By Rajiv Rawat
21 December 2006
Recently I had the good fortune to visit Nainital for the first time. The town was wonderful surprise. Naini lake itself seemed quite clean and a far cry from the grim warnings of its imminent demise I heard until recently. Traffic was regulated on the Mall Road, definitely slowing down the pace of life to a more civilized level. The air was cool yet refreshingly pure. Most importantly though, the average Nainitaler (or is it Nainitalian?) seemed to take pride in their hill station, allowing it perhaps to escape the grim fate of overbuilt and overcrowded Mussoorie.
As a guest of Kumaun University at its office compound in Sleepy Hollow (strangely, no one I talked to had heard the American ghost story of the same name!), I also had the pleasure of briefly meeting the University’s new Vice-Chancellor (VC) C.P. Barthwal. Also hailing from Pauri Garhwal, Dr. Barthwal has taken a keen interest in developing linkages between Kumaun University and its academic counterparts in other parts of the world. For this purpose, he tasked Dr. Rajeev Upadhyay, geologist and recent explorer with the now famous Gondwanaland Expedition, to build links with non-resident Uttarakhandis. By a coincidence that has been the hallmark of my trip to India, Nainital was on my travel itinerary and Dr. Barthwal’s mission was my own.
An eminent and widely traveled political scientist as well as expert in public administration, Dr. Barthwal is ideally placed to continue the work of his immediate predecessor, Dr. R.C. Pant, to rejuvenate and renovate Kumaun University that was badly damaged by the unethical behaviour of Dr. B.S. Rajput, its VC in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It may be recalled that Dr. Rajput was caught up in a plagiarism case that reverberated throughout the academic world. What’s more, the episode seems to have followed years of alleged financial improprieties, favouritism, and political interference from the RSS that supported him. His punitive action against Dr. Kavita Pandey, the Head of Physics at Kumaun who uncovered his transgressions, further shredded his sinking reputation. Facing a sustained student campaign as well as the opprobrium of the international Physics community, Dr. Rajput finally demitted office in 2003.
Needless to say, this unfortunate episode cast a long shadow over Kumaun’s premiere institution for higher learning. Thus Dr. Barthwal has taken up the monumental task of rebuilding the university’s credibility, even while expanding its resource base to keep up with the needs of Kumaun’s growing student population. In this regard, my mission upon returning to North America is clear — to take up Dr. Barthwal’s challenge and rally support for the university.
This goal resonates with me for several reasons. For one, it was the student movement that led directly to the joint foundation of Garhwal and Kumaun Universities in 1973. These universities in turn played a central role in asserting a regional identity, with scholarship such as Dr. Ajay Rawat’s history of Garhwal unearthing the manifold distinctiveness and unity of the U.P. Hills (indeed, the original student demand, led by young women, was for one Uttarakhand University rather than two). This role even penetrated the political arena, with a yet another former VC of Kumaun University, Dr. D.D. Pant, chairing the meeting that gave birth to the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal in 1979. And once again, students would take centre stage in the creation of the state, when female and male students of Garhwal University forming Gaura Devi and Vir Chander Singh Garhwali brigades respectively.
Furthermore, my own observations have led me to believe that higher education in India is facing a dire crisis. With the proliferation of private colleges with dubious academic credentials, prospective students are facing a dizzying array of choices, including the incursion of international institutions that are promising that much vaunted “international experience” for the very few that could afford it. Meanwhile, venerable schools like D.A.V. (PG) College that have educated three generations of Indian youth are being left to rot with its dilapidated buildings and overcrowded campus. Beyond Dehradun, the neglect may be even more severe.
Thus, major re-investment in Uttarakhand’s bedrock public institutions seems to be the need of the hour, otherwise serious academic scholarship in the region will continue to face grave difficulties. This is especially true of liberal arts, which are chronically short of funds, yet are necessary for the all-around pedagogical development of the student body. The current trend of ever more specialized learning is creating an intellectually impoverished generation in its wake that is highly skilled in certain areas, but bereft of even the basics of critical thinking and notions of public citizenship. Sadly, the long-term repercussions are already being felt with the brazen corruption of student politics sullying and supplanting the idealism of youth.
As such, for the sake of society as much as students, support for Uttarakhand’s public universities must be made a priority, higher learning promoted, and academic freedom and integrity restored. Moreover, to borrow the motto of my own alma mater, they must once again become institutions where “any person can find instruction in any study” while fulfilling their public mission to promote “open minds, open hearts, and open doors.” Only in this manner, can we train young people of every class, caste, and creed to be the thoughtful leaders of tomorrow.
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Needless to say, intellectual undernourishment due to the narrowing of curriculum is also affecting the survival of local knowledge. However in an exciting development that speaks to the lasting potential of our public institutions, English Professor D.R. Purohit has recently succeeded in establishing a degree programme in Folk Arts at Garhwal University. Although, unlikely to find support in privatized institutions geared strictly to the job market, no one who cares about the survival of Uttarakhandi culture can doubt the value of such education. Thank you Professor Purohit!