‘Tired, not re-tired’

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Heading the Islamic University from its start, Dr Siddiq Wahid has just finished his tenure, as its vice chancellor, after what he calls five and a half hectic years. Tired, but hardly re-tired, Dr Wahid shares his experiences of the university and life with Kashmir Life.

Kashmir Life: During your six year tenure as a Founder VC of the IUST, what have been your main achievements?

Siddiq Wahid: To begin with, my tenure was not a six-year one; it was of about five and a half years, with four and a half of those years being one of academically operational. The first three months, roughly, were spent putting together a core team of eight people and conceptualizing the project; the next six months were spent in building infrastructure. Also, it is not accurate to call me the “founder” Vice Chancellor. I was the “inaugural”, or at best the founding Vice Chancellor, which are quite different terms in their meaning. As for what my achievements have been; that is not for me to say.

Kashmir Life: When you took up the assignment as VC you started from the scratch and reportedly the University faced tremendous financial crunch. How did you manage?

SW: We managed to build our University because of many things: first, the determination of a team that was overwhelmingly young, believed that if we showed determination, will and dedication we can do things in J&K even against great odds.  This was especially true of our large complement of so-called “Class 4th workers” whom I am proud to refer to as our “First Class Colleagues”. Second, we had tremendous help from J&K Bank which trusted us and went out of its way to proffer loans to us when we were an unknown risk. Third, we had help from many individuals such as the Pulwama District Commissioner of the time, our building “contractors”, suppliers of stationary, the landlords for our hostels and others.

To be sure, our contracts with them were business relationships, but it was more. These individuals, and others not mentioned, were also willing to dialogue with us, to buy into our ideas and to take on the task of helping us almost as a mission. Fourth, it was because of our young administrative and faculty members who took on the challenge by adopting a work culture suited to transparent and decentralize and decision-making. Fifth, our group of five or six senior faculty members with varied experiences were a tremendous confidence-builder for the University.

A sixth reason is our innovative approach to our academic programs and administrative thinking that today allows us to be almost one hundred percent self-sufficient in our operational costs. For example, I believe that our practices in fiscal planning, with virtually no funding from its parent body, is worthy of a case study for private public partnership in education. A seventh reason is our innovative approach to academics: we are the first University in the State to have started degree programs in Food Technology and, since 2009, in Acturial Mathematics. We are also the first University to have laid emphasis on Radio Broadcasting in our Journalism Department. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we were able to get up and keep moving after even after the occasional set back or mistake. But the list could go on.

KL: Your family live in the US, you live at Zakura, you have a house in Leh, it is said that at some point of time your family lived in West Bengal…where can we trace your roots?

SW: I am glad you used plural. Ethnically we belong to the segment of society in Ladakh known as the arghun, which is probably a corruption of the Central Asian word akhoon, meaning ‘teacher’.  In the context of Ladakh the term arghun also represents a mix of Kashmiri and Tibetan ethnicity. Our forefathers on the male side travelled from Kashmir to Ladakh in the 17th century. At the same time my sister, my brother and his family, and I are those of our family who presently live in our house in Zakura, which is called Ladakh House. But it is also home to my immediate family who live in the Boston area and visit often. My son, for example, is here these days. So ethno-linguistically my roots are in the Tibeto-Himalaya, politically they are in the State of J&K and our intellectual roots are in universalist and inclusive interpretations of Islam.

We moved to Darjeeling in West Bengal in the early sixties because my parents were determined to give their children a good education and, with help from the offices of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, we were able to get admission to schools in Darjeeling. However, since the mid-1950s our house in Zakura has been the most stable one that my generation of the family onwards have known: my grandfather, Khwaja Abdul-Aziz Radhu, acquired the land it stands on for himself and his two brothers in 1957. As for our presence in Ladakh, at present I have only a half-built house in Leh that was started just before my tenure at Islamic University. Inshallah, I will now be able to complete it!

To be sure, reflecting the onset of the changes brought about by the modern world, the presence of the entire Khwaja-Radhu khandaan is widespread: apart from my immediate family, members of our extended family live in Leh, Srinagar, the United States, Canada, Pakistan, the Middle East and parts of Europe. This history, in part, reflects the onset of the changes brought about by the modern world. In part it brings to mind that branches with strong roots can travel very far both geographically and mentally.

KL: Dr. Wahid has brushed shoulders with the rich and the mighty, and thinkers like Edward Said, taught at Harvard, reportedly runs a secondary school in Leh, is a professor of history, worked at managerial positions, an avid traveller, how would Dr. Wahid describe himself?

Let me begin with some corrections. I do not run a secondary school in Leh. I would be a glutton for punishment if I tried to do that along with a University! That wrong information is apparently on the internet in reference to something that I did almost by accident for two years at the start of the first decade of the 21st century, when I took a three year sabbatical from life.

Yes, I have been fortunate to have the guidance of some of very distinguished teachers and mentors, both in the course of my formal education and thanks to the exposure that we have been privileged to have, through the barakah of my father. But at the same time, in the case of the late great Edward W. Said, I am compelled to point out that I have not “rubbed shoulders” him. In his case, we met and discussed the politics of Kashmir and of Tibet with him a few years before his death. Other than that, he had been, and still is, a role-model for me in terms of political rectitude and activism.

As to how I would describe myself. As in the case of many lives in our day and age, I am probably many things at once. In the context of your question, I’d call myself a traveller and a seeker.

KL:  You’ve worked in the corporate world besides some of the best institutions in the world, what have been your experiences of working in Kashmir?

SW: In many ways it has been one of the most satisfying experiences of my working life. In large part this has been the case because one feels that one has been able to collect a team and help to make a small beginning towards making a difference in an environment which needs many simultaneous efforts at institutional infrastructure building. To have been part of one such experience is a very gratifying indeed.

KL:  Have you been impressed by any person or persons in Kashmir, if yes who and why?

SW: Yes of course I have been impressed by people in the State. It would be unnatural to not be! I have been most impressed by the everyday person, the aam aadmi, of our state. For sixty three years now they have been witness to political negligence about the conundrum that is the Jammu & Kashmir dispute, the social evil that is corruption and the administrative delinquency that has left our institutional infrastructure in tatters. Sixty three years is a long time. Yet the peoples of the state survive – despite great odds – and still want to do good for themselves and their societies. That is admirable and worth recognizing.   There are individuals too who have impressed me of course; but to avoid embarrassment to them, and to myself, let that remain in the purview of individual knowledge.

KL:  You were, at a time, for a brief period close to separatist camp and were also nominated by the separatists’ as one of the election commissioners of people’s election commission of APHC. What was that all about?

SW: I would say that I still am close to all those who resist injustice, even if I may not always agree with all their positions. As for being a member of the election commission of the APHC, it was about yet another thing that I am: one who is not very patient with any form of injustice whether it be political, social, economic or administrative.

KL: Many consider you a bit controversial in Kashmir, which is thoroughly divided on ideological lines. You had a nine-month stint as professor University of Jammu in the Maharaja Gulab Singh Chair nearly for nine months. You also took a group of students on a tour organised by SP Mokheerjee foundation… what do you have to say about these perceptions/ notions?

SW: I will have to respond to this question too with a correction. My “stint”, as you call it, as the Maharaja Gulab Singh Chair Professor at the University of Jammu was one of more than a year and a half, not “nearly nine months”. And of those, six months were spent trying to put an administrative infrastructure in place in order to be able to begin work, even be paid my salary! It was my first experience with academic bureaucracy in this country…and a painful one! My tenure there ended with my appointment as the Vice Chancellor of Islamic University.  That said; I don’t really know what you mean by characterising me as being “a bit controversial” either regarding my tenured position at the University of Jammy or regarding the group of students from Islamic University who went to Delhi to talk to the far-right-of-centre politicians. You will have to be more specific in your questions for me to be able to respond properly.

 KL:  You constituted the Ibn Khaldun Chair under which it was envisaged to bring all the ancient Buddhist text/Tibetan scriptures and translate these into various languages, what happened to that project?

SW: We did not create any chair, nor does what you have just described anything to do with the Ibn Khaldun Center. Perhaps you are referring to the Rinchen Shah Center for West Himalayan Cultures, which is now operational with a two Ph.D level Research Associates in political science and anthropology. As for the Ibn Khaldun Center, it is still only an idea. It has not been implemented because it needs someone to lead it and, of course, the necessary funding.

KL:  Your father passed away recently, he lived a rich life not necessarily monetarily. Kashmir Life was planning an interview with him but unfortunately we could not. Please tell us about him?
My father, Khwaja Abdul-Wahid Radhu, passed away on February 14, 2011. He was either 92 or 94 depending, respectively, on the official papers or family lore. Regardless of this minor uncertainty, he led a full and unambiguous life. His intellectual legacy to us is one of always saying a loud “yes!” to life, avoiding self-indulgence of any kind and never compromising with political injustice. His passing away was both peaceful and beautiful; he literally “breathed his last” with amazing awareness. All of us, his direct heirs and his extended family will, of course, miss him. But we also proudly celebrate a life well-lived.

KL: Where do you see the Islamic University you were founding VC of, ten years from now? Do you have any suggestions for your successor?

SW:  If anyone can predict what Islamic University will look like in the next ten years, he or she should win a prize in foretelling! The pace at which changes are taking place in our world is much too fast and unpredictable to try to hazard any guess. Part of the trick of having an honest vision for an institution is to be able to admit that you cannot know its future. To be detached from your own dreams for the institution, no matter how notable these may be. As for any suggestions for my successor, any such will be extended with due diligence, if I am asked. But then they will be suggestions in response to questions from the Chancellor or the new Vice Chancellor, Professor Abdul Rashid Trag, whom I wish the very best. Such suggestions should not, indeed cannot, be made through the public media.

KL: Coming back to Dr Wahid, where would we see you now, enjoying a leisurely retirement or do you have other plans?
SW:  I must confess that after a very hectic five and a half years I am a bit tired. But I am hardly re-tired!

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A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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