Some random thoughts while in India recently
A trip to India can usually be summed up in typical stereotypes. For some ‘Western’ tourists, it can be an inspiring experience of the ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ kind. Others might find it difficult to come out of the ‘heat and dust’ part of the Indian experience. For Pakistanis, it can be an experience reinforcing the difference between the Hindus and the Muslims as enunciated in the "two nation theory" of our textbooks. Others are surprised to see the affection which many Indians have for their Pakistani guests.
I was recently on a trip to India with a group of students from LUMS who had been invited to participate in the annual student festival organised by O.P. Jindal University. At the risk of sounding stereotypical, I would say the reception of Pakistani students at O.P. Jindal was overwhelming. At the carnival, students from all over India were all thrilled to meet the Pakistani students. It seemed they were less excited about the event itself and more interested in interacting with the Pakistani students.
The organisers of the festival, too, went out of their way to ensure maximum comfort for the Pakistani guests.
The student festival was named Biswamil (20th mile). This is because O.P. Jindal University is located 20 miles from the city of Delhi. To be precise, it is located in the Sonipat region of Haryana. Such areas in the outskirts of Delhi have, in the recent past, witnessed an upsurge of economic activity. This is because of the central government’s policy of designating these areas as National Capital Region (NCR). As per this policy, the land and revenue remains with the provincial government while the central government helps in building infrastructure to develop these regions.
This helps ease pressure on the national capital as various educational institutes, multinational corporations and housing schemes have moved out of the capital to escape from the urban mess called Delhi and benefit from the newly-constructed infrastructure facilities in the NCR.
O. P. Jindal University is the brainchild of Naveen Jindal -- a member of parliament from Haryana and a business tycoon dealing in steel and power generation. Naveen Jindal, who went to Texas for higher education, was inspired by the ‘patriotism’ of Texans many of whom hoist the American national flag on their farmhouses. When he returned to India, Jindal found out that India had strict laws protecting the sanctity of national flag whereby the privilege of hoisting a flag was not extended to every citizen except on special occasions. Jindal challenged this law which was finally settled in the Indian Supreme Court in his favour. The ruling democratised the use of national flag by allowing every citizen to hoist it provided he/she followed the rules to safeguard its sanctity.
It is no wonder that Jindal hoisted a huge flagpole in the middle of the campus at O.P. Jindal. Visible from all four corners, it is the focal point of the university. Also, since it is greater than a specific size and is properly illuminated after the daylight fades, the flag does not need to be lowered down at sunset. It remains at full mast throughout the day. Naveen Jindal has got a flag of similar size hoisted in the famous Connaught Place of Delhi.
The university has strict rules for students: they are not allowed to smoke or even carry cigarettes inside the campus; every time they enter the campus, they are frisked by the security guards; the university cafeteria only serves vegetarian food although students can purchase non-veg from other outlets and consume it in the campus.
Despite the restrictions, O.P. Jindal is a place for liberal ideas or, to be more precise, neo-liberal ideas. On one hand, it aspires to hold on to traditional values such as vegetarianism and revels in a heady sense of nationalism, on the other it allows free discussions to take place on the campus.
Such mixing of ‘tradition’, hyper-nationalism and neo-liberalism is getting popular in other places as well.
Ashoka University, situated in the same vicinity, has recently been set up to impart education in liberal arts and humanities. Like O.P. Jindal, it has been sponsored by leading business tycoons. I find it difficult to understand the logic of naming a university after Ashoka. Even though Ashoka regretted his acts of violence and converted to Buddhism, he does exist in popular imagination and the ranks of hyper Indian nationalists as the figurehead of an Indian kingdom at its peak. Also, he has become a symbolic representative of a pre-Muslim era in which ‘Indian civilisation’ was at its peak, ‘uncorrupted’ by foreign influences.
Ashoka University has hired top ranking academics and will soon become India’s top most university. But I will surely have a problem with any university in Pakistan which hires graduates of Yale and Harvard as its faculty, aspires to teach liberal arts and humanities, and yet is named as Muhammad Bin Qasim University.
No trip to India is complete without a visit to the Taj Mahal. Prior to visiting the Taj Mahal, our group went to Itmad-ud-Dawlah’s tomb in Agra. There, we were advised by the guard to purchase our ticket for Taj Mahal from the ticket counter at Itmad-ud-Dawlah as there are usually long queues to purchase tickets outside Taj Mahal. We followed his advice and purchased our tickets from him since he had earlier given us ‘discounted’ tickets for Itmad-ud-Dawlah’s tomb (we had shown him our passports to confirm that we were from a SAARC member state).
At the Taj Mahal, however, we faced a rude shock. A security guard ‘recognised’ us as Pakistanis and sent us back to the ticket counter to purchase the appropriate ticket. At Taj Mahal, Indian nationals only have to pay a nominal entry fee of Rs20 as opposed to Rs750 for foreign nationals. It turned out that Pakistanis, eager to save 700 Indian rupees, act, behave and speak in a manner that is suggestive of their Indianness to justify their claim to purchase the heavily discounted ticket prize reserved for Indian citizens alone. In other words, they are implicitly affirming that there are no real differences between Hindus and Muslims, Indians and Pakistanis when it comes to language, culture and appearance.
The Indian officials, on the other hand, are eager to make sure the difference is detected and enforced. So while Pakistanis pose themselves as Indians just to get a better bargain, Indians make sure through strict vigilance that they remain Pakistanis. In other words, Pakistanis try to defy the logic of two nation theory while the Indians try to enforce it.
All this happens at a site which is the symbol of peace, beauty and love.