When Kashmiri students were being attacked in different Indian cities after Pulwama attack, a debate began in the valley: Time to upgrade the educational infrastructure in Kashmir. Among those who batted for the idea was the well-known political commentator and active Kashmiri netizen, Mehboob Makhdoomi.
Almost a month later, Makhdoomi announced his idea of setting up of the first international university in Kashmir. As the word about it spread, many asked: Who’s this man, and how’s he going to achieve the campus feat in a place like Kashmir where even regional institutes routinely suffer due to conflict?
In an emailed interview with The Indus Post, Mehboob Makhdoomi talks about his background, education and the dream project. Edited excerpts here:
To begin with, can you please walk us through your life journey?
I was born in Nowhatta area of downtown Srinagar and lived right next to the Police Station Nowhatta- one of the most volatile areas in the 1990s. My childhood was, unfortunately, mired with violent instances all around. It was all about dead bodies, clashes, protests, and anger.
I was 5 in 1989 when the militancy erupted in the valley. I remember, one day, a person was blown to smithereens while I watched from the window of my house. That was horrific. I tremble whenever I think of that incident. Interestingly, it wasn’t as horrendous then as it began feeling after I left Kashmir and experienced what was then a ‘new normal’ to me.
My childhood memories are definitely not rosy, like most of Kashmiris, although the credit goes to my family who still managed to give a decent life to me.
My sister and I were overprotected kids, who couldn’t go out as other kids did. My parents, like all others, did their best to keep me away from all this. Being their only son, they ensured that I remained focused on academics, and make a good life for myself.
While growing up with these experiences, what was the scene of education in the valley for 90s’ kids like you?
Well, most of us received the existing and traditional way of education. Being an average student, I graduated high school from Burn Hall, Srinagar, followed by Tyndale Biscoe for Hr. Secondary.
But I’ll tell you something, when I landed in America, found the program of my interest, could take courses of my choice, I realized that I was actually pretty good. And it’s just that the education system back in South Asia rewarded rote learning and killed creativity.
But I eventually discovered one just needs to find out the field that evokes genuine curiosity in you. No student is good or bad. It’s all about what I call ‘finding your love’. This is where I began learning and assessing the differences between the education systems that actually make all the difference.
It was an epiphany to see what colossal discrepancy is there between the two systems, and how far behind are we left out in the modern educational fields. It’s not that we don’t work hard; we are simply not on the right trajectory.
How did Harvard happen? And how did it evolve you as a professional and Kashmiri living overseas?
Harvard does not, and should not define me. I went to a University in the US, almost a decade before Harvard. I attended a University in the UK as well. I worked for many years in corporate America. And then just a few years back, I applied for a program, meant for the working professionals with a flexible schedule, and was accepted. I did not need it but then who could say No to Harvard.
I began switching from being a professional at work and a student at Harvard. Thankfully, my profession allows me the liberty to go attend school for so long, repeatedly.
You lately came up with a joint write-up with Shah Faesal, a fellow Harvardian, who’s now a new unionist in town. How do you see the overall turn of events now?
There was a huge confusion about our association. Both of us may not necessarily agree with each other, and we might not have even interacted ever if fate didn’t have it this way. And when you meet a person, you discuss. Most of it was about our disagreements. However, there was some common ground too that came up in the shape of an article.
As he himself said in his first interview, that it was a climbdown for him, not for me. He’s now a ‘mainstream’ politician, but then when wasn’t he ‘mainstream’? His job was always ‘mainstream’.
Anyway, this project is not about politics; I believe I can make a difference to the Higher Education of J&K.
How did this idea of University come up? And before you answer that, some say, the recent attacks on Kashmiri students in different parts of India had something to do with it. Is it true?
No, if you see my website ysmmet.org, you can read that our educational Trust was registered in March 2018 (almost one year before the recent incidents). It’s been many years that I have been working on the concept of a College.
However, I may not have been so successful at the macro level, if it were just a College. This is because it did not offer me the liberty of devising own curriculum, hiring faculty as per our Mission and Vision statements, and much more.
Colleges are microcosms of our current public Universities. However, I cannot deny that there was immense pressure on me to give it a practical shape when our students were literally hounded out of various Indian cities, which was not the case before. The students and the civil society at large did want to have own quality institutions. Since, I had almost all the basics sorted out, I responded and it was well received.
Notwithstanding recent events, a University of international repute is a great idea for any place. It should not be politicized.
For curiosity’s sake, as some people would like to know, is there any lobbying of Kashmiri Diaspora involved in this initiative?
Not at all. As described and proved earlier, this idea has been on my mind for long, and I have been working on it. It is now, at this stage, that I am trying to get in touch with diaspora as well. Since the scope of the project has increased manifold, it has become collective responsibility of- not only Kashmiris- but their friends and anyone who is pro-education and wants top-quality educational access for the people of J&K.
We will be open to everyone without discrimination- any caste, creed, religion, region or colour. All we want here is the premier educational institute that empowers excellence and creates global personae- as is inscribed in our logo.
But do you think this idea of setting up of international university will work in Kashmir, given how the regional universities are already struggling to complete their normal academic session due to the volatile situation?
I am not coming up with yet another replica of current institutions. The idea is to have a University with tie-ups with some of the best institutes in the world. The goal is to collaborate with corporations, when it comes to vocational programs. However, in the fields like humanities, we will be very local and will not try to replicate foreign institutions, just for the heck of it. You may read our Objectives, Mission & Vision statements on our website yssmet.org.
As far as the challenge of a volatile situation is concerned, the idea is to have a fully-residential campus, wherein we could accommodate all the faculty and students. This is not to say that they have to stay there all the time. Only during the long strikes, they have to manage to get there once. The Institute can work as an isolated hub of education during these times, as some local community based tutors have operated. In this way, we are not going either against the mood of the people nor compromising on education. As far as one or two-day disturbance is concerned, being a part of this society, we can’t claim to remain completely unaffected.
Since you make no bones about your stand on social media, do you think you will be granted permission for the campus?
I make no bones about it because my education has taught me so. However, as far as this project is concerned, I do not see how the authorities will benefit in any way, even from their standpoint, by actually blocking a novel, educational initiative that has nothing to do with politics.
A person is not a monolith. One may have various specialties. If I feel that it’s more practical for me to be able to contribute to my society in the field of education, it should not bother either side at all.
I’m certain that the government will seek all the information and future plans from our Trust, which is exactly why they won’t find any reason to send out a wrong message to the youth that they are against their education- that too when it is absolutely and strictly specific to high quality higher education.
Yes, if they want to trouble unnecessarily, then what can I say? The time will tell.