Culture & Society

Can A Public University Change The Fate Of One Of India’s Most Backward Districts?

The young women of Nuh district in Haryana have big dreams – they want to be lawyers, doctors, engineers, businesswomen. But these dreams often get stifled

Tarini Mehta
Farheen Khan, a 25-year-old BA student at Shaheed Lieutenant Kiran Shekhawat Government College for Women Salaheri in Nuh. She wants to do a B.Ed. and her Master’s and eventually teach the children of her community. Photo: Tarini Mehta
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Sarita had big dreams. She wanted to work with computers. Or learn how to run a business. When she told her family this, they encouraged the 21-year-old feisty woman to do what she wanted – but without going far from home. That’s the catch: there’s no university near Sarita’s home. 

Sarita is from Nuh district in Haryana, the most under-developed of the 22 districts in the state. In 2018, it sat at the bottom of the NITI Aayog’s list of most backward districts in the country. Nuh has a literacy rate of 56 per cent as against the state’s 75.5 per cent. It is a mere 80 km away from the national capital, Delhi, and about half that from the financial and tech hub of Gurugram, but to date has no rail connectivity. The 1,500-square-kilometer district with a Muslim-majority population is for the most part ignored, except for its reputation as a hotbed for cyber crime and communal tension

But the young women of Nuh, like Sarita, have big dreams. They want to be engineers, doctors, lawyers, pilots and air hostesses, said 24-year-old Anjum Islam, who grew up in the district and is currently doing her Master’s in Law at a university in Sonepat. 

Over the last two years, these women have written thousands of postcards to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to demand a government university in Nuh. There are 56 universities across Haryana; not one of them is in Nuh. This has limited the educational and employment opportunities for the approximately 11 lakh people in the district, especially women. Now, they are determined to change that. 

The Postcard Campaign

At present, Nuh has four colleges, all of which are affiliated to universities in Gurugram and Rohtak. These colleges offer only a few degrees such as Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Technology. A university, on the other hand, is usually home to multiple departments that provide students with undergraduate and postgraduate degree options.

To make this new university in Nuh a reality, activist Sunil Jaglan championed a postcard initiative. He put together a team of around 50 girls, including Sarita and Anjum, who then motivated others to get involved. They did online and offline programs, and encouraged women from other states to support them. To coordinate their efforts, they used a 1,000-member WhatsApp group called ‘Mewat University Team’. 

“Respected Prime Minister, there is not a single university in our district,” reads one of many postcards sent to PM Modi. “Our parents don’t send us far to study, as a result of which our education gets halted midway. I request you to build a university in Nuh so that all girls here can study and move forward.”

One of the postcards sent to PM Modi
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“We will run this campaign till a university is built,” Jaglan said. “We won’t accept defeat.” 

Jaglan, who previously served as the village headman in Bibipur village in Jind district of Haryana, first shot to fame when he launched the social media campaign ‘Selfie With Daughter’ in 2015. The campaign encouraged parents to post selfies with their daughters to fight against female foeticide. Since then, he has run several movements to promote women’s rights in India. 

The gram panchayats (village councils) in Nuh district have also been working towards the university goal and participating in the postcard campaign. More than 300 sarpanches (elected village heads) held meetings between August and December 2023 to discuss the decades-old demand for a university in Nuh, or Mewat as it was earlier known. At these meetings, several panchayats promised hundreds of acres of land free of cost for the university, said Rafik Hatori, president of the sarpanch association in the district. 

“(Most) kids here pass Class 10 and then are left to sit at home,” he said. “The route to employment is closed for them. Why are our people deprived of education? We have no issue with any government or party; we just want to ensure the university is made so we can give our youngsters a new direction. If we have to agitate for it, we will.”

This is not the first time this issue has come up. The demand for a university in Nuh can be traced back to The All India Meo Sabha, a political organisation founded in 1967 to unite the Meo population. The Meos are a Muslim-Rajput tribe that inhabit the north-west Indian region of Mewat. For decades, the All India Meo Sabha has centered the demands for a university and rail connectivity in the region, but the needs of the community still remain unfulfilled.  

Specific Challenges for Women

For the boys, there is still a shot at reaching universities outside their home district. They usually have more freedom over their movement and can, if material circumstances allow, head to nearby districts to do professional courses. But mobility for girls has historically been restricted. 

“Even if family members agree to send us out, the neighbors won’t,” said Sarita. “They ask – ‘What will a girl do after studying outside? She has to take care of the house.’ They say – ‘She’ll fall in love and get married if you let her leave home.’” 

If a family can afford to send a child outside to study, the money is usually reserved for sons. “Through the course of schooling, the amount of money that a family spends is gendered and usually more is spent on young men,” said Dr Anjali Thomas, a researcher with a specialisation in gender, education and inequality in Haryana. 

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As a result, most of Sarita’s female friends, she said, got married off after high school despite performing well academically. “If there was a university here, they could have all got admission,” she said. “Instead, now they’re just taking care of the house.”

The closest university, Gurugram University, is headquartered 45 km away from Nuh. 

A Virtuous Spiral

Pradeep Singh, Additional Deputy Commissioner in Nuh, said a lot of work needs to be done in the district in the domains of education and skill development. 

“If we’ve made the effort to educate a child at the school level, they should have good options post Class 10 and 12,” he said. If not, there’s no point of that primary education. The kids will get left in the middle. Education is like a plant – you need to water and take care of it till it becomes self-sufficient.” 

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“Once we have sufficient institutes, we also need to motivate people to educate their girls and raise awareness,” he added. 

This often works as a virtuous spiral. According to researcher Dr Anjali Tiwari, when a girl from a family in Haryana accesses higher education, it encourages other girls to do the same. She said during her study in Mahendragarh in the state, she asked women what the impact of Central University of Haryana being in their district had been. They said it had not just increased their access to education, but brought about cultural changes – like a rise in Paying Guest (PG) accommodation options – as well. 

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The Counterargument

Not everyone is of the opinion that the university will transform lives in Nuh. Dr Shariq Hussain, youth leader for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Nuh wing, said there is no real need for a university in the district at present. 

“Will the children of Nuh study at a university?” he asked. “Only kids who pass 10th will go to 12th, and only those who pass 12th will go to college. The roots at schools aren’t strong right now. There aren’t enough students here to fill university seats; if the seats remain empty, it’s the university that will lose out.”

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Further, he alleged that it wasn’t the people of Nuh but political leaders from Opposition parties who were raking up the issue for electoral gains. “They did nothing when they were in power, so now they look for such demands and highlight them,” he said. 

He said it was the dream of former Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar that a university be built in Mewat, but that this plan was on the backburner till the more pressing issues of teacher vacancies and quality of school education were addressed. 

Earlier in March, only days before resigning as chief minister, Khattar had visited Nuh and announced development projects worth Rs 700 crore in the district. Among other things, he said gurukuls and madrasas that opted for “modern education” would receive financial support on registering with the Haryana School Education Board and more than 1,500 local youth would get teaching positions. 

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Echoing Hussain’s sentiments, District Child Welfare Committee Member Meena Kumari said the colleges that already exist in Nuh are not being used adequately and building a university will, therefore, not change anything. 

“Building a university is not a simple thing,” she said. “You need so much money. If it’s not going to benefit the community as much as it should, it’s a waste of the government’s resources. First fix school and college education here.”

According to Kumari, a very small percentage of girls in Nuh access education. “If there’s a primary school in the village, girls go. But 80 per cent of them drop out after that and only 20 per cent go to another village to continue their education. It’s the same after Class 10 and 12 and very few go to college. Child marriage is very common here. So how can you think of a university when your schools are empty? Who will come?” she asked. 

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What Students Say

Farheen Khan, a 25-year-old BA student at Shaheed Lieutenant Kiran Shekhawat Government College for Women Salaheri in Nuh, vociferously disagreed. 

“Since the government opened this one college, so many girls have come to study,” she said. Her college currently has 621 girls enrolled in the Bachelor of Arts program and 73 in the Bachelor of Commerce program.

“Earlier, schools were till Class 8 in the villages so girls used to study up to Class 8. When they made it till Class 10, they started studying till matriculation. Same with Class 12. So build the university, and girls will come.”

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The girls here are very smart and can do everything, she added. “It’s not that only girls from cities can do it, we can too! In fact, girls from the villages can do more and are smarter!” 

Khan, the oldest of six siblings, dropped out after Class 8 because the school in her village did not have provisions beyond that. The closest secondary school was too far and there was no bus, she said. Finally, she persevered and completed Class 10 and 12 via open schooling. After graduating from college, she wants to do a B.Ed. and her Master’s and eventually teach the children of her community.

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These courses are only available in the district at private colleges like Yasin Meo Degree College, which is affiliated to Maharshi Dayanand University in Rohtak and Gurugram University. 

“The fees at private colleges are Rs 20,000 per year. My family does not have that kind of money. They’ll have to sell our land to educate me. People in our district are not well off, there’s no employment here. We need government institutes,” she said. 

Government universities usually charge much lower fees than private institutes, allowing children of lower-income households to achieve social mobility. Their role in the education ecosystem is unparalleled. 

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A University on the Horizon?

Among those actively fighting for a Mewat Vishwavidyalaya (Mewat University), optimism is running high. 

I have full faith that a government university will be made here very soon, said Sarpanch Rafiq Hatori. “I spoke to ministers in Chandigarh. They’re saying our message has reached high up and it’s close to being approved. Of course, we can’t say anything with certainty,” he said.

Work on budgeting for the university has begun, Jaglan said he had heard from top government sources. So far, no official announcement on the same has been made. 

As the community awaits a clear response, it remains to be seen if the efforts of Sarita, Anjum and thousands others like them will enable the little girls and young women of Nuh to follow their dreams. 

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