NEW DELHI: Ramsha Rehman made plans to go watch Veere Di Wedding as soon as she and her friends landed in Delhi, because the film is banned back home in Pakistan, and in any case, they wanted to “experience a visit to an Indian movie theatre”, Indian media reported.
A Communication Design student from the National College of Arts in Lahore, Ramsha and a few friends finally got to watch it but it wasn’t the film that thrilled them as much as the fact that she and 70 other Pakistani students got to spend the last two weeks in India.
“I was told there is flash kidnapping and several incidents of rape in Delhi. I was asked not to go out after 7. But what I heard across the border is wrong,” said Ikra Nadeem, a masters student from National College of Arts, Lahore.
She added that although she had the opportunity to go to Spain, she chose to come to India due to the difficulty in obtaining a visa.Ikra and Ramsha are part of a group of Pakistani students, most of who have come to India for the first time as a part of a cultural exchange programme. They said that their experience in India has been completely at odds with what they had expected.
“I am taking back so many wonderful memories. I can’t even describe how much my thinking has changed,” she said.A similar sentiment was echoed by many of the other students.
“We had the liberty to cycle all around the IIT-Kharagpur campus till the morning, chatting with the other students. You can’t do that so openly in Lahore,” said Namrah Fatima, a third year architecture student from NCA.
While the students claimed to have experienced minor inconveniences due to language barriers and the absence of a ‘Muslim shower’ (water jet) in public washrooms, they also claimed to have had an overall experience that was very enriching.
“I cried when we crossed the border. It was such a special moment to be able to get a visa to come to India. I’m waiting for another year so that I can visit again,” said Ramsha, a communication design student from NCA.
‘Art, culture not that different’Most students also felt that although the experience of art, culture and heritage was not as drastically different in India and Pakistan as was portrayed in the media, their exposure to this was always limited in Pakistan.
“Pakistan has untapped diversity,” said Zafeer Butt, filmmaker and former NCA student.In Delhi, the students were given the opportunity to attend a day of cultural events at Spic Macay. They have also visited Kolkata and Agra and return home Tuesday.
Along with changing how they perceived Indians, some students also spoke about changing how Indians viewed them.“They (Indian students) were shocked to see some of us not wearing a burkha and smoking. They believed we are only violent people but now they know we are just like them,” said Ikra.
Like there are religious people in India who do not go to the temple, there are similar people in Pakistan, she added.The group of 71 students arrived in India on 1 June from the NCA and the Center of Excellence Arts & Design in Lahore, as a part of a cultural exchange initiated by Indian filmmaker, Harsh Narayan.
Narayan has been organising this exchange for the last 15 years with students from various institutions across Pakistan.“The idea is to connect young minds from both sides of the border so that they can work together to overcome artificial stereotypes and misconceptions,” said Narayan.
Speaking to ThePrint, Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India Sohail Mahmood lauded this effort to bridge the gap between the two nations.“We must have such platforms at multiple levels for enhanced interaction between the two countries. It is only when interaction is increased that preconceived notions and misconceptions can be eradicated and mutual understanding fostered,” he said.“Similar events can be planned for Indian students to go to Pakistan. The endeavour must be to improve the environment of bilateral relations and ensure sustained engagement.”