By Pervez Hoodbhoy
23 January 2016
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
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
But there’s a still bigger difference: this
university’s students are largely graduates of Indian madrasas 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
madrasas 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.
Pervez Hoodbhoy teaches physics and mathematics in Lahore and Islamabad.