On May 9, Pakistani student Aizaz Hussain alighted in Delhi from the Dosti Bus that runs between Lahore and India’s capital, collared Siddharth Pantula and inquired about idli-sambar.
It was the first time they had met face-to-face. But Hussain, 23, from Sehwan Sharif in Pakistan, and Pantula, 26, from Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh, had been classmates for over three months and had already discussed subjects far more contentious than food – blasphemy laws in Pakistan, Hindutva in India, the ban on Pakistani actors from working in the Indian film industry, and on Pakistani cricketers from participating in the Indian Premier League.
From February 1 to May 10, Lahore University of Management Studies from which Hussain is about to graduate in political science, and the OP Jindal Global University in Sonipat, Haryana, where Pantula is a postgraduate student of diplomacy, law and business, jointly offered a course titled, “Beyond India and Pakistan: Changing the foundation of South Asian history”. Co-taught by Ali Usman Qasmi in Lahore and Pallavi Raghavan in Sonipat, its objective was to look at how each country has chosen to remember its shared past after Independence in 1947. It was likely the first course of its kind for both countries.
“The objective was not to give an overview of everything that had happened in South Asia’s past,” explained Raghavan. In a short video outlining the course, she explained that after Partition, India and Pakistan “defined themselves in opposition and often hostility to one another”. This meant “they understand the same events in very different ways”. The course covers a “series of episodes significant to both countries but understood very differently on both sides” and also figures such as Bhagat Singh, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose “whose careers straddled the modern divides”.
At Lahore University of Management Studies which, despite its name, also offers general disciplines, 18 students signed up for the course. Seats were grabbed so fast that Hussain says he had to lean on a first-year student to give up hers. “I have grown up watching Bollywood movies and have always been interested in South Asian affairs,” he explained. “I kind of developed a relatedness with India.”
His film addiction is serious, said Pantula. “He mentioned a Telugu movie I have never heard of that he watched dubbed in Hindi,” he said.
At OP Jindal Global University, eight students took the elective course. Classes were held separately on Mondays and jointly, via a video-calling application, on Fridays. Pakistani and Indian students, divided into mixed groups of three, worked on projects together. During the course of their projects, the Indian students realised Mohammad bin Qasim’s invasion of Sindh in 712 AD is considered more significant in Pakistan than in India, and that in 1916, Jinnah had defended Indian freedom fighter, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, charged with sedition. The Pakistani students were introduced to the Indian revolutionary Bhagat Singh and the poet Rabindranath Tagore.
The course ended with a two-day trip to India for the Pakistani students. By the time they arrived in India, they were comfortable enough with each other to cautiously joke about intelligence agencies eavesdropping on their conversations.
A shared past
Over 2010-’12, Qasmi and Raghavan were research scholars in the United Kingdom studying the post-colonial history of India and Pakistan – Qasmi at the Royal Holloway College, University of London, and Raghavan at Cambridge University. They met at seminars and conferences.
When Qasmi wrote to Raghavan about a joint course last October, their universities had already signed a memorandum of understanding facilitating such collaborations.
The course was intended to demonstrate the “possibility of an academic approach that is acceptable to both sets without compromising their sense of belonging”, explained Qasmi.
He got in touch with Raghavan with the idea of bringing students from the two countries together to build “a historical narrative that is as unbiased as possible”. They offered an optional course and were not shy about addressing the worst of the sticking points – “massacre of Hindus”, temple desecration and conversions, demolition of Babri Masjid, Aurangzeb and Dara Shikoh, Ranjit Singh’s undivided Punjab, “Nehru’s India and Modi’s Bharat”.
The course covered the history of the Indus Valley Civilisation, early Buddhist territories in India, the arrival of Islam, Mughal India, and colonial India till Independence. “We were not interested in the minutiae of all the events of the past but rather, in the different ways in which they are perceived today,” said Raghavan. “Take the figures of Ram Mohan Roy and Syed Ahmed Khan for instance – both were engaged in tasks which were in fact quite similar to one another. But while the present-day legacy of one was appropriated particularly visibly in India, the other was deemed to be central to the Pakistan movement. It is in unpacking these processes of appropriation that we learn more about both countries today.”
During one of the last joint classes held through the video-calling application, with both sets of students finally coming together in one place, a student from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir – Azad Kashmir for Pakistan – asked why Kashmir was not discussed in greater detail in class. “It was not a deliberate omission,” said Qasmi. “We just stopped at 1947. No matter how sensitive the subject is – we can have a very strong position on Kashmir – it is not something that cannot be discussed in an academic environment.”
In fact, maps, borders and territories – in a state of flux for thousands of years – featured significantly in the students’ projects. Pantula, and Usman Sipra and Maleeha Saadat of the Lahore University of Management Sciences, “mapped the forts of undivided Punjab” and through that, studied the history of a territory that straddled India and Pakistan. Maryam Ahmad Kiyani and Hasin Salman Nusrat from Pakistan joined Triyyambika Rao to map the “routes of various invasions” into and within the sub-continent. Aizaz Hussain was paired with fourth-year law student Swaroop Mishra to study the history of the town of Sehwan Sharif in Pakistan, where the Sufi shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar is located.
Mishra’s classmate at Jindal Global Law School, Parvaz Lamba, worked on two projects – Guru Nanak’s journeys through parts of the sub-continent and Suhrawardi Silsila, a branch of Sufism.
The “conceptualisation of territory” at each point in history and by different personalities “transcended that of the present-day nation states but were, nonetheless, equally viable for the times they were in,” said Raghavan. “We should not be blinkered by a nationalistic reading of history.”
But a nationalistic reading is all that was available for many in schools. Thus Mishra was surprised to discover that Pakistani students, despite having the best-known sites of the Indus Valley Civilisation within their borders, knew little about it.
“Our histories begin at different points,” explained Pantula. “Pakistan places much emphasis on the arrival of Mohammed Bin Qasim in Sindh in the 8th century while trying to explain the origins of the [Pakistani] state, while in the India, the emphasis is on the Indus Valley civilisation. And this emphasis is primarily due a search for origins.”
Similarly, Lamba pointed out that the Indian group knew of Mohammad Iqbal as a poet but not as an activist.
Maryam Kiyani said that she had “not even heard” of Tilak and Tagore. “A lot of history was hidden,” she said. “This has happened for 70 years, it has created a sense of amnesia and now people do not want to know. I am reading up on my own.” Before this course increased her study hours on Fridays, she used to go home to Rawalpindi for the weekend.
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.