A University: Kashmir

Exit towards Sir Syed Gate, University of Kashmir
University of Kashmir, Sir Syed Gate

‘What brings you to the valley?’, she asks as I stand looking at a board which lists M.Phil scholars, their supervisors and their thesis titles in the English Department. I am intrigued by T N Dhar and M L Pandit’s name as supervisors in the 1980s at this university. I stand there looking at these names and remarking how students here were exploring meanings and interpretations of works of Ted Hughes, R K Narayan, Chinua Achebe, Kamala Markandeya and Anita Desai. Exploring these works for their sociological imagination, use of words, language and location within social milieu. To think of these scholars busy with these explorations as the valley was descending into turmoil was an interesting contrast of situation and the university’s research. Rows of display boards lined the department’s walls with photographs of events and seminars held over the years. I was delighted to find Keki N Daruwalla in the list of eminent scholars who have visited the department. Prof Lily Want’s was the voice that asked me what got me to the valley. She suggested that I look at other boards too after being somewhat surprised by a casual visitor at the department – a tourist whose idea of seeing Kashmir was to hang out at the university than Dal Lake alone.

Over two days, I walked around this beautiful campus with Chinar tree avenues and snow-covered mountains on all sides. Each display board looked aesthetic with Urdu font besides English. There is a indescribable charm in seeing those Urdu signage here, as it is in Hyderabad and other small towns and cities in India where it still survives in public spaces. University of Kashmir is a different world from what India appears elsewhere outside this valley. It feels distant from concerns of university students in other parts of the country. May be this isn’t true. It is merely a visceral feeling from a very short time spent here. It isn’t loud, it isn’t protesting on the face, but seems to know how to push forth dissent in matters of concern. There is gentleness of language to take in apart from the birdsong that Kashmir at this time of the year seems full of.  There is a rhythm of mountain people, that is unhurried and consistent. From this valley, the students appear to be looking out to the wider world, choosing to engage in their own ways than follow a typical variety of high energy student activism that coats the walls, digital and real. The university is on a winter break, but there are students appearing for exams and carrying on with their non-instructional activities.

Department of Persian
Humanities Block

Outside Maulana Rumi Gate of the university is Hazratbal Shrine and a narrow lane leading up to Dal Lake. On another side is Sir Syed Gate where most of printing, communication, lounging and hanging out spaces seem to be located. The spaces inside the university campus are void of posters and messages from political parties or of student unions of any kind. Languages, business studies, humanities, linguistics, mathematics, physics, chemistry, botany, biotechnology… all of these departments seem to have a quiet air about them. The notice boards carry routine examination and course related information. One wonders what students here feel about the valley’s politics, its social and economic situation and what goes on in the state with respect to border conflicts, separatist movement and militancy. Some messages on India and a plea to wear hijab do find a faint expression on the walls. The university appears to be an alternative world compare to Srinagar’s streets and suburbs. Military presence is as prominent as the chinar trees. Perhaps, uniformed men might outnumber the trees here. Amidst this what does it mean to be in a university, where youth shapes its intuitions and understanding. A sort of coming of age. In other states, university and city are often a continuum. One wonders what is happening here? Is the youth just tired of the state’s continuing militancy and special status with respect to government of India?

I began thinking of the people who have shaped this university over years. Some of the professors I know have been contemporaries of those who were here. A university’s history, especially in India, is a saga of disintegration and slow decline into obscurity.  In the winter of 2000, T N Dhar, a Kashmiri, addressed an audience on culture and literature of Kashmir noting that it seemed fit to sit back and reflect on Kashmir’s old culture and literature ‘today when the twenty-first century is knocking at our doors and when our beloved Kashmir is undergoing an unprecedented turmoil for more than a decade now. He proceeds to present this with his understanding of culture and refers to a few thinkers. It seems an appropriate piece of thought for how a walk around this university in 2019 felt.

The idea of culture signifies double refusal: of organic determinism and of the anatomy of spirit. It is a rebuff to both naturalism and idealism. The very word culture contains a tension between making and being made, rationality and spontaneity’. S.T.Coleridge says that ‘culture is what comes naturally, bred in the bone rather than conceived by the brain’. Raymond Williams is of the opinion that ‘culture is the organization of the production, the structure of the family, the structure of institutions which govern social relationships, the characteristic form through which members of the society communicate and a structure of feeling’. T.S.Eliot, on the other hand, has defined culture as ‘the way of life of a particular people living together in one place; that which makes life worth living; that which makes it a society – it includes Arts, Manners, Religion and Ideas.’ After the mid twentieth century culture has come to mean the affirmation of a specific identity – national, ethnic, regional rather than the transcendence of it. All these definitions make culture overlap civilization. In order to differentiate between the two, one could say that culture is the manner of our thinking and civilization the manner of our living. The former has a definite and telling effect on the latter and the two together give us our distinct identity. In effect culture of a society manifests itself in the form of its civilisation.

Hints of this culture in the making can be seen across towns and villages in the valley. The valley is familiar with submission as much as it knows dissent. It has seen violence closely. It lives loss and grief often. Perhaps this is why people do not need to express it, register it and lodge it in seemingly small and random acts of graffiti and stage protests. A fatigue is palpable in conversations. Like tired aspirants young and old men, I spoke to, shared the desire to get on with their lives, wanting to live just as they see others in the world living, whatever might that mean – of being able to access, use and enjoy things that matter to them and have a life that lives up to their expectations.

Humanities Block
Outside a lecture hall, Humanities Block
Naseem Bagh in winter, University of Kashmir

At the guesthouse, the host’s wife remembered the university of her times, when she studied for an MA degree in History in the late 1960s. Those were the times she said that one could look up to lectures that were held on time, terms that finished on time and a campus that wasn’t rife with tension. Her daughters too attend the same university. She would like them to have the same university atmosphere in which she grew up.  Though I do not know what it was like in the 1960s, with her descriptions it certainly sounds better than today’s.

In early evening, Hazratbal’s soft call for prayer fills up the air. Staff and students outside both its gates, Sir Syed and Maulana Rumi mill about at the numerous chai shops and bakeries. The usual advertisements for entrance exams for recruitment and higher education occupy the walls and notice boards, as other universities in India. Conversations are about opportunities, jobs and places that one can consider for research. This isn’t any different from rest of the country. What is, is about how much of these opportunities reach this valley and how many of those are the young men and women here are able to make use of.

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