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In Memoriam: Dr. Mughees uddin Sheikh (1951-2020)

It has been a year since Prof. Dr. Mughees uddin Sheikh’s untimely death due to COVID-19 last June, a loss that left his students in utter shock. The late professor’s unfaltering support and guidance for his students, current and past, had made him such a significant part of the latter’s lives that his sudden demise left a deep void.

I first met Dr. Mughees uddin when I enrolled in a Masters in Development Journalism programme at the Department of Mass Communication of the Punjab University. My initial hasty impression of the sagacious professor was one of a stern, crabby instructor. A PhD in Mass Communication from Iowa State University and a scholar and researcher of international fame, Dr. Mughees was a man of many words and profound wisdom: someone who always had a lot to say on any topic under the sun. His lectures were like a gush of knowledge, drawn on experiences and acumen gained from around the globe, most of which was much beyond the scope or spirit of our dreary journalism text books.Though the assertiveness in his tone, whenever he spoke was often intimidating to a newcomer, one would soon discover the amenable teacher that dwelled behind the opinionated, firm facade.

Within the regressive milieu of a typically pedagogic public sector institute of higher learning of those times, his was a presence that represented novelty, hope and change. Equipped with deep erudition, he managed to inspire such over the course of his years at the department, and it was thus that his students were always drawn to him like famished souls seeking scholarly satiety. No matter how strong the desire to continue to sit back at the department’s tuck shop, while as a female student, also secretly fostering the inexorable fear of being spotted by the probing eyes of the self-proclaimed custodians of morality on the campus, the IJT squad, his were lectures too worthy to be missed.

Those were the days when Punjab University was a stronghold of Islami Jamiat-e-Tulaba and it was ‘forbidden,’ as an unspoken and unproclaimed understanding, for female students to mingle with their male counterparts, especially outdoors and on the university lawns. For me, the prohibition was as much inconceivable, as questionable.

Hence, fleeing to Prof. Dr. Mughees uddin’s class was like heading towards a refuge, while I felt like an asylum-seeker, keen to shun the reality that existed outside the classroom as I aspired to build relatable episodes of liberation and logic that would equip me with a freewheeling mind and self-expression.

“Media is the watchdog of the society, but do keep a watch on the media too”, the professor would often proclaim. “So, make sure that you only write the truth and stay within the limits that media freedom entails,” he would promptly advise, freedom of the media being one of the topics he was always keen to deliberate.

Students would often resort to proxy attendance in those days to bunk classes, but it was just not possible to take such wild risks with Dr. Mughees’ class, even if anyone was ever tempted to do so. One’s presence in his class was, in any case, not marked by the routine attendance on a piece of paper, but by the images appearing on the retina of his always alert, scrutinizing eyes. From behind his pair of thick glasses, he knew all too well who was physically, and more so, mentally present in the class. It was just not possible to falter or fool, also since he connected individually with each one of his students and would immediately know if anybody was missing or daydreaming.

An active supporter of women’s progress, he never lagged in lending encouragement to his female students, while I was among the fortunate lot seeking his guidance when and where required. Those were the pre-electronic media boom days and, even within Lahore, journalism was still a, rather, developing profession for women.

“When out in the field, forget that you are a woman and focus only on being a journalist,” Dr. Mughees’ sound advice would go. He was always there to help discard any gender related inhibitions, whatsoever. I remember the time when I was doing a feature series on the state of government hospitals in Lahore for Dawn’s Metropolitan pages. Initially daunted by the idea of having to visit government health facilities of which I did not have much prior exposure, I mustered up the courage and managed to complete the series. Upon encountering some unpleasant experiences during my hospital visits, a few of them qualifying as harassment, I opened up to the mentor. Dr. Mughees was a pillar through such times, for which I, and so many others like me, will always be indebted.

I’ve known Dr. Mughees as a teacher and as the Dean of the Department of Mass Communication that later upgraded to the Institute of Communication Studies during his chairmanship. A maverick at heart, he believed in redefining norms, as he aspired for change and evolvement as much for himself as for everyone around him. He personified the true ethos of journalism through his always candid and, often, cautious comments.

Listing Dr. Mughees’ academic and professional achievements is an overwhelming task, so better left unstated. His foresight helped him see early on that a proliferation of media schools in the private sector was imminent, and, hence, made all efforts to upgrade the standard of education at the Mass Communication department to enable it to compete with the challenges posed by the private sector. A mushrooming of private television channels also followed soon, while the introduction of BA honors programme, evening classes for professionals, MPhil and PhD programmes at the department, while also inviting media professionals to teach as visiting faculty members at the newly established Institute of Communication Studies, were among some of his timely, game-changing moves for the institute.

Also remarkable was the fact that at that time, Dr. Mughees was the most research-oriented doctorate holder at the ICS and the only professor whose research papers were published in the most prestigious international journals, something that he would always mention with a glint in his eyes. It was his unrealized dream to build a media university in Lahore, cut short by death.

Challenging the orthodox was Dr. Mughees’s passion and he imparted the same radicalism to his students. It is difficult to accept the status quo if your mind has nurtured under the influence of a maverick; there will always be some prodding to strive for the change he had envisioned.

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