Learning at the highest level

May 4, 2007

The University of Kashmir can boast some tremendous achievements but political freedom remains an issue. John Kirkaldy reports from Srinagar

If there were to be a competition for the most beautiful campus site in the world, the University of Kashmir at Srinagar would be a favourite to win.

To one side of the campus are the Himalayas, while down the road there is the vast Dal Lake, where a flotilla of gondola-like boats ( shikaras ) paddle languidly.

Since its creation in 1948 the campus has grown considerably. India's booming economy, one of the fastest-growing in the world, and private investment has meant a campus on which the concrete never seems to set.

The campus is relatively small, with 3,450 undergraduate student on site and 428 postgraduates working in 32 departments. But the university has 60 affiliated colleges. Like many Indian universities, Kashmir is developing distance-learning.

Its achievements in education are all the more remarkable when one remembers that when the British left Kashmir in 1947, almost all of its population, 93.4 per cent, was illiterate.

There is tremendous pride in the university and the achievements of its staff. Notice boards outside every department, rather like an old-fashioned British public school, proclaim that its staff have published 107 books in the past five years and edited 17 journals.

Yet beneath the beauty, the achievements and the pride, the continuing dispute over Kashmir - which has resulted in three wars between India and Pakistan and one between India and China since 1947 - affects every aspect of university life.

Kashmir is divided in two, with India administering one half (Jammu and Kashmir) and Pakistan the other. Srinagar and the university lie in Indian Kashmir.

Externally, signs of conflict are obvious. Six policemen, armed with rifles, sub-machineguns and lathis (thick bamboo sticks), man a series of road blocks to all entrances to the university. Along every road in Srinagar stand heavily armed soldiers or police. Inside the university, the signs may be less obvious - although a number of the university buildings bear the names of Indian nationalist heroes - but the pro-Indian line is strictly enforced.

"There is no way I would publish or make any remarks to students that were in any way critical of the status quo," said one academic, who insisted that not only his name not be published but also his department.

A look at the course outlines in subjects such as history, law and media shows that a pro-Indian viewpoint predominates. "It is best to leave politics alone," one senior staff member said.

Few academics have forgotten that when some university staff appeared on a private television station in 2002 and made critical remarks about the Government they were threatened with prosecution.

An intelligence wing was set up by the university to spy on and keep records on staff and students, according to an article in The Indian Express in October 2001.

An attempt by The Times Higher to interview Abdul Wahid, the vice-chancellor of the university, to discuss these issues was unsuccessful.

However, the university made moves recently to try to present a more liberal and open front. It has opened the Centre for Kashmiri Studies, which, it is claimed, will look at controversial issues. However, there is scepticism over how controversial the centre will be in practice, given that its head, M. H. Zaffar, is an expert in the less-than-radical area of ancient Sanskrit texts.

Tensions sometimes erupt into open protest. When, for the first time, a group of Pakistani journalists visited the Kashmir campus in October 2004, the students greeted them with cries of "We want freedom". The young people also chanted, " Jeevay, Jeevay Pakistan " ("Long live Pakistan").

The university recently organised a two-day seminar on "The role of the media in shaping society". Syeda Afshana, a member of the media department, echoed the views of many academics attending the seminar about the speeches made at the conference when she commented that the media had "a sacred mission".

Despite this, there is an unnerving academic silence on matters such as the deaths of an estimated 60,000 people in the region as a result of bombings, shootings and other violent incidents.

Human rights organisations such as Amnesty International have highlighted violations of basic freedoms in the region. It claims that thousands of local people have disappeared in the past decade.

Since the late 1980s, there has been a growing Kashmiri separatist movement. Some supporters started a campaign of bombing, even attacking the Indian Parliament in 2001.

Very few of these controversies seem to be reflected in the library's 600,000 books.

"It would be impossible for an academic to write and research a book that was critical of the Indian Government's policy in Kashmir," another academic who also wished to remain anonymous told The Times Higher .

The student magazine Gulala contains only one article about the present troubles, and this looks at the impact of the violence on children. The magazine is not under the editorial control of students, however, but is produced and edited by Syed Mohammad Afzal Qadri, who is dean of students' welfare.

Outwardly, most academics seem content with their lot.

Average monthly salaries for academics at the university are reported as being in the region of 20,000 rupees (about £250). Teaching hours seemed to vary considerably. One lecturer said he did four hours of teaching a week, while others claimed that their workload was more like 20 hours. One law lecturer stated that he did 40 hours a week of student contact.

Teaching is mainly by seminar and practicals. The teaching style generally seems very traditional, with students writing down what lecturers had said.

Most courses are assessed on the basis of 20 per cent course work and 80 per cent exams.

Although 40 per cent of the students are women, about 5 per cent of the teaching staff is female, with very few in top positions.

Student places are awarded on merit and fees are low, about 4,000 rupees a year (about £50). For students from poor backgrounds, tuition is provided free.

JAMMU AND KASHMIR: THE FACTS

  • The population is just over 10 million
  • The gross domestic product is about £2.6 billion
  • The literacy rate is 54.46 per cent, rising to 72 per cent in urban areas. The Indian average is 64.8 per cent
  • There are four universities in the region
  • The University of Kashmir is organised on a semester basis
  • Students must attend at least 75 per cent of all teaching sessions to pass
  • Segregated accommodation for both male and female students is provided

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