The university ‘bubble’

All exchanges between the students through the three months were cordial, no one got terribly angry and no disagreement ended in a fight. They were instructed to be respectful, but each group also agreed that the other side is unfairly vilified. However, the students are also aware that their newly-discovered perspective on history will be a hard sell outside their universities.

Maryam Ahmad Kiyani described her university, a private institution, as “a bubble”. She can speak freely on campus but “when you go out, you need to keep quiet”.

Swaroop Mishra, Siddharth Pantula and Parvaz Lamba had all voted for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. “I did whatever my parents told me,” said Lamba. He is from Dehradun, from a family that supports Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Lamba has interned with the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons in Kashmir. He said that his speaking well of Pakistan and his work in Kashmir make his parents “completely uncomfortable”. Pantula admitted to being a bit nervous during the Pakistani students’ tour of Delhi.

Then, as Mishra observed, both sets of students are “from the privileged classes” and their social standing “determines [their] views on everything”. There were no Indian Muslims in the class, nor anyone from other marginalised groups. Similarly, all the Pakistani students came from private schools with many having studied in a British system of schooling. Although Kiyani considers even that history curriculum biased, they were at least spared the state one that Qasmi sees as “much more ideological”.

The two instructors hope to offer the course again with some changes. Qasmi sees the round that just ended as a “pilot project”. For later ones, they may expand the course to include the post-Independence history as well – the wars, Kashmir, the framing of the Constitutions. He also intends to expand to “public universities, more diverse student bodies and outside our comfort zones”.

A brief visit

During their trip to Delhi on May 10 and 11, the Pakistani students went sightseeing. They visited Humayun’s Tomb, the Nizamuddin Dargah, Ghalib’s tomb, Jama Masjid and Gurudwara Sis Ganj, built at the spot where the ninth Sikh guru, Tegh Bahadur, was executed on the orders of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. They bought saris in Chandni Chowk, and stopped by at Dilli Haat, the crafts bazaar popular with tourists.

Along the way, they discovered common interests. As an intern for the Partition Museum in Amritsar, Pantula had “gone around Delhi recording stories of Partition survivors”. He discovered that undergraduate student Kainaat Jah had done the same in Pakistan. Mishra compared Pakistan’s blasphemy laws with India’s beef ban during a discussion with Aizaz Hussain. They had lunch at Karim’s in Old Delhi where the only vegetarian other than Pantula was Ali Usman Qasmi. Hussain did not get idli, but got vada sambar for breakfast at the university one morning.