By Yaqoob Khan Bangash
November 5, 2013
I have just returned from a visit to India, where I spoke at three conferences. Getting a visa to India is always a special occasion for a Pakistani. My friends got more excited about my Indian visa than when I obtained an American one — India still is, in some ways, the ‘forbidden fruit’.
My first stop in India was Chandigarh, the planned city — much like Islamabad — which serves as the joint capital for the states of Punjab and Haryana. Being a historian, I was somehow thinking of Indian Punjab being as large as the ‘old’ Punjab and almost till Delhi. So, Chandigarh, being ‘near the edge of Punjab’ meant somewhere near Delhi. However, when I took a taxi from the Delhi airport to Chandigarh, I realised that it takes longer to drive from Delhi to Chandigarh than from Lahore! The ‘foreign’ city of Lahore is still closer to the heart of Indian Punjab than the union capital.
At Chandigarh, I was hosted by the Punjab University, which was set up by academics who left Lahore and the University of the Punjab in 1947. This ‘branch’ of the University of the Punjab (its old spelling), was first set up in Simla and then moved to Chandigarh in the late 1950s, but yet, it claimed its original foundation as 1882 in Lahore. To my knowledge, this is the only university to have split in this way, and this speaks volumes about the importance of the university and its ideals for its academics that it continued in this fashion. Interestingly, Aligarh, which was critical as the breeding ground of the Pakistan Movement, remained fully in India, and even the Aligarh academics who came over to Pakistan, did not set up a Pakistani version of the famed university.
While what was discussed at the Punjab University, and later at the Punjabi University in Patiala, deserves a separate article, I want to highlight here that I was extremely impressed by the rigour and academic ability present at these universities. Since both these universities were from the ‘other’ side of Punjab, I naturally compared them with the universities in Pakistani Punjab and found them to be much better in several ways. Their emphasis on the mother tongue, together with Hindi and English, their collaborative framework, where vice chancellors and deans did not hesitate from carrying even water bottles to the speakers (which most would scoff at in Pakistan), and the relative ease, openness and rigour with which academic discourse was carried out, clearly showed the difference between the academia of the two Punjabs. That said, the shared history, language and cultural links are still strong despite decades of enforced separation, and even I, a non-Punjabi, spoke there in Punjabi as I felt so much at home. I departed Indian Punjab with a plea to the state higher education minister, Sardar Sikandar Singh Maluka, who spoke so eloquently in Patiala, that let us leave the larger India-Pakistan dialogue to the centres, but let us, at least, increase people-to-people contact, especially among academics and students, so that we might learn from and help each other. Surely, such an initiative can be undertaken at the provincial level and I am sure our Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif will be very receptive to such an idea too.
My third conference was at the premier Indian think tank, the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in Delhi. The conference theme was perceptions of India in the neighbouring countries, and it was heartening to see that Indians were interested in such a topic. Being the largest and most populous country in the region, India is the natural leader in South Asia. However, it must be cognisant of how its behaviour is perceived in neighbouring countries. The message at the conference from the leading thinkers of South Asian countries was that for South Asia to progress, and for SAARC to take life as the EU-style organisation for the region, India needs to develop a clear policy which takes along its neighbouring countries in a spirit of mutual respect and cooperation. The ambivalent attitude of India towards its neighbours and regional cooperation is preventing us from focusing on the primary duty of improving the lot of the millions of poor in the region. “India should act more like an Elder Brother than a Big Brother,” as one Indian commentator remarked.
Both India and Pakistan are separate sovereign countries, but are still tied to each other in several ways. Without compromising on our separate existence, we can still cooperate and transform the lives of the millions in the region, just as our founding fathers dreamt it. Let us redeem our tryst with destiny in full measure.