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Back from the enemy country

Updated Jan 23, 2016 11:16pm
The writer teaches physics and mathematics in Lahore and Islamabad.
The writer teaches physics and mathematics in Lahore and Islamabad.

RARELY are Pakistanis allowed to cross their eastern border. We are told that’s so because on the other side is the enemy. Visa restrictions ensure that only the slightest trickle of people flows in either direction. Hence ordinary academics like me rarely get to interact with their Indian counterparts. But an invitation to speak at the Hyderabad Literary Festival, and the fortuitous grant of a four-city non-police reporting visa, led to my 11-day 12-lecture marathon at Indian universities, colleges, and various public places. This unusual situation leads me here to share sundry observations.

At first blush, it seemed I hadn’t travelled far at all. My first public colloquium was delivered in Urdu at the Maulana Azad National Urdu University (MANUU) in Hyderabad. With most females in burqa, and most young men bearing beards, MANUU is more conservative in appearance than any Urdu university (there are several) on the Pakistani side.

Established in 1998, it seeks to “promote and develop the Urdu language and to impart education and training in vocational and technical subjects”. Relative to its Pakistani counterparts, it is better endowed in terms of land, infrastructure and resources.

But there’s a still bigger difference: this university’s students are largely graduates of Indian madressahs while almost all university students in Pakistan come from secular schools. Thus, MANUU’s development of video “bridge courses” in Urdu must be considered as a significant effort to teach English and certain marketable skills to those with only religious training. I am not aware of any comparable programme in Pakistan. Shouldn’t we over here be asking how the surging output of Pakistani madressahs is to be handled? Why have we abandoned efforts to help those for whom secular schooling was never a choice?

The face of modern India is visible at the various Indian Institutes of Technology.

To my embarrassment, I was unable to fulfil my host’s request to recommend good introductory textbooks in Urdu from Pakistan. But how could I? Such books don’t exist and probably never will. Although I give science lectures as often in Urdu as English, the books I use are only in English. Somehow Pakistan never summoned the necessary vigour for transplanting modern ideas into Urdu. The impetus for this has been lost forever. Urdu, as the language of Islam in undivided India, once had enormous political significance. Education in Urdu was demanded by the Muslim League as a reason for wanting Pakistan!

A little down the road lies a different world. At the Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT) the best and brightest of India’s young, selected after cut-throat competition, are engaged in a furious race to the top. IIIT-H boasts that its fresh graduates have recently been snapped up with fantastic Rs1.5 crore (Indian) salaries by corporate entities such as Google and Facebook.

This face of modern India is equally visible at the various Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), whose numbers have exploded from four to 18. They are the showpieces of Indian higher education. I spoke at three — Bombay, Gandhinagar, and Delhi — and was not disappointed. But some Indian academics feel otherwise.

Engineering education at the IITs, says Prof Raghubir Sahran of IIT-GN, has remained “mainly mimetic of foreign models (like MIT) and captive to the demands of the market and corporate agendas”. My physicist friend, Prof Deshdeep Sahdev, agrees. He left IIT-K to start his own company that now competes with Hewlett Packard in making tunnelling electron microscopes and says IIT students are strongly drill-oriented, not innovative.

Still, even if the IITs are not top class, they are certainly good. Why has Pakistan failed in making its own version of the IITs? One essential condition is openness to the world of ideas. This mandates the physical presence of foreign visitors.

Indeed, on Indian campuses one sees a large number of foreigners — American, European, Japanese, and Chinese.

They come for short visits as well as long stays, enriching universities and research centres.

Not so in Pakistan where foreigners are a rarity, to be regarded with suspicion. For example, at the National Centre for Physics, which is nominally a part of Quaid-i-Azam University but is actually ‘owned’ by the Strategic Plans Division (the custodian of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons), academic visitors are so tightly restricted that they seek to flee their jails soon after arrival.

Those who came from Canada, Turkey and Iran to a recent conference at the NCP protested in writing and privately told us that they would never want to come back.

Tensions between secular and religious forces appear high in Modi’s India. Although an outsider cannot accurately judge the extent, I saw sparks fly when Nayantara Sahgal, the celebrated novelist who was the first of 35 Indian intellectuals to hand back their government awards, shared the stage with the governor of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. After she spoke on the threats to writers, the murder of three Indian rationalists, and the lynching of a Muslim man falsely accused of possessing beef, the enraged governor threw aside his prepared speech and excoriated her for siding with terrorists.

Hindutva ideology has put the ‘scientific temper’ of Nehruvian times under visible stress. My presentations on science and rationality sometimes resulted in a number of polite, but obviously unfriendly, comments from the audience.

Legitimate cultural pride over path-breaking achievements of ancient Hindu scholars is being seamlessly mixed with pseudoscience. Shockingly, an invited paper at the recent Indian Science Congress claimed that Lord Shiva was the world’s greatest environmentalist. Another delegate blew on a ‘conch’ shell for a full two minutes because it would exercise the rectal muscles of Congress delegates!

Pakistan and India may be moving along divergent paths of development but their commonalities are becoming more accentuated as well. Engaging with the other is vital — and certainly possible.

Although I sometimes took unpopular political positions at no point did I, as a Pakistani, experience hostility. The mature response of both governments to the Pathankot attack gives hope that Pakistan and India might yet learn to live with each other as normal neighbours. This in spite of the awful reality that terrorism is here to stay.

The writer teaches physics and mathematics in Lahore and Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, January 23rd, 2016