A Hollow Edifice

  • HAROON LONE
  • Publish Date: Feb 19 2018 9:13PM
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  • Updated Date: Feb 19 2018 9:13PM
A Hollow Edifice

Why Kashmir University is a shell of a university

A university is known by the kind of research it facilitates. Newer ideas are explored, controversial topics become subjects of study and contemporary debates are encouraged. But surprisingly in Kashmir University, the spirit of bringing such questions up for investigation is generally suppressed. Consequently, it explains why Kashmir University has not been able to attract a lot of credible research scholars.

Worse is the academic structure which doesn’t allow for freedom of thought and expression and the right to criticize its policy-making. It was apparent when people I spoke with for this story asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal.

The university administration has adopted a policy of institutional marginalisation towards social sciences, perhaps because it is run mostly by people from a science background. Idrees Kanth, currently with the International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam, noted that social sciences are still being looked down upon as a subject of knowledge and research. “There is an ‘informed’ notion that it is all about gathering ‘facts’ and ‘information’ and whoever is more factually informed about the past makes for a good historian or a political scientist,” he explained.

He is disappointed that even “the western” trained vice chancellor of the university subscribes to this notion and claims that social sciences are a burden on the university. Thus, many students “who pass civil services struggle to formulate a proper research proposal”. That is because history is not always about information but specialised knowledge that not only engages but also problematises our engagement with the past. “The students are barely encouraged to go to the archives, forget them learning any skills on how to use the Archives”, Idrees said.

A researcher in the political science department said “students prefer area studies better than substantive researches, owing, of course, to the lack of exposure to recent advances in social sciences”. “In effect,” he said, “what they eventually research on does turn out to be obsolete, because that does not connect with the threads in social sciences, nor do they establish any new advance per se. This is a deep rot in higher education in Kashmir.”

The teachers are not willing to supervise “relevant” and “controversial” topics. They shy away from exploring uncharted territories. Sensitive issues such as transgender and women’s rights and suicide seldom get as much attention as they should. “This is perhaps the only place where professors decide the research area or domain rather than aspirants. This kills creativity, affecting the originality of research,” the research scholar said.

In a conflict zone such as Kashmir, the socio-economic and political behaviour of people brutalised by decades of violence should be an immediate topic of enquiry, but not so in Kashmir University. Here, the School of Social Sciences is more interested in topics like Panchayati Raj, rural-urban dynamics or the socio-economic condition of the Mughal period. A research scholar in the economics department laments that “every university outside Kashmir facilitates research about the Kashmir conflict but not our own”. Indeed, researchers at universities outside Kashmir are doing studies on Jamaat-e-Islami, Muslim Brotherhood and even Hizbul Mujahideen, something that is unthinkable to do in Kashmir University.

For a teacher at the university to land promotion, she must have the required promotion points. To earn the points, said Farah Qayoom, an assistant professor of sociology, there is “a maddening race among the teachers for accumulation of papers which have almost no touchstone research but are just pages filled with massively compromised content.”

Pointing out that “researches before 1989 were more productive”, she said, “Post-insurgency, the quality of research started declining as many unskilled people sneaked in.”

A PhD candidate in the sociology department pointed to bureaucratic hassles that “mess up” teacher-researcher relations. “This disharmony leads to deterioration of what could be good research programmes otherwise,” she said. By way of example, she said a researcher who already has a Junior Research Fellowship is required get approval from the head of the department and that takes “an astonishing two months’ time”.

Such is the state of affairs now that students who return after studying in good universities outside Kashmir have little prospect of utilising their potential to serve their society. As an assistant professor in the social work department explained, “The students who go out of Kashmir for research get exposed to a more radical academic environment and do good studies but their job prospects in Kashmir University are lesser because of massive lobbyism that is in place here. The top brass here appoint their kith and kin, leading to a disintegration of work culture.”

When it comes to academic work, a stringent censorship is in place. In addition to research topics, even employing certain words is barred. At a seminar on harassment of women organised in 2017, a political science scholar presented a paper titled “Women in Conflict”, in which she used terms such as rape and army. A professor on the panel asked her to use more “neutral terms” like sexual assault for rape and security forces for army.

Another problem is the utter disregard for time. “Research scholars here are required to submit their topics within the first year for any changes to be made,” explained a PhD scholar in the university’s history department. “But I was asked to change my topic after two years when the entire degree has a timeframe of a minimum of three years.” This scholar had presented a paper after a year of research, only to have a senior professor discard the entire paper as “wrongly written”.

Then there is a massive gap between the social reality of the students and the academic exercises they undertake. This engenders a tension between what they study in the university and what they face outside – this because the walls act as barriers between reality and idealism.

All these factors have undermined Kashmir University as an institution of excellence. No surprise then that the university was ranked 73 in the National Institutional Ranking Framework’s report of 2017.