K Srinivasulu


The Osmania University, now a 100 years old, has, especially from the 1940s onwards, played a pivotal role in shaping the intellectual, social, cultural and political life of Telangana. But tragically, the present dismal state of affairs in its portals does not befit its centenary status. Sincere support from the Government of Telangana is the need of the hour.


Established in 1918 by the Nizam-ul-mulk Osman Ali Khan, the last ruler of the princely state of Hyderabad, in the capital city, Osmania University is now a century old. The year-long celebrations of the centenary of the university were inaugurated on 26 April 2017 by the then President of India, Pranab Mukherjee. The existence of an institution for 100 years is itself worthy enough a cause for celebration, but it must also be seen as an occasion for introspection and revival of its memory. Institutional memory is crucial for the survival and revival of institutions. Occasions like the present one provide an opportunity for regaining and refreshing the memory and thus for moving forward.


Early Years


Osmania University is the seventh oldest university in India and the third in South India. In the history of the university, three phases could be identified on the basis of institutional expansion—pedagogic, scholarly contribution, and changing sociological character. Osmania occupies a unique place in the history of higher education in India for it is the first university in the country to go for an Indian language, Urdu, as the medium of instruction, for which it received appreciation from Rabindranath Tagore as a move towards freedom “from the shackles of a foreign language” and making education “naturally accessible to all our people.”


During the first phase, that is, from its inception to the integration of the Hyderabad state into the Indian Union in 1948, Osmania evolved into a full-fledged university with the necessary ability to teach not only the social sciences but also the natural sciences and engineering courses in Urdu. To meet the challenge this gigantic task posed, huge funds were earmarked and a large contingent of expert translators were employed. During this phase the university remained an elite institution catering to the educational needs of the youth of the aristocracy, landed gentry and upper classes. This was so largely because of the absence of access to educational opportunities to the vast majority of the people (largely Telugu speakers) at the grass-roots level and absence of official encouragement, let alone patronage, to Telugu language and education in the despotic princely state.


Despite its limited social base and elite character, the university could carve out a unique place for itself in the social, cultural and political history of the region by responding to the challenges of the times. In a significant sense, the university became the site of aspiration for freedom and development as can be witnessed from the fact that its teachers and students have been an integral part of the progressive transformation of Hyderabad from a native feudal state under the suzerainty of the British to a secular democratic part of independent India. The role of Osmania University in the Vande Mataram movement, the formation of the leftist Comrades’ Association (which played a key role in the formation of the Communist Party in Hyderabad), the cultural and literary movements led by the Andhra Mahasabha, and in the anti-feudal and anti-Nizam peasant uprisings in the 1940s, in providing intellectual and political leadership to these movements and organisations, is noteworthy.


The Post-independence Phase


It was only after the integration of the Hyderabad state into the Indian Union that the medium of instruction was changed to English. The university’s response to the scholarly challenges and research developments in the various disciplines, especially in science and technology, at the national and global levels, is visible in its pedagogic and institutional innovations. The growth of Osmania into a major affiliating university is a result of its response to the expanding educational needs of the vast backward hinterland of the Telangana region. This growth is also a testimony to the visionary intellectual and administrative leadership that the university was fortunate to be bestowed with during this period.


With the gradual expansion of the educational infrastructure in Telangana we witness the entry of youth from the middle and lower sections of the society into the portals of the university. This changing social character is reflected in the enhanced visibility of the university in the civil society and public domain through the intellectual response of both the faculty and students, with increasing practical import for political and policy issues in the state. This often caused discomfort to the ruling regimes. With students from rural backgrounds entering the university, it appeared but natural for them to respond to the simmering rural unrest against the still prevailing feudal dominance in rural Telangana in the form of the Naxalite movement in the late 1960s and much more significantly in the post-Emergency phase.


In keeping with the changing social character of the university in the late 1970s, students were permitted to write their exams in Telugu, though officially English continued to be the medium of instruction. With new entrants from the oppressed sections of the society, the university evolved into a space for the expression of their angst, anxieties and concerns. The role of the university and its teaching and student community in the Telangana-state agitation in the late-1960s, in the struggle against the internal Emergency in the mid-1970s, in the expanding democratic and civil rights movement against the repressive policies of regimes since the 1980s, and in autonomous student mobilisation demanding a separate state of Telangana, from the 1990s until its realisation in 2014, demonstrates the university’s vibrancy to larger societal and political issues.


Regional Populism


While it is heartening to see the university system responding to social/political issues and concerns in a responsible way, it also needs to be recognised that this has, in the long run, had a drastic impact on its quality and character. A judicious balance between autonomy, quality and social response to the larger context has to be carefully nurtured and jealously safeguarded. What disturbed this balance, paving the way to institutional crisis, is a complex story. Osmania is not an exception to this. In fact, it is part of a pattern that could be discerned in a number of states and quite conspicuously in the Hindi heartland.


If the political regimes since the 1970s, with their populist, regionalist, “anti-elite” rhetoric, have paved the way for compromise on institutional integrity and academic standards, then the pretext of expansion of university education without adequate attention to the financial, institutional and human resource requirements, has led to the devaluation or even impoverishment of the idea of the university itself. Seen in this broad context, it would be instructive to identify the specific causes that contributed to the malaise that the regional universities find themselves in. First, the weakening of the academic and administrative leadership due to political considerations, and even widely alleged and rumoured corruption in the appointment of vice-chancellors and governing bodies, has become endemic in the regional varsities. Often, these positions are seen from the prism of politics of accommodation pursued by the government of the day in which criteria other than the academic credentials of the appointees have assumed more significance. This political interference, as amply evident, has a cascading effect on the recruitment process, especially because universities are seen as part of the patronage network, for they are seen as a major source of public employment in the predominantly agrarian social context.


Second, the changing populist policy and social context of these institutions have affected the quality of education imparted in them and have also changed the social character of the university in terms of student composition. Drawing on an insight from the historian of ideas, Albert Hirschman’s classic Exit, Voice and Loyalty, the existential reality of the regional universities can be described as one characterised by the “exit” of the elite and middle classes from them. The entry of the first generation literate, rural and subaltern caste youth is a welcome development, but with the almost total exit of the upper and middle class youth from them, there has been a weakening of the critical “voice” necessary for their vibrancy and endurance. Thus these universities could be seen as becoming sites of structural exclusion thereby defeating the very purpose of the university as a space of social inclusion and integration.


Challenge of Privatisation


With the thrust towards the privatisation of higher education initiated by the government as part of the economic reforms at the state level, the neglect of the regional universities has become more pronounced. The deliberate cutting down of grants, accumulation of vacancies at various levels in the academic and administrative positions due to a notorious ban on recruitments, and discursive privileging of private initiatives as indispensable for quality education have all added to the woes of the already fragile regional universities.


The neglect higher education has been experiencing is sought to be legitimised under the pretext of its relevance to the market and corporate sector. The signals have been quite loud and clear that the universities have to “fend for themselves” and become market-friendly for their survival. The impact of this cynical perspective has been quite disastrous for the humanities and social sciences. Language departments have been turning into “soft skill” imparting cells; history is being tuned to tourism industry; economics is paraded as management, and so on. With the accent on privatisation, the public regional universities have been browbeaten.


The present state of Osmania University is clearly not befitting its centenary status. In the last couple of decades, like most of the universities in the state, Osmania has seen a drastic reduction in grants so much so that it has often found itself in a difficult position to meet even the salary bill. The universities are advised, rather forced, to meet their financial requirements by generating resources, for instance, through so-called “self-financed” courses. Faculty recruitment, tightly controlled by the government, is definitely not commensurate with the number of vacant positions resulting from superannuation of teachers. This is evident from the fact that the Osmania University’s faculty strength during the last couple of decades has dwindled to 585 when the sanctioned faculty strength is 1,267. With senior faculty superannuating in significant numbers, some departments are virtually on the verge of closure. In many departments, part-time teachers (known as consultants) outnumber the regular faculty. This is true of most of the universities in the state.


The visible non-priority of the regional universities in official education-policy thinking has led to their decline as centres of academic excellence and their simultaneous emergence predominantly as spaces of political mobilisation. These are the principal causes for the exit of the elite which began in the 1980s and reached its acme by the turn of the century. As a result, it would not be far from true to state that the regional universities have hardly any middle-class presence as the latter have shifted their “loyalty” to central or private universities and national law schools, apart from preferring education abroad.


It is no exaggeration to suggest that the decade-long Telangana movement, in which the students of Osmania University along with other universities played a key role, had a negative impact on higher education. Of course, one of the positive results of this phenomenon has been the emergence of a new generation of leadership from the subaltern ranks of the society which would otherwise have not been possible in the existing dominant-party system in India that prospers and, in fact, cultivates a political culture of family ownership based on hereditary or nominated-successor leadership. In fact, social movements throwing up new leadership have an impact, albeit limited, on the otherwise oligarchic parties that are known for their internal democratic deficit.


This should not blind us to the fact that this overbearing of the political has had disastrous consequences for the intellectual standing and scholarly role of the university. This stark reality is ignored in regional public discourse making everybody reconcile to the fate accompli.


Post-state Formation


It was quite rational to expect that things on the educational front would improve in the new state. In the demand for statehood to Telangana, which has been looked upon as a solution to the problems of backwardness and uneven development, the place and role of education have undoubtedly been fundamental.


The Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), which claims to be the “exclusive” voice of the Telangana aspiration, has not paid the kind of attention that educational and social development, its raison d’être, deserves. It is not unfair to state that this issue has not been demonstrated to be the priority of the state government. This is evident in the fact that all the universities in Telangana were deprived of proper governance as appointment of regular vice-chancellors and governing bodies to them was delayed for over two years. Needless to add, the absence of a qualified and responsible person at the helm of a university means not only the paralysis of its normal day-to-day functioning but, in fact, a dent on its future.


It is widely held that the cultivated neglect of universities by the TRS regime is a response emanating from its uneasy relation with the student community. When, in fact, the emergence of the TRS as a major political force in Telangana is largely the result of the student support it enjoyed, perhaps it is symptomatic of the changing times that the students are now being perceived as a major source of challenge in the future.


The centenary of Osmania University provides for the new state and its leadership an occasion to reflect on the above issues. It is a historic opportunity for the government to demonstrate its commitment to the development of Telangana by initiating necessary measures to protect its identity and pride by attending to the numerous problems, institutional, human resource, and financial, that have accumulated over a period of time largely due to neglect in the past. Needless to say, the development of a region depends principally on the quality of its human resources and they can be created and enhanced only by improving the quality of institutions of higher education by making them the abodes of learning and research and also sites of social and cultural plurality and diversity. The government’s positive response to Osmania, which is the soul of Telangana, would not only provide an opportunity to erase the impression of the TRS government’s neglect but also instil popular confidence in its stated commitment to the development of Telangana. Sincere support for Osmania University’s rejuvenation is the need of the hour—the university richly deserves it for its pivotal role in shaping the intellectual, social, cultural and political life of Telangana.


K Srinivasulu (srinivasulukarli@gmail.com) is with the Department of Political Science, Osmania University, Hyderabad.



Top - Home