colleges, KU is expanding the reach of its off-campuses. At the moment, it has two additional campuses at Anantnag and Baramullah. Ahmad is overseeing establishment of three more campuses in Leh, Kargil and Kupwara. The University has already got the sanction of Rs 85 crore for expansion.
In any other state, a University’s vice chancellor’s efforts would not have really mattered so much. But J&K is not any other state. Here, any initiative to engage the youth has the potential of transforming the mindscape of the people, if pushed through with sensitivity, care and constancy. Realising this potential of engaging with the youth, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in May 2006, had announced the creation of five working groups dedicated to different aspects of the Kashmir issue, primarily to figure out how best the resolution of Kashmir could be pursued within the Indian Constitution.
One of the working groups, headed by C. Rangarajan, chairman, Economic Advisory Panel to the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former Governor, Reserve Bank of India, was to focus on economic development, creation of jobs for the youth (thereby trying to draw them into the mainstream) and also restoring regional economic balance within the state. The Rangarajan report, along with the other four, was consigned to the shelves. .
Having missed this opportunity, the government once again sought Rangarajan’s assistance when Kashmiri youth erupted on the streets in the summer of 2010, with a ferocity never seen before. This time he was asked to devise an employment programme on a public-private partnership model. In March 2011, Rangarajan came up with two formulations. First, imparting training and subsequently employment to nearly one lakh Kashmiri youth under Project Himayat, over a period of five years, in such sectors as BPO (business process outsourcing), retail and so on. This project is targeted at people with middle to low educational levels. The second was Project Udaan under which 40,000 jobs are to be created over five years for professionally qualified Kashmiri youth. With the total outlay of Rs 2,000 crore, both projects aim at enhancing skills and increasing employability of the youth. Lending weight to both schemes is the support of Indian corporate houses like Infosys Technologies, Tata Consultancy Services, Godrej and Boyce, BILT, Crompton Greaves, Avantha Group, Bajaj Auto, WWFI, JCB India, Tata Motors and Apollo Hospitals. While Project Himayat is being overseen by the ministry of rural development, Project Udaan would be midwifed by ministry of home affairs.
On 17 December 2011, hours before meeting FORCE, Prof. Talat Ahmad was hosting Union minister for rural development Jairam Ramesh and J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah. They were there to kick-start Project Himayat by issuing 1,000 job cards to selected youngsters, a substantial number of which were girls. While some of these jobs would be within the state, most will be in other parts of the country.
Ahmad considers this as a small, but long overdue opportunity. But since every opportunity is important, he invited Ramesh and Abdullah to hold the function at the University so that a message was sent to the students.
“There is severe unemployment in the state,” he says, adding that, “Even as we focus on skill development, we also need to show them how these skills will pay in the long run.”
Ahmad is conscious that everything in Kashmir eventually boils down to politics. Just as the students’ union at KU which had to be eventually disbanded after it started indulging in politically motivated and subversive activities. Ensuring that the University remains free of politics will be a tightrope walk, which Ahmad is willing to do because he believes that academics and politics have different places in the society and they should not mix. “I believe in democracy at the grassroots and I understand the importance of students’ union. I will consider allowing the creation of the union in good time. But it will have to strictly adhere to the Lyndoh Committee recommendations. Unions should be a forum for students to voice their concerns. They cannot be allowed to become instruments in the hands of vested interests,” he says.
Even if 50 per cent of Ahmad’s vision is realised, it will make a substantial difference to the generation which is coming of age now. These children may have spent fearful and uncertain childhood but at least the future should beckon with hope and equal opportunities. Since change can only be brought about from within, harnessing the young minds should be a project that the government must invest in seriously and without politics.