Inside the large hall, two young men in jeans and a young woman in leotards take turns at the drum set. One of them is trying it for the first time. Another student toys with the synthesizer, while another two jam on electric guitars, one of them a bass. A large mixer stands on a table in the middle of the room, wired for sound.
Another student squats in a cozy corner just outside the music hall, to practice the tabla. He is obviously talented, and the pleasure on his face as he practises a fast rhythm is sublime.
This is the music society of the Sri Mata Vaishno Devi University (SMVDU), on the second floor of one of the academic buildings, on a normal late-semester evening. The University sprawls on what used to be rocky bushland between the highway and the little town of Katra. It is a 40-minute drive from Jammu on the national highway to the Kashmir Valley.
In the cool dark of the campus, a brilliantly lit basketball court looks like a scene from a Hollywood movie, as students practise in shorts and vests.
In just over a decade since it was established, this university has matured into a metaphor for the rounded development of young people. It is the only place in north India with a state-of-the-art biotechnology lab. And it has an outstanding architecture college, the only one in Jammu and Kashmir. Plus, of course, it buzzes with extracurricular activities.
At the University guest house, one bumps into extraordinary academics. Kisor Chakrabarti, for instance, was professor of philosophy at Princeton, Duke and Berkeley before he retired as the vice-president for academics of a college in the US — though he insists on being introduced as a former Calcutta University lecturer.
Chakrabarti enjoys being at the SMVDU enough to have returned to the University a third time — to deliver a series of lectures to the philosophy faculty and PhD candidates. "I am most impressed by the high quality of courses offered at this University, the attention and care which the faculty continually provides to their students, and the stunningly beautiful campus," he says, measuring his words carefully.
Hub of inclusivity
But perhaps far more important than all these is a less obviously noticeable aspect of this institution: It is a harmonious island of not only high achievement, but also of inclusiveness, in a generally troubled and divided state.
The state’s education minister Naeem Akhtar pointed out at a function at the University’s Matrika Auditorium on Wednesday evening that the institution, entirely funded by contributions by devout Hindus (at the Vaishno Devi shrine nearby), has opened its doors wide to students of every kind.
Indeed, one noticed during a visit to the University during Ramzan a few years ago that special arrangements had quietly been made in a hostel kitchen to provide Sehri and Iftar (pre-dawn and post-sunset) meals to Muslim students who wanted to keep the annual month-long fast. There was no propaganda projection of these arrangements; it was simply what the University did for students it considered its own. The University’s dynamic Vice-chancellor, Sanjeev Jain, says matter-of-factly: "We never differentiate on caste, creed and all that."
Tabligh preaching was the fashion in those days. So some students from the Kashmir Valley kept long beards, short pyjamas and skull caps. One of them noticeably averted his face when he passed a woman. Others sat with their special friends of different backgrounds in the coffee shops and canteens. Neither seemed to attract a reaction.
Not only do students from various backgrounds seem to be readily included in the University’s life, several students and teachers go out of their way to make them feel at home. "Students tend to avoid loose talk (everyday abusive punctuation) among themselves when Kashmiris are around. They are aware that these come from a more refined culture," says Dr Varun Kumar Tripathi, who supervises cultural programmes as chair of the University’s cultural council.
"Teachers are also careful," he adds. "They make an effort to ensure that a Kashmiri student has no problems."
This University has worked hard from the time it was established to nurture an inclusive culture. One reason it may have succeeded better than others is that it has remained select: It only has about 1,600 students. On the other hand, its infrastructure was liberally funded by the Sri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board, which draws more pilgrims than any other shrine in north India and so has vast funds.
So efficiently did the second vice-chancellor (Prof NK Bansal, formerly of IIT Delhi) build it up that it draws students from across north India and a few from south India too. Indeed, the inclusivity of the place can also be seen in the hostel menus — idlis for breakfast on certain days, for instance.
Naeem Akhtar pointed out in his speech that the University has a central locational advantage to play an inclusive role in a state that is more diverse in culture, languages and ethnicities than any other.
Akhtar drew applause when he said that people of different backgrounds have to live together in this country. We must therefore remove the thorn of distrust deep in our hearts regarding persons from identity groups different to our own.
If a University is meant to draw universal knowledge to open a world of opportunities to its students and the society it serves, this beleaguered state surely needs top-drawer universities. SMVDU seems to be climbing fast and sure on the steep path to the 'highest international levels of excellence' which its mission statement charted.