New university for Kashmir ‘easy populism’

Expert questions government’s motivations for building another institution in troubled region

February 14, 2021
Source: iStock
University of Ladakh

An Indian government proposal to open a new central university in Leh, a town in the Ladakh region of Kashmir, will not solve problems in that area and may be politically motivated, a former vice-chancellor said.

Finance minister Nirmala Sitharanman mentioned the Leh project just briefly in the national budget announced this month – saying that a new institution would bring “accessible education” to the region. 

Siddiq Wahid, an adjunct fellow at the Institute for Chinese Studies in New Delhi and former vice-chancellor of the Islamic University of Science & Technology, Kashmir, told Times Higher Education that a new university may not be what the region requires.  

“Ladakh, which has a population of less than 300,000 citizens, does not need another university,” he said.  

Kashmir, a volatile area where the Chinese, Indian and Pakistan borders meet, has been hit with a communications blackout since 2019, prompting concerns about academic freedom and digital accessibility even before the Covid-19 pandemic.   

More recently, the government issued rules in January requiring universities in the region to seek advance approval for holding international online events related to security, the border or “internal matters,” according to The Wire.

Dr Wahid felt that the announcement for the new university in Leh lay in the “motivations of the current political regime”. 

“The BJP government in New Delhi has distinguished itself with frequent announcements of governmental largesse to its constituents,” he said. “The mere declaration of the grant of a university is easy populism compared to conceptualising the institution, establishing it and operationalising it; a process that takes years if not decades.” 

He also questioned whether a central university would be able to hold on to institutional independence. It would be dependent on the national government for financing, which could affect its “faculty appointments, curriculum, and even student activities”.

“The BJP government is well known for espousing an overall domestic policy of integrating India’s wildly diverse population into a culturally homogeneous and politically hegemonic India; so it is difficult not to conclude that an added motivation for a centrally controlled university is the pre-emption of local autonomy in education, which is constitutionally a local subject of governance,” he said.

In terms of accessibility, he said that the area “already has two colleges and was granted a locally funded university on popular demand, the University of Ladakh in Leh.” 

For Dr Wahid, the calibre of education was more important than quality. “Even a cursory review of the two colleges would quickly demonstrate that, qualitatively, both have yet to fully realise their potential,” he said.

“The government in Delhi would have done better to assist the currently established institutions of higher education in Ladakh to upgrade themselves rather than build yet another competing institution that would only cannibalise students and faculty from the existing institutions.” 

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