Glorious past, perilous present

At 100, Osmania University, which began with Urdu as the medium of instruction, is a crumbling institution whose foundations are being corroded by all-round neglect.

Published : Jul 05, 2017 12:30 IST

The iconic Arts College building, which was declared a heritage monument in 1998.

The iconic Arts College building, which was declared a heritage monument in 1998.

“To provide opportunities for higher studies and research for those qualified to benefit by them is the function of a university. When such opportunities are provided in healthy, beautiful and impressive surroundings, then a university becomes a powerful force for the cultural uplift of the nation. It is my earnest hope that the magnificently planned university which I had the pleasure of revisiting today after a lapse of some years will in ever increasing measure realise the high aims of its founder and of those who have worked for their attainment.”

-- Sir C.V. Raman, Nobel Laureate in Physics, on a visit to Osmania University on December 30, 1943.

C.V. RAMAN was not the only visiting dignitary who had such high praise for Osmania University. The accolades have been recorded in the visitor entry book that was kept at its iconic arts college between 1937 and 1960, when this practice was discontinued. Other dignitaries included United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Personal Representative to India, William Phillips, in 1943 (the U.S. did not have an embassy in India until 1947). India’s first Governor General, C. Rajagopalachari, delivered the convocation address at the university the next year. He noted: “I was deeply impressed by the reality of all the work shown to me. The university is justly proud of its buildings and the designing of them.” The Chinese Vice Minister of Education in 1943 and the Travancore kingdom’s last Dewan, Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar, a year earlier, also had generous words of praise.

The encomiums were not entirely unwarranted. The seventh and the last Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan, had given shape to a lofty ideal for higher learning a quarter century before C.V. Raman’s visit. That was to impart scientific education in an Indian language—Urdu. However, this would come to haunt him in later years as some of his Hindu subjects, who constituted the majority in his kingdom, resented it.

But there were several Hindus who accepted Urdu, according to Anuradha Reddy, a member of the Hyderabad Chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). Anuradha Reddy's uncle Pingle Jaganmohan Reddy was a judge of the High Court both during and after the Nizam period, and was well versed in Urdu, Telugu and English. “One forgets that besides being a language of the state, Urdu was popular across the subcontinent,” she added.

The genesis The setting up of Osmania University in 1917 was a culmination of nearly four decades of a felt need to address the overwhelming presence of Western thought and knowledge in English in the British dominions of South Asia. By 1917, five English universities had been established in Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, Punjab (now in Pakistan) and Allahabad. The Mysore princely state had established a university the previous year, but with English as the medium of instruction. The state had resolved to make Kannada the medium of instruction in Mysore University, but this could not be implemented, writes Dawood Ashraf, a retired officer of the State Archives, in his authoritative 2002 book, Seventh Nizam of Hyderabad: An Archival Appraisal . However, he does not say why.

Some Indian rulers, along with anti-imperialists, felt that imparting knowledge in one’s own language was the most effective way to merge theology with scientific thought. It was an attempt to update Islamic theological education and to counter the perceived threat to local cultures, languages and knowledge. Ashraf mentions that academics expressed doubts about this venture, despite supporting the idea.

The genesis of this idea can be traced to the pan-Islamic social reformer and anti-imperialist Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, widely known as Jamaluddin Afghani. “Progress depends on the instruction being imparted in the language of the country,” Afghani implored during his many lectures while in India between 1879 and 1883 on the last, and longest, of his five visits to the country.

He would ask: “How can a man point out proudly to his library if it contains thousands of books written in foreign languages but not a single book written in the language of his country?”

Prof. Anwar Moazzam, who retired as head of the Islamic Studies Department at Osmania, has written a book on Afghani titled Jamal-Al-Din-Al-Afghani: A Muslim Intellectual of the East . He quotes Afghani at a lecture at Albert Hall in Calcutta (now Kolkata) on November 8, 1882: “I am happy to see those who are the product of the land that was the birth place of humanism and from where it spread throughout the world. They belong to the land where for the first time… the zodiac [was] determined. Everyone knows that achieving this was not possible without mastering geometry. Therefore, we can say that mathematics and geometry were invented in India. This science reached the Arab lands and from there arrived in Europe. The youth of this same land have now to learn all the laws and the culture of knowledge from Europe.”

Afghani enjoyed considerable patronage from Persian and Urdu newspapers in India, whose editors gave him ample space to espouse his cause, particularly in Hyderabad. He felt less constrained to speak openly here and observed that Hyderabad had “refugees” from everywhere. Afghani was, however, constantly on the run from the Khedive in Egypt, the Ottoman rulers and the British for his anti-imperial activities and teachings at the Al-Azhar, the renowned fountainhead of Islamic theology in Cairo. He did not know Urdu but his Persian writings and lectures were regularly translated.

Another anti-imperialist poet and writer greatly influenced by Afghani was the Englishman Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. His reminiscences of Afghani in his 1907 book, Secret History of the English Occupation of Egypt , captures how Afghani was viewed across the Islamic world during his time: “The true originator of the liberal religious reform movement among the Ulema of Cairo was, strangely enough, neither an Arab, nor an Egyptian, nor an Ottoman, but a certain wild man of genius, Sheykh Jemal-ed-din Afghani, whose sole experience of the world before he came to Egypt had been that of Central Asia. An Afghan by birth, he had received his religious education at Bokhara (in modern day Uzbekistan), and in that remote region, and apparently without coming in contact with any teacher from the more civilized centres of Mohammedan thought, he had evolved from his own study and reflection the ideas which are now associated with his name. Hitherto all movements of religious reform in Sunnite Islam had followed the lines not of development, but of retrogression. There had been a vast number of preachers, especially in the last 200 years, who had taught that the decay of Islam as a power in the world was due to its followers having forsaken the ancient ways of simplicity and the severe observance of the law as understood in the early ages of the faith.”

Blunt went on to formally propose the idea of a Mohammedan University with Urdu as the medium of instruction to the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Mahbub Ali Khan, in 1884.

In his “Scheme for a Mohammedan University” he stated the reasons for establishing the university. “It is no less acknowledged that, in the modern conditions of Indian life, that which principally conduces to the advantage of each community is its superiority in education. The force of natural character is no longer a sufficient element of success, and acquired intelligence is daily asserting itself more strongly as the condition of all participation in public life. Instruction in the arts and sciences of the Western world is at the present day an absolute necessity for high success.”

This scheme had to wait a few decades before it could be implemented as Blunt expressed his inability to see it through despite the Nizam’s eagerness. Events like the setting up of the Madras University-affiliated Nizam College in Hyderabad by the British in 1887 forestalled Mahbub Ali Khan’s own ideas for higher learning. But Hyderabad’s elite were considerably anglicised by now, and the need to modernise higher education in Urdu to keep up with trends in Europe grew stronger. Eventually, the young Osman Ali Khan, who had taken over the reins in 1911, issued the order to establish the university on April 26, 1917.

A grand idea The idea was grand. Material for all major disciplines of the time, including rare manuscripts from across the world, was to be translated into Urdu. Osmania University’s library has over 6,000 rare manuscripts, some written on palm leaves. It has one of the largest collections of ancient manuscripts in India. The first department to be set up in 1918 was the Translation Bureau. Apart from translating books of various disciplines, it also produced teaching material for professors. Men and women competent in their fields were enlisted from across the world for the project.

Medicine was the only subject taught in English, according to Marri Shashidhar Reddy, son of the late Marri Channa Reddy, who was twice Chief Minister of undivided Andhra Pradesh. An alumnus of Osmania, Channa Reddy obtained a degree to practise as a medical surgeon. “When they wrote their exams, they had to write one concluding sentence in Urdu for each paper. Loosely translated, it went “These are my answers for these questions,” said Shashidhar Reddy, reminiscing about his father’s anecdotal references. English was a separate subject, but it was mandatory.

The tradition of inviting the best academic talent continued for several decades even after Hyderabad’s annexation, according to P.L. Vishweshwar Rao, a renowned journalism professor and retired Principal of the Arts College. The first appointments were made on June 29, 1919—of two professors, seven readers (assistant professors) and eight lecturers. Eight more faculty members were added later for theology. There were 142 students in the arts and science departments. Engineering and Medical Colleges were added in 1923 and 1926 respectively. By 1934, the university had a Training College. It was housed in 24 rented buildings across the city. “There is a history behind a prolonged search for a suitable site for the university. After eight years of rigorous drill, debate and discussion, a site was finally selected,” writes Dawood Ashraf.

Blend of styles The centrepiece of Osmania University is its arts college, an institution for postgraduate studies in humanities and social sciences. A research work on “Educational Architecture”, authored in 1987 by professors Radhakrishna Sarma and S. Dhareshwari of the Department of Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology, notes the conscious effort put into planning and executing the buildings and the campus.

Chief Engineer Syed Ali Raza and Nawab Zain Yar Jung, the architect of the Osmania project, were sent on a world tour for a year to study the buildings of educational institutions. They began their journey in Madras (now Chennai) on September 24, 1930, setting sail for Colombo, and then on to Japan for two months at the University of Osaka. The journey continued on to the U.S. for three months, beginning with San Francisco, where they visited the University of California, Stanford and several others on the West Coast and then headed to Princeton, Columbia, Yale and Harvard in the east. The journey continued to Britain, where they visited Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester and Edinburgh; then the Sorbonne in Paris, and Leiden, Heidelburg, Munich and Berlin in Germany. They also visited Vienna; the University of Hungary; Al Azhar in Cairo and institutions in Turkey. They zeroed in on a Belgian named Ernest Jasper in Cairo who had been contracted by University of Egypt as consultant architect.

Jasper laid out the plans for the arts and the law colleges, the library and the Senate Hall. He came to Hyderabad in 1932. Raza and Zain took him on an all-India tour beginning with the Qutb Shahi tombs and other buildings from the Golconda period in Hyderabad, to the rock-cut caves at Ajanta and Ellora, temples and towns across the kingdom; and then on to Agra, Delhi and Fatehpur Sikri in the north. “The aim was to have a synthesis of Hindu and Mughal architectural styles. Plans prepared exclusively based on architectural styles of Turkey, Jerusalem and Syria were to be avoided,” notes the research project. Jasper proved to be too expensive and left Hyderabad soon after submitting his proposals. The plan for the Senate Hall was dropped. The hostels, the science college and the dining halls were designed and executed entirely by Raza and Zain.

The arts college was the first and the finest in a series of buildings built over five years between 1934 and 1939. It is a blend of Persian, Indo-Saracenic and Deccan architectural styles. The building was declared a heritage monument by the Andhra Pradesh government in 1998 and put on the State’s tourism circuit. On any given day there are streams of visitors walking into the college on heritage tours.

Right from the beginning women were admitted into all streams, but for the first several years they entered the classrooms from separate doors located at the back of each lecture hall. Within the classroom too, they were separated from the men by a purdah. Vishweshwar Rao says: “Women could listen to the lectures but they could not see the professor.” In later years, Hyderabad’s elite families preferred to send their daughters to the University College for Women, which was established in 1924. Deemed autonomous in 1988, it boasts of better faculty and infrastructure than its parent university today.

Pantheon of alumni Osmania has a stellar lineup of alumni in every walk of life spread globally. India’s ninth Prime Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, was rusticated for anti-British activities at Osmania where he had enrolled for an intermediate course. The popular cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle studied chemical engineering; his father, A.D. Bhogle, set up the French language department at the university, and his mother, Shalini Bhogle, was a professor of psychology there.

The university also launched the careers of several of India’s politicians. They include Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao, who cut his teeth as a Youth Congress leader while pursuing his master’s in Telugu literature; and senior Congress leader Jaipal Reddy, who was a Minister in the second United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. Reddy was twice elected president of Osmania University’s student union when he was pursuing a master’s degree in English literature. Osmania unwittingly became one of the fulcrums of political and social change in Hyderabad State and indeed across India for several generations. It began with the anti-Nizam activities in the late 1930s and 1940s by centrists and leftists as part of the Andhra Mahasabha, the precursor to both the Congress and the Communist parties in Telangana.

Makhdoom Mohiuddin, who studied Urdu literature at Osmania, was part of the Comrades Association within the Andhra Mahasabha, a grouping that was influential in leading the Telangana Armed Struggle and that is credited with giving birth to the Communist Party in the State. The issues were similar to those in the rest of the country: slave-like work conditions and exploitation of agricultural labour by jagirdars; the landed aristocracy of the kingdom; and a sense of disenchantment among Hindus because Telugu was ignored. Mohiuddin was a firebrand trade unionist and a popular legislator in later years.

Hyderabad’s accession to the Indian Union in September 1948 after a period of resistance by the Nizam brought about drastic changes to both the university and the region, some of which were devastating. By the 1946-47 academic year, Urdu was almost the sole medium of instruction. The Nizam College, earlier affiliated to Madras University, was now under Osmania’s jurisdiction, as were other institutions like the Nizamia Observatory set up in 1908 to study space, and the Sanskrit Academy and the Dairatul Maarif, both departments set up for transcription and research on rare manuscripts in Sanskrit and Arabic. There were over 7,000 students on the rolls across the departments of Arts, Science, Law, Engineering, Medicine, Commerce, Veterinary Sciences, Agriculture, Education, Religion and Culture. In other words, a university imparting education entirely in an Indian language had come into its own and had gained world renown.

The period between 1948 and 1952 was turbulent. Hindi became the medium of instruction, and students were allowed to write exams in English, Hindi, Urdu or Telugu, and there was talk of the Central government taking over the institution. Both were resented by students and faculty alike. The voluminous collection of works and teaching materials translated into Urdu fell into disuse. Transcribing manuscripts slowed down considerably. English finally replaced Hindi as the medium of instruction in 1952, aborting an experiment in higher learning not emulated since anywhere in India. The emblem of the university dropped Arabic and Urdu entirely and replaced them with Hindi and Telugu.

Between 30,000 and 40,000 Muslims were killed in pogroms in the aftermath of the annexation across the State. This came to light from the 1948 Sunderlal Committee report, which was kept secret for decades and unearthed by the lawyer and Frontline columnist A.G. Noorani, who expanded on it in his 2013 book, The Destruction of Hyderabad .

“It was frightening particularly for Muslim families because there was lots of police force. One could not go out. Everyone connected to the Nizam’s government, and those holding high offices, was monitored,” said Salma Farooqui, the Director of the H.K. Sherwani Centre for Deccan Studies at Maulana Azad National Urdu University. Farooqui’s great grandfather, Shahzoor Jung Bahadur, lived in the Shah Manzil palace, which is today a heritage building within the Raj Bhavan complex of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

Concerned about the fallout of the annexation, the Centre and the Congress-run State government in Hyderabad ensured steady expansion of the university into several spheres. Foreign languages, in particular, saw a massive expansion and so did fundamental research.

As of the 2016-17 academic year, there were close to 3.5 lakh students on the rolls in over 700 affiliated colleges, making Osmania arguably one of the largest institutions of higher learning in Asia. It also has the highest number of foreign students among Indian universities.

The university continues to be a political and cultural space. The struggle for a separate Telangana State found immense support among the students right from the late 1960s. It culminated in the formation of the largely student-led Telangana Joint Action Committee, popularly known as T-JAC, in 2009.

The T-JAC is credited with drawing up the political strategy and providing the intellectual heft for achieving the objective in 2014. It continues to be headed by one of Osmania’s radical and respected political science professors, M. Kodandaram, who retired recently. After the Telangana Rasthra Samiti (TRS) government came to power in 2014, the T-JAC has proved to be the most potent opposition outside mainstream parties.

Crumbling edifice A hundred years after its founding, the university is decrepit and run-down, with abandoned faculty bungalows perilously standing, crammed and ill-maintained students’ accommodation and obsolete research labs and teaching material. Of the 1,260 sanctioned staff and faculty strength, 710 posts, well over half, remain vacant. The Vice Chancellor’s post was not filled for over two years beginning July 14, 2014, just a month after Chandrashekar Rao took charge as Chief Minister.

Battu Satyanarayana, president of the Osmania University Teacher’s Association (OUTA), said: “No decisions have been taken in the past three years. The Executive Council completed its term in July 2014 and the university has since been run by ex-officio members who are government servants, like the Principal Secretary of Higher Education. We are autonomous only on paper. Every single decision is being taken at the Secretariat. Even the planning for the centenary celebration, to form committees, raise funds and organise cultural programmes, were all charted at the Secretariat, not at the university.”

Government interference In December 2015, the Telangana government usurped the Governor’s power to appoint Vice Chancellors to the State’s nine universities, including Osmania, and issued orders calling for applications to fill the posts. Speaking on the floor of the Assembly in March 2016, Chandrashekar Rao insisted that this was being done to weed out corruption in the system and to get the best talent possible. The norm is for the Executive Council or the Senate of the university concerned to appoint a search committee, which proposes three names to the Governor who is the Chancellor for all of them. The Governor, in turn, selects one name. This is, of course, a consultative process, but not without its share of nepotism and possible corruption. But this practice was evolved to insulate universities from undue governmental interference in their day-to-day functioning and to safeguard their autonomy.

The government also tweaked the 10 years’ professional academic experience requirement for appointment as professor or Vice Chancellor, which is a guideline laid down by the University Grants Commission. Anybody with five years in academia became qualified to be appointed as Vice Chancellor. The government made seven such appointments in July 2016, including S. Ramachandram at Osmania University. Ramachandram is an alumnus of the university and a professor at its Computer Science Department.

A teachers’ association challenged the government’s decision in the Hyderabad High Court, which struck down the appointments. The State government went in appeal to the Supreme Court, which ordered the Vice Chancellors to continue but reinstated the Governor as the Chancellor of all universities.

As per the Osmania University Act of 1959, the Executive Council must consist of 12 members and include teachers, students and staff representatives, apart from a few department-related government servants and eminent persons. This has not been the case at Osmania ever since former Chief Minister N.T. Rama Rao banned student union elections in 1984 at State universities citing violence. But the Executive Council and other bodies such as the Academic Council are required for the university to qualify for National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) ratings, which give the university access to Central funds for research. The better the ratings, the higher is the allocation. The Central government does fund a small percentage of running expenses for facilities already established for research purposes. However, the payment of staff and faculty salaries is funded entirely by the State government.

Underfunded The university has remained chronically underfunded for over a decade now. No permanent faculty appointments have been made since 2005, and those hired on contract are often research and PhD scholars paid between Rs.15,000 and Rs. 25,000 a month. “Why would a person whose job is not guaranteed, and with such poor pay, be committed to excellence?” asked Prof. Dakshinamurthy, retired Head of the German Department. As a result, several classes are not conducted and students often resort to self-preparation or private tuitions.

Another language department professor who did not wish to be named narrated an incident to explain just how bad things were in the early 2000s as development funding, both from New Delhi and Hyderabad, began to dry up. These funds are required for basic upgrades such as buying computers or overhauling wiring systems. His department of two, including the stenographer, had run out of ink and the typist position was not filled (the university was not computerised until the mid 2000s). He had sent a handwritten note to the Arts College Principal requesting that the ink be replenished. (The department’s annual stationary budget remained a paltry Rs.360 until 2012, when it was doubled to Rs.720.) Promptly came a reply from the Principal seeking a typed and signed letter for the request to be acted upon. “They wanted us to be typists, stenos, clerks and professors all rolled into one,” said the professor indignantly.

The nano materials research lab is located on the ground floor of the university’s Chemistry Department. It is as rudimentary as a high school science lab, with several pieces of equipment either faulty or obsolete. Saravanan (name changed), a PhD student in the department, said the lack of testing and observation equipment forces them to send samples to labs in IIT Madras or any Sophisticated Analytical Instrumentation Facility (SAIF), run by the Department of Science and Technology. Only these facilities accept external samples for testing.

“We prepare a demand draft for their services and post our samples to them. They conduct the test and mail us back the results, which we then analyse,” said Saravanan. This could sometimes take weeks or even months as the samples get put on a long request list at SAIF units, and time-bound testing often does not take place, leading to flawed results. “If the equipment were on site, we could not only conduct our own tests, but monitor the samples during their evolution. This would enhance our analysis,” said another PhD student.

The Central Facilities, an expansive circular building situated in the heart of the campus, occupies a pride of place in Osmania. Spread over 54,000 square feet, it was built with Central government funds in 2009 to showcase the university’s ambitious research plans. Almost eight years later, most of its rooms are either shut or empty. The stairwell and the lift area of the three-storey building are filled with garbage and discarded construction material. A few rooms have some computers and students working in them. Vice Chancellor Ramachandram said this was because faculty members found it difficult to shift their research work to the building, which is at a considerable distance from their departments.

Speaking to Frontline , Ramachandram admitted that the university had not been able to pay staff and retirement pensions for several years now as successive governments, even before the State’s formation, had not allocated the required “block grants” or monies disbursed for salaries. Ramachandram said that Osmania required a minimum of Rs.400 crore annually to pay salaries and pensions alone. The undivided Andhra Pradesh government had allocated just Rs.170 crore in 2013-14. This did not change in the next financial year despite tall promises from Telangana’s first government.

Angry staff members struck work, which led to a marginal increase of Rs.30 crore. Incremental disbursements after constant wrangling has increased the amount to Rs.263 crore for 2017-18. But that is still just over half of what is required, and it has not really helped in bridging the mounting arrears that are to be paid. Just ahead of the centenary celebrations on April 26, the government, for the first time, announced an infrastructure development fund of Rs.200 crore.

Centenary highlights The highlight of the centenary celebrations was the Chief Minister’s silence at the inauguration of the three-day festivities. Chandrashekar Rao did not speak for fear of being booed by students. It was an indication of how much Osmania University mattered in the politics of the State.

However, what would also be remembered is what President Pranab Mukherjee, the chief guest at the event, said to the Osmania family: “When you are celebrating 100 years of your institution, dear students and faculty members, I would urge you to look into these aspects: We are lagging far behind in basic research and innovation, and we cannot achieve excellence in education if these aspects are neglected. I do not blame the academic institutions alone because it requires a substantial amount of uninterrupted flow of funds either from government or from industries.”

As for the homilies paid to the former ruler and his family, “They were invited, but not a mention was made of them except in the President’s speech,” said Prof. Dakshinamurthy.

The only Urdu symbolism that now exists at the university is the white marble foundation stone located at the bottom of the entrance facade of the arts college. It announces the date of commencement of the project as July 5, 1934, and lists the official honorific title of Osman Ali Khan. Some words of the last line remained indistinguishable for the Persian and Arabic scholar Peyvand Firouzeh teaching at the Kunsthistorisches Institute in Florence, Italy, whose assistance was enlisted to decipher this plaque because of the mix of Arabic and Persian along with Urdu. It went something like this: The blessed hand of the one... University of Osmania .

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