By Devika Mittal
After graduating in history, I had devised three options for my further studies – to continue with my discipline, switch to archaeology which had been my childhood dream, or to pursue sociology which was my new-found interest. I chose sociology. I did not have the option to study sociology in my school, so it was a new discipline for me yet I felt drawn to it.
What also inspired my ultimate decision was the university I sought admission in. I had heard of a new university in Delhi, which was named South Asian University. It was a project of the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC). While I had my doubts as it was a completely new university, I found it quite exciting to think that I would be studying with students of different countries. This excitement overpowered my doubts.
I still remember the initial days at the university. As it was the second year of the university, and the first year of sociology and several other courses, we were all new and ended up being a close-knit group. Our apprehensions about this newly established university brought us closer, forced us to talk to each other. There would be some students who would dress up in their traditional clothes, and it was refreshing to see attire beyond the jeans and T-shirts or even kurtas.
I remember that we would also play a game called ‘Guess the nationality’. We would try to guess the nationality of the students from their facial features, accent or clothes. I am glad to share that we soon found out that it was quite a challenge. Each country is so racially and ethnically diverse that boundaries, especially cultural, are quite fluid. Contrary to what we grew up believing, Indians or Pakistanis or any other nationality cannot be defined by one particular physique, culture or language.
I remember a Bangladeshi classmate of mine who had responded to our teacher’s question in English with a couplet by Tagore in Bengali! It was a class with more than one teacher. That day we learnt that we were talking about Bengalis — not separated into Indians and Bangladeshis — the importance of culture, and of language that can break boundaries. I also felt deeply moved to see how close this classmate was to his culture. He had beautifully combined western theories with South Asian knowledge, challenging the politics of discourse and a Eurocentric knowledge system.
The coming together of different ethnicities and cultural identities paved the way for bonding over similarities as well as appreciating diversity. Thanks to an initiative taken by the Bangladeshi students, the South Asian University celebrates the World Language Day (21st February) as one of its important activities. The day is like a festival of languages and cultures.
I remember that special evening when I heard a beautiful Sinhalese song, apart from enjoying Sindhi, Bengali and Punjabi dance forms, and listening to poems being recited in Hindi, Dari, Pashto and Tamil. The entire campus was adorned with posters in different languages. Though I am not a poet, I recited a poem in Hindi for the first time on this day. The culture of my university had given me the confidence and the zeal to embrace and represent my culture.
I loved observing how people used shared cultural identities to transcend the differences at the national level. This was especially true for Indians and Pakistanis, and for Indians and Sri Lankans. Personally, I utilized the space for my peacebuilding efforts through Aaghaz-e-Dosti, an Indo-Pak friendship initiative. Aaghaz-e-Dosti was started in 2012 by a voluntary organisation named Mission Bhartiyam, and the initial activities were restricted to India and with students from the university.
At the first event of Aaghaz-e-Dosti, we had recorded video messages of Indians, Pakistanis and students of other nationalities wherein they wished ‘Happy Independence Day’ to both India and Pakistan and hoped for peace. By the way, South Asian University also organizes a joint celebration of the Independence Days of India and Pakistan. The event is called ‘Jashn-e-Azadi’, and is organized on the midnight of 14th-15th August.
Alongside moments of harmony, we also came across challenges. There were incidents of clashes, stereotyping, and polarization. I remember a clash that happened with regard to the issue of gender equality. The university space was very patriarchal, which is not specific to any country but is the reality of South Asia as a whole. In this space, where one’s community identity mattered a lot, there were people who were critical of any deviation from the culture particularly in terms of gender norms and gender relations. There were also stereotypes about women of certain communities and nationalities. Women responded differently to these accusations. While some were assertive and confronted these views and the people expressing them, some restricted themselves and tried to prove that they were not being deviant.
On the whole, when I think of those two years at South Asian University, I feel I have had some really unique and different experiences. I learnt about how India places itself in the larger South Asian and global politics, and the way Indians are seen by people of other nationalities. This helped me understand my own country better. I remember that, on Independence Day, I was asked to speak about what I like about India. I said that, as a student of South Asian University, I had come to realize that India was extremely diverse culturally, and that diversity made it possible for us to connect to communities and countries across South Asia.
Being on such a diverse campus helped me understand my own culture better, and respect other cultures. We usually tend to find harmony only in similarity. We are conditioned by society to attach a negative connotation to differences. We are told that we will be comfortable with only those who are like us. Studying at South Asian University helped me realise how difference or diversity can be exciting and wonderful. We need not be similar in our language, and other aspects of culture or nationality. We can be different in terms of experiences and worldviews, and that can be an opportunity to learn.
As Bhiku Parekh says, cultural diversity is a vital condition for human freedom because it allows for self-knowledge, self-transcendence and self-criticism. Cultural diversity opens us to new thoughts and perspectives. It also allows people to embrace their culture rather than just accept it.
(The author is currently pursuing her Ph.D. at the Delhi School of Economics, and is the India Convenor of the India-Pakistan peace initiative Aaghaz-e-Dosti. She tweets @devikasmittal)