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Bilateral ties: Love thy neighbour

June 08, 2014
Ali Hassan Raza
Ali Hassan Raza

“I will go to India again a thousand times as I have more friends there than I have in Pakistan,” said Ali Hassan Raza, a Pakistani student in India who was beaten in his hostel at Pondicherry University on May 13. He came back home two days later. Raza had just completed his two-year postgraduate specialisation in South Asian Studies when the incident happened. He is now back in his hometown of Pattoki, 84km from Lahore.

“I went to the hostel washroom early in the morning and left the door of my room open. In my absence, somebody sneaked into my room and, when I went back to sleep, the guy opened the door for two other people,” Raza explained. He said the attackers beat him up with iron rods, hung a rope around his neck and hit him on the head with a cold drink bottle.

“The attackers left after some time and I don’t think they wanted to kill me,” the student said, adding that he stayed in hospital for the next two days until arrangements were made for his return to Pakistan. Replying to a question as to what could be the motive behind the incident, he said he did not know the cause as he was quite popular at the campus. He’s not sure whether the assailants wanted to send a message, malign the university or simply wanted to divert attention as general elections were going on at that time.

“The authorities responded to the incident, the state governor came to meet me in the hospital and the regional police chief also visited and assured me security,” he said. However Pakistani authorities did not respond until he contacted them through an official whose number he had obtained, Raza added. Once the incident got media attention, Raza says help came from the Pakistani officials and the Pakistani ambassador got in touch with him.

It is important that there are more people-to-people contacts and that citizens have a better understanding of each other. “In India, many universities have Pakistan Studies departments and many students have done PhDs on Pakistan but we don’t have Indian Studies centres at our universities,” Raza exclaimed.

But what was Raza doing in India in the first place?

“I went to India under the South Asia Foundation (SAF) students exchange programme. My class consisted of two students from each Saarc country. I was the only one from Pakistan,” he explained, saying he has good memories of his two-year stay at Pondicherry and have been immensely impressed by their development in various fields like medicine, social sciences and information technology.

“During my stay there I have written a book titled Why I Do Not Hate India which will be soon published in English and Hindi. My friend Chandana Baruah is the co-author of this book,” he stated. The book consisted of his impressions on about 15 sectors in which India had made significant development.

The student said that it is important that there are more people-to-people contacts and that citizens have a better understanding of each other. “In India, many universities have Pakistan Studies departments and many students have done PhDs on Pakistan but we don’t have Indian Studies centres at our universities,” Raza exclaimed. He also added that he got a lot of love and affection in India but was hugely disappointed by the response of his own people who objected to his decision of studying in India and maligned him for going there.

On another note, he said that there are lots of misconceptions in both countries. “In Pakistan, students are taught that India is a caste-ridden society and its people kill their daughters; however, the reality is quite different. India is a very diverse country,” he said. In order to remove these mistaken beliefs, the development of social sciences and people-to-people contacts would be the steps in the right direction.

Talking about what can be done to bring a change in attitude of people both countries, he said, “Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to India to attend the oath-taking of Narendra Modi and their meetings would not bring about any major difference. The real change would come with the development of research centres to explore common grounds and social and cultural similarities.”

Raza said that his stay in India was not smooth sailing and initially he faced a lot of difficulties but he dealt with all of them. “I was not allowed to go out of the city and I had to get clearance, not only from the local police but also from the regional police every six months,” he said. In that context, he stated that once when he was coming back to Pakistan and had to stay in New Delhi for a night, no hotel gave him accommodation and he had to spend that night in a gurdwara.

Salima Hashmi, Dean of Beaconhouse National University’s School of Visual Arts and Design, who heads SAF Students Exchange Programme, said there were 88 beneficiaries of the programme at her university while dozens others went to India but the incident that Raza faced was the first one. She said two students even went for a PhD in Kashmir, which is considered to be a conflict zone. The SAF has also sent students to Nepal, Sri Lanka and other Saarc countries. “Since 2007, Indian students had also been coming to Pakistan to pursue higher studies and I want more students to go to India for higher studies,” added Hashmi.

“The mishap that Raza faced was possibly an outcome of the university’s internal politics as there are various kinds of students with different mindsets and backgrounds in any institute of higher studies,” elaborated Hashmi.

Elaborating about the SAF, she said, “It is a non-political, non-profit organisation and was founded by Madanjeet Singh who thought that the youth’s participation was important to build peace in the region.” With the same aim, Ali Hassan Raza and other students got a chance to study and explore other countries’ cultures.

Hindustan Times’ special correspondent Sudipto Mondal has a different take on the incident. He says that the cause of the attack lay in the very social structure of India, especially how that reflects on the education system. He said all the higher education campuses were dominated by upper class Hindus who maltreat even the lower caste Hindus and are unwilling to give space to anybody else.

“The students coming from Pakistan should select such universities which have a reputation of being secular and liberal with a progressive atmosphere, like the Asian School of Journalism, Chennai or Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi,” stated Mondal. It is not difficult to find such institutions as there were hundreds of such institutes of higher learning in India. The students should also look at the history of the area and its atmosphere, he maintained.

Mondal said Indian society had been polarised and become more conservative in the last 15 to 20 years and as a result there is an increase in right wing political influence.

The incident that Raza faced was a minor one, something which is quite common in India and its genesis was in the social structure of India itself rather than anything else.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 8th, 2014