The Versatile Vice-Chancellor

by Ikhlaq Qadri

Exactly this was a time of the year, 13 years ago in 2008, spring officially sprung, that I was finally a graduate. Out of college, I was looking forward to pursuing my further education outside the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir.  My family, however, wanted me to stay back.

Professor Riyaz Punjabi

Caught in the quagmire of career, the following months started to give trouble. An uneasiness of uncertainty prevailed upon everything. I had a pervasive feeling of loss until a friend handed me over a brochure of the University of Kashmir. Without getting into the details, a charming face on the edge of the cover page lured me to turn the pages. A naive to know, when I read the message of the person on the page, my broken threads started to join and weave a wonderful dream, again.

A couple of months later, as a new entrant to the oldest university of Kashmir, I found the man on that page in front of me, physically. He was Professor Riyaz Punjabi, a man of his own style, walking down the lane with grace and grandeur.

After completing the admission formalities, we were a group of students, probably 26, who were allotted South Campus, the first satellite campus of the University of Kashmir established in the same year at Fatehgarh, Anantnag.

An equally new experience to the students and teachers, the campus was massive and mesmerizing, but the infrastructure was in infancy and academic activity was yet to start. However, the other side of the fence was extremely active where the Army has a huge base of over 1000 Kanals of land, commonly known as High Ground. The regular firing session sound used to engage us in otherwise silent space over the mountains. At the same time, the sight of students of nearby Army Goodwill was soothing.

Who Was Prof Riyaz Punjabi?

Headed by dynamic director Prof Mehraj Ud Din Mir, and academic coordinator of Business Administration Syed Rumaiya Sajjad, somehow the studies started slowly in seclusion.

Unlike the joy of being in the best campuses of India, I was sad to see myself in a dormant state of affairs. Reluctant in revealing that it was a bad decision to join the campus, I was about to call it a day. But a few weeks later, the man who joined broken threads on the Brochure page arrived in the mountains and it turned out to be a festival. Accompanying the then governor, Narendra Nath Vohra, Prof Punjabi got almost everybody from the main campus to share his vision of vastness.

The function was a full day affair and students shared their concerns. I was one among few who spoke their heart out. Ideally not taken in a positive sense, that too when the stage is shared by the head of the state, I was told that game for me is over. Scared to see my teachers in fear, I was surprised when Prof Punjabi called me out and talked like a father. Without being angry or arrogant, he assured us of all the possible facilitation. He expressed happiness over being confident in seeking facilities for pursuing the studies. Not caught in ego clashes, he knew his stature is beyond small considerations.

Starting to deliver on his assurances there only, the first thing he did was to talk to nearby Army commanders in presence of Governor Vohra. That was an attempt to acclimatise army men to the civilian population and seek safety.

An academician to the core, he issued orders to shift faculty from the main campus on a daily basis to ensure the students have equal knowledge base and exposure, besides ensuring the library and other facilities are better than the Business School in Hazratbal. Within a couple of months after his visit, there were no regrets. No U-Turn.

Placing our priorities ahead, Punjabi was instrumental in managing our industrial visit to better institutions outside Jammu and Kashmir and ensured we are accompanied by a senior faculty member, Prof Iqbal Hakim. The visit to Delhi is a different story, keep it for another day.

Given the topography of the campus, it was difficult to reach in winters, those days. The students thus sought his appointment and I was part of the team. He was patient in hearing our issues and was gracious to shift us completely to the main campus, much to the displeasure of one of the senior-most faculty members of Business Studies.

Interestingly during the conversation, one of the students tried to give him a reference of some person, and the reaction was horrible. Prof Punjabi banged him like anything. Later, he concluded the meeting on advice of being self-reliant without using others’ name.

On the main campus, he kept an eye on us completely. He ensured that we have separate classrooms and regular faculty members, the attendance of whom I was asked to compile. For better understanding, he even engaged late Prof Muhammad Akram Mir of the Law department for a specialised subject.

A student and Vice-Chancellor are two ends of the river, not comparable at all, but I remember when in 2010, the situation in Kashmir turned grim; we again approached him for continuing our classwork. A difficult decision to take in a crisis, he did not disappoint. A man of his word, he arranged hostel accommodation and managed to get staff to provide us food, separate for boys and girls and asked the department to conduct our classes regularly.

A deserted campus, with only 20 odd students, he ensured to join threads of dreams and made us believe that in difficult situations, dynamic leaders can do it all.

Though there are instances, where people contradicted Prof Punjabi on many things, but a student in me still believes he was someone who tried his best to light the candle of knowledge. A human without shortcomings is not a human at all. He too was a human being. The different theories of his conduct and connections is not my domain to talk about, but I know he was someone who believed in the idea of Kashmir. A passionate thinker, he was instrumental in taking University to a different level. Man with versatile qualities of both head and heart, tough-looking Professor was a child deep inside.

On one occasion, he quoted her poetess wife, Tarannum Riyaz, and the verses continue to remain a solace in difficult situations, “Bhul ja guzre shab ki talkhiyaan, Har savera ik naya aagaz hai.”


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