A season for universities!

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The Legislative Assembly passed bills for allowing setting up of three private universities in the nine-day session when all the Opposition had boycotted it, however, the Legislative Council sent the bills to JSC. Kashmir Life reports.

For many days schools in Kashmir were the focus of the attention – from Home Minister’s office in Delhi to Syed Ali Geelani’s home in Srinagar. It once got such a hype that TV crews would chase school busses like paparazzi to get a byte from the boys asking them questions like; how they feel about going to school during curfew? All of a sudden the focus shifted – this time to the Universities.

It started on Saturday (October 9, 2010) with the state assembly passing three bills allowing setting up of three universities: the Transworld Mulsim University (TMU) by Jamiat-e-Ahli-Hadis, Sheikh-ul-Aalam Research and Technical University (SARTU) by Karvan-e-Islami (both in Srinagar) and Khalsa University to be set up by Sikhs in Jammu. The bills were voted on after a brief discussion.

NC’s Saifullah Mir said the government had suggested certain changes in the proposed bill which were included. (Earlier Jamiat president was tipped as the Chancellor but now he will be pro-chancellor and Chief Minister the chancellor and a number of bureaucrats will sit on the board of the university.) Similar changes were made in the proposed bill for the Karvan-e-Islam University according to Choudhary M Ramzan.

The only change that the house made was in the university proposed by legislator Charanjit to be set up by Sikhs. Education Minister Abdul Gani Malik said the government would not permit any Open University. After discussions the house changed the name from Guru Nanak Sikh Open University to Guru Nanak Khalsa University.

 “It seems to be the day for the universities,” one reporter quipped in the house. But it was not to be so. The passage of the bills took place when the entire opposition was out of the house. The PDP, state’s principal opposition, did not attend the session at all except a few minutes on the first day of the session, when they announced the boycott. The BJP and the Panthers Party that represent the heart of dissent in Jammu had also boycotted almost half of the nine day assembly session in protest against chief minister Omar Abdullah’s statement in which he had said the J&K had acceded and not merged with India. This left only NC, Congress and their few supporting independent legislators in the house.

Strangely, the treasury benches pushed through three bills within a few minutes. Only the movers spoke and minister Malik was too supportive. No questions asked and no debate initiated.

On Monday (October 11, 2010) when the upper House met for the last sitting of the session, a near unanimous view emerged that the issue being sensitive would require a lot of thinking before actually setting up three universities. “We are not setting up primary schools under Srava Shiksha Abhiyan, these are universities that need a lot of human resource and physical infrastructure,” one lawmaker said, adding, “Before proceeding, we must see the fate of the universities that we (have) set up in recent years.”

It was former NC minister Ajay Sadhotra who suggested the bills pertaining to the three universities be sent to the Joint Select Committee (JSC). The suggestion was seconded by minister R S Chib. He said though he is a minister but he is opposing the idea in his capacity as member of the house. Even Sheikh Ghulam Rasool, an NC member said the universities are being set up on sectarian basis and need to be re-examined. He referred to the problems that Islamic University at Awantipore was facing on counts other than funding. NC members Khalid Najeeb Suhurwardy and Javaid Rana vehemently opposed the idea of sending the bills to JSC asserting that since the bills were passed by the legislative assembly the council should not prevent their passage.

It was many days later that Congress’s state president Prof Saif ud Din Soz revealed that his party had issued a whip against the bills though it was observed only in breach. He said setting of the universities had “far reaching divisive implications” and was apparently worried that the TMU would get “massive funding” from abroad that would eventually loosen state’s grip over curriculum and general control. Terming the issue “sensitive” he was quoted saying “it has a potential of generating controversy and could end up in creating divisions in the society.” The issue, he said, had not been discussed in the NC-Congress coordination committee.
Though minister Malik claimed that there was no mushrooming of the universities in J&K. Given the enrolment in the schools and colleges run in private and public sector, J&K may require 50 universities in near future, he said. However, the house sent the bills to JSC.

The decision came hours after BJP started pulling the strings. Its leaders said in Jammu, said that while they were out of the house the ruling coalition opened its “Islamist agenda”. Ashok Khajuria said these universities will encourage extremism. Congress feared a possible backlash in the heart of Hindu belt that it is keenly trying to wrest from BJP and acted quite in haste.

The state is already burning, Jamiat-e-Ahli-Hadis president Molvi Showkat Ahmad was quoted saying in a desperate reaction to the move. “Do they want Jammu and Kashmir should continue to burn?” he asked. He said “some communal forces” are hell bent “to hurt the emotions of the Muslims”. He vowed: “We will not sit silent. Any move to scuttle the university establishment will have serious repercussions.”

In fact, Jamiat’s university plan got entangled as two other universities cropped up and it became an issue. Jamiat has been striving for setting up a university since 1990. There was no support to its move anywhere in the government that had counter insurgecy as its priority. Once the government started giving it a hearing, the idea of a Shariah university shifted to a normal one. In February 2008 it was given 100 kanals of the land by the government.

Then a Shia Muslim leader openly opposed the idea asserting that creating institutions on sectarian basis could harm Kashmir’s heterogeneous society.

Jamiat, however, is attached to the idea so deeply that in May 2008 it went to Raj Bhawan to seek help from the then governor General (retd) S K Sinha. It came at a time when Sinha’s idea of forcing pre-Islamic Kashmiriyat into the Kashmir curriculum had peaked by creating Kashmir Studies Centre with a highly questionable mandate in the University of Kashmir. Sinha was so helpful to the idea that the Jamiat publicly lent support to Sinha’s brainchild of reviving the Shardha Peth, an ancient Hindu seat of learning that existed in last millennium somewhere in the Kishanganga Valley, now on the other side of the LoC.

In fact, a number of influential Kashmiri Pandits set up Kashmiri Hindu Educational Society to which Sinha had offered a one time grant of Rs 5 crore from Amarnath shrine board that he headed. Prof Amitabh Matoo was supposed to be its pro-chancellor. Kashmiri Pandits who own properties worth Rs 7000 crore across the valley could (and still can) manage a huge university if they will wrest these properties from certain “remote controlled trust” for which they have a law as well. The plan, however, could not take off as the Amarnath land row triggered a crisis that led to the fall of Kashmir’s one of the most hated governors.

Jamiat, however, did not surrender. It continued its efforts and pushed the idea to a level that the bill was smoothly passed by the state legislature. The presence of two other universities in the list created a storm and grounded the idea, at least, for the time being.

Off late, it seems, J&K has too many universities with University of Kashmir being the oldest one. Set up in 1948, it gave birth to University of Jammu in 1968. The twin universities are the biggest campuses of high learning in the state. Over the years these remained confined to the  city campuses but the last coalition government led by Mufti Sayeed made the two universities to open off-city campuses, some sort of satellite centres which the locals can access without incurring huge expenses. The system’s inability to invest massively in hostels, more so in the University of Kashmir had made peripheral campuses inevitable.

Now the University of Kashmir has two additional campuses in North Kashmir and South Kashmir. The University of Jammu has one campus each at Kathua, Udhampur, Bhaderwah and more recently at Poonch where it operates from a degree college. Though the government has sanctioned it one crore rupees to set up a building, it may take some time.
These new campuses currently under different stages of snail-pace implementation would become new mini-universities in coming years.

Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Science (SKIMS) in Soura is a deemed University. The Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences, Technology and Veterinary (SKUAST) followed the University of Kashmir. At the peak of debate over discrimination against Jammu, authorities dissected it into two – SKUAST (K) and SKUAST (J).

Mata Vaishno Devi University was the first university in the private sector in J&K. Soon after came the Baba Ghulam Shah Badhshah University in Rajouri and later the Islamic University of Science and Technology at Awantipore. More recently the central government approved one central university each for Kashmir and Jammu regions. Initially it was just one but certain sections in Jammu and Kashmir’s power elite made it a huge issue forcing centre to accede to the demand of another one. Ideally the central university should have gone to Ladakh or to the Chenab Valley but the influential lobbies at Jammu and Srinagar scuttled the idea before somebody could think on those lines.

These universities are yet to come up. Jammu’s Central University would come up on 4292 kanals of land (including 3000 kanals of forest land where 46445 trees would have to be axed) at Bagla village in Samba and it is in the process of paying a Rs 16.27 crore compensation to the forests department. Its Kashmir counterpart would come up in Ganderbal on 4582 kanals for which government is seeking Rs 42.57 crore as the cost of the land. While the central government has appointed Prof Abdul Wahid Qureshi, the former VC of Kashmir University, to head the Central University of Kashmir, his counterpart in Jammu is yet to be identified. Jammu is running a movement against Prof Amitab Matoo, who was slated to head the university and nobody knows why.

Setting up a university is very difficult. Take the case of BGSBU. It started with the onetime capital grant of Rs 15 crore by the Sharda Sharief shrine Auqaf. The Auqaf also pays two crore rupees every year. “We have invested over Rs 35 crore in creating the infrastructure on 6000 Kanals of land and our rates (cost) for raising a building are almost half than that of the state government’s,” Abdul Rashid Choudhary, the Registrar, BGSBU, Rajouri said. More than 1500 students are on rolls of the university with most of them being from Kashmir. “We need more than six crore rupees on salaries alone and we do generate a good amount from internal resources, around seven crore rupees a year from tuition fees alone,” he added.

Choudhary said ideally a university should have either the state or the central government behind it “otherwise it is tedious”. The total investment that BGSBU has got from the state government in five years of its existence is three crore rupees, which was given for setting up hostels.

A Kashmir experience is painful and the Awantipore’s IUST explains it year after year. Muslim Wakf Board (MWB) was supposed to offer the university Rs 20 crore as one time capital grant to set up the university on the 250-acres campus besides two crore a year as operating expenses. But the promise was never kept.

“By now we have invested more than Rs 18 crore in creating the infrastructure and our yearly outgo on recurring expenditures is now Rs 9 crore,” a senior executive of the University said. “The Board has released Rs 4.11 crore but during the last year and a half not a single penny has been released,” he added. The university has been fortunate that it managed around six crore rupees from the government that funded part of its infrastructure. “We have 1400 students on rolls and every year we take 600 students and that is offering us most of the nine crore rupees that we require a year,” the executive added. It is perhaps the only university that at one point of time was running on bank overdraft. It is still indebted to the tune of just under five crore rupees.

The only fortunate initiative was the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi (SMVD) University. Funded by the richest Hindu shrines in north India, SMVD has invested more than Rs 120 crore in the most impressive campus sprawling over 470 acres of land near the Katra shrine. It has the best faculty because it is the only private university that can afford the best of the human resource. Unlike all other such initiatives, it never faced any problem from the donors. It has around Rs 100 crore in the pipeline and within a year or so it will be in a position to net availability of Rs 40 crore a year. “This year it is being approved by the University Grants Commission and funding is expected to come from there as well,” an insider said, adding “Getting UGC funding is a very difficult process and BGSBU and IUST will take a long time and much more investment to become eligible for that.”

But the questions being raised now need to be answered. How many universities do we need? Do we have enough of human and infrastructural resources to manage universities? Can we afford to fund these from charities? And finally should we encourage few people to attempt creating universities whose experiences have barely been limited to running a few small schools and seminaries?

In 2009, Showkat Shafi, the University of Kashmir’s PRO, says, the University of Kashmir received over 26000 applications for 3000 berths. “This year it was 30,000 applications for 4200 admissions,” he said. It is same almost everywhere.

“It is 10 applications for every seat we have,” said BGSBU Registrar Choudhary. Part of this additional load goes to places outside the state, sometimes to study at places of choice against massive expenditure.

Prof Sidiq Wahid has actually set up the IUST with almost no funding and his major contribution is that he has kept it running. “The population is up so Kashmir may need a few more universities,” he says plainly when asked about the requirement of additional universities. He evaluates the requirement simply on basis of the growth rate. But the larger question he poses is that of the requirement of students, good faculty and better infrastructure. “I think it is valid question, whether we have the infrastructure and quality of education in primary to secondary levels to justify more universities,” he said, adding, “We need more good schools and better colleges to put more students in the universities”. He said at the front end Kashmir needs better schools and at back end having more jobs should be the priority. “I have a graduate driving my car and it is not good,” he says.

Despite all this the three universities were almost a reality last week. It still could be that JSC reports back within six months.

But it was the government that spoiled the broth. Nobody knew the motives behind permitting many universities till the state stepped in, this time in self praise. “The passing (sic) of the Sheikh-ul-Alam Research and Technical University Bill by the assembly has received all round appreciation by the people at large particularly people belonging to Ahal-i-Hanfia and Ahal-i- Aitiqaad,” a statement fed to the media through unofficial channels by the government said. When the bill was passed in Assembly along with the bill of Ahal-i-Ahadees Technical University, it added “the fact that state government is very conscious of promoting all schools of thoughts has been proved in real sense.” It talked of the appreciation the government got for its “sincere intention” of its help “in creating the educational atmosphere in the state where different schools of thought have been given golden opportunity to expand the spectrum of their educational activities.” Then the statement moves to appreciate the “dynamic and young leadership of Chief Minister” and finally to Molvi Ghulam Rasool Hami, who runs a small seminary in Shadipora (Sumbal) that is aimed to be upgraded to a university.

As the bill was at the stage of passage, a senior journalist quipped in the press gallery: “It has come to a stage that home ministry will feel vindicated,” he said, adding, “They (in Delhi) have been saying all along that Kashmiri Muslims are highly divided – there are Gujjars, Bakerwals, Pahari’s, Shia’s, Jamati’s, Ahli-Hadis and Hanafis but never ever were the people so divided on ground but now (with universities) every section will get a symbol to identify with.”

But that seems no reason why Jammu reacted. The opposition cut across party ideologies. BJP, Congress and NC – they had different reasons (some of them very valid) but one thing was in common – opposition.
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A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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