Chief minister Mufti Muhammad Sayeed has directed the vice-chancellors of the Islamic University of Science and Technology, Awantipora, and the Baba Ghulam Shah Badshah University, Rajouri, to start attracting students from outside Jammu and Kashmir. Though Mr Sayeed’s invitation can be read as merely a suggestion to make the campuses diverse in terms of their students’ background and profile, it is pregnant with political symbolism, and could be seen as consistent with his party’s stated political goal – the Kashmir Valley’s “emotional integration” with India.
Simply put, the chief minister’s argument, made for the benefit of varsity authorities, runs thus: if thousands of Kashmiri students rush to Indian educational institutions every year, the traffic must start from the other side also. What Mr Sayeed has, perhaps, left unsaid is that while Kashmiri students imbibe something from India, against whose rule an unending rebellion rages at home, Indian students too would have a firsthand experience of life in a region they have come to know only through distorted media images. It is difficult to collate and sum up the experiences of the tens of thousands of Kashmiri students who have studied and lived in India over the past 25 years, but what, however, is clearly defined are the several ugly episodes like arbitrary expulsions of Kashmiri students for celebrating Pakistan’s cricket victories, or how the National Institute of Technology at Srinagar (formerly the Regional Engineering College) was in the news for strained relations between local students and their counterparts from other states.
The chief minister’s statement is significant also because of the religious connotations of the universities’ names, and the fact that both are funded by religious boards. Student diversity, in that context, is a laudable aim, but realities far starker than pleasing media bites ought not to be dismissed either. Students do not rush to universities or colleges solely for salubrious weather and multi-cultural or multi-ethnic experience. They are more likely to accord primacy to concerns like quality of education, the faculty and infrastructure. The IUST was set up in 2005. In the past decade, it has not been able to expand the campus restricted to just 250 kanals of land. Nepotism is rampant in selecting the teaching and non-teaching staff. The university shares its boundary with the headquarters of the army’s counterinsurgency force for South Kashmir, the Victor Force, and the sound of gunfire, as the soldiers train, serves as accompaniment to lectures in the class – hardly an attractive proposition for students not accustomed to round-the-clock military presence. Rather than getting lost in platitudes, the CM should take concrete measures to improve the quality of education in these universities for the state’s own children first. Indian students have much better options at home.