I, too, was a Pakistani student in India

Published: May 22, 2014

The writer is a graduate in Political Studies and Philosophy from Bard College, New York. He is a sub-editor at The Express Tribune Labs and tweets at @saimsaeed847

Details surrounding the attack on Ali Hasan Raza, the sole Pakistani studying at Pondicherry University, are sparse. The attackers have not been identified; the motive too is still unclear, although the underlying India-Pakistan conflict is, of course, widely suspected. The Pakistani High Commission has protested against the attack at the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, and Raza is already back. (Whether this was because of the completion of his studies or the attack itself is also a puzzle.)

Despite the paucity of facts, what is certain is that the attack is a tragedy; and if Pakistani and Indian diplomats do not manage to put it behind them, they risk repeating such incidents as yet another farce in the adolescent tit-for-tat that passes for India-Pakistan diplomacy these days.

My own life, like Raza’s, had been irreversibly transformed because of the handful of student visas to Pakistanis the Indian government issued. I got mine way back when ‘making borders irrelevant’ was the thing to do. Back then, the dialogue was composite, the measures built confidence, and there was talk of a culinary journey across the GT Road, with breakfast in Amritsar, and dinner in Kabul. (Manmohan Singh probably wasn’t aware that the Food Street in Lahore wasn’t open for lunch.)

Within that little window, I managed to get a scholarship to a residential high school in rural Maharashtra. It wasn’t easy. I only managed to get the visa upon asking for the second time, and only after pulling some strings, and only for the little village I was to study in. Life wasn’t made any easier after I was ensconced in village Khubavali. I made numerous trips to multiple police stations — trips I would seriously like to forget — where I encountered hostile, venal, and overweight policemen. Money changers refused to change my money; hotels refused to give me a room.

But despite the difficulty and the occasional hostility, I have never had a better, more fulfilling experience in my life. Sadly, I only speak for expat Indians and Pakistanis when I allude to the simple joy of watching the T20 World Cup final together in a packed room. That joy even overcame the horror at Misbah’s ill-timed scoop. At the end of the match, I exchanged cricket jerseys with a cook from the cafeteria; that jersey is still in my possession.

These are, of course, the symbolic instances of ‘togetherness’ — ceremonial, sugar-coated and temporal. The real impact was in how overlapping, yet contradictory identities of nationhood, religion and ethnicity developed and manifested in me — and in Raza no doubt — over time. The irony of talking about Pakistani Dilliwallahs to Punjabi ‘refugee’ Delhiites was not lost upon me. Nor was the irony of reading Indian history in India. Or being obliged to stand up for the Indian national anthem in the cinemas of Pune, complete with images of the Indian military posted on Siachen.

My interest in engineering (by default) was quite emphatically thrown off kilter, and drifted indignantly towards tackling international conflict, more specifically, India-Pakistan conflict. The friendships I developed persist; and they go beyond the antiquated nationalist narrative both countries espouse. They go beyond ‘let’s accept our differences’ to ‘we’re tired of accepting differences our governments are telling us we have’.

But things got worse after the Mumbai attacks. I watched helplessly with other students as the television vacillated from showing the Taj in flames to mindlessly showing the commandos moving in to fight the militants. My principal wouldn’t let me leave campus for weeks. The mood got sour, the visa regimes got stricter, and Pakistani students in India remained at the dismally low number as they had.

This latest attack threatens to do the same. Student exchanges must not stop because of three unidentified attackers. The wounds from a shuttered mutual student visa regime will last far longer than those on Raza’s back. It would mean that my time there — and Raza’s — would be further relegated to ancient history, never to repeat itself, violently removed from the nuclear-armed, glacier-contesting reality that both governments seem to prefer.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 22nd, 2014.

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Reader Comments (25)

  • whats in the name
    May 22, 2014 - 12:35AM

    One swallow does not make a summer. Be it for you or the student who was beaten…. there are in between situations and the extremes.
    Rgds

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  • Rao Amjad Ali
    May 22, 2014 - 12:50AM

    Yes, they must not stop. India is a big country and incidents of one sort or another are likely to occur all the time.

    My curiosity was piqued by the fact that how good Raza looked on his return. Apparently, the Indian doctors really knew what they were doing, no?

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  • GS@Y
    May 22, 2014 - 1:32AM

    I am sick of vacillating between India-Pakistan write-ups that are either so saccharine they make me vomit, or so bitter that they make me vomit. Yes, Indians and Pakistanis should generalize or overreact, yes the two states have official narrative aka propaganda that’s fed to the public, and yes there’re resources and synergies to tap in each other’s countries. Now can we get to solving Pakistan’s problems instead of wasting our collective energies on reading this (sadly rather grizzled looking) writer reminisce about how some trip to India was a “better, more fulfilling experience” than all the other ones in his (what must have been a long) life? It’ll be a while before India gets past the shooting-itself-in-the-foot it just carried out anyways.

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  • Pakistani
    May 22, 2014 - 2:27AM

    One question for the author: if such incident like the one with raza would have happened to an indian student in pakistan, then do you think fellow Indians from across the border would have had forgotten it for the sake of Pakistan-India friendship?

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  • Manmohan
    May 22, 2014 - 2:45AM

    Fail to see how the author saw his experience as positive. The only interaction he seems to have indicate Indians were repulsed by him simply because he was a Pakistani. Doesn’t seem like his presence changed their minds. I’m all for dialogue. But maybe we should admit that there is a growing intolerance in India.

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  • a_writer
    May 22, 2014 - 3:35AM

    Mr.Saeed:

    From your article, I gather your overall experience in India unpleasant except for few bright spots here and there.In spite of that, you still want student exchanges to continue ! Do you really want students from both countries go through the indignities of having to deal with ‘venal overweight and hostile’ policemen? As for the few bright spots of interacting with expats – isn’t it more preferable to do that in some foreign neutral country like UK, North America or even the Gulf nations?

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  • Polpot
    May 22, 2014 - 6:30AM

    “I, too, was a Pakistani student in India”
    +++++++++++++++++++++++++
    And lived to tell the tale.

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  • Indian
    May 22, 2014 - 10:05AM

    To my Pakistani brothers and sisters, please don’t come to our country. We don’t want you here. If you want to learn about India, then watch our soaps and Bollywood.

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  • Pakistani
    May 22, 2014 - 10:29AM

    @Indian:
    You my Indian friend and my other friends from across the border, kindly do not waste your time and ours by visiting Pakistani sites and making nasty remarks about our country. Kindly learn to remain happy in your territories.

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  • SpareUs
    May 22, 2014 - 10:31AM

    Excerpts from the article / comments:
    1. “…being obliged to stand up for the Indian national anthem”
    2. “Student exchanges must not stop”
    3. “if such incident like the one with raza would have happened to an indian student in pakistan,”
    4. “you still want student exchanges to continue?”

    My thoughts on them:
    1. If you don’t like being coerced into standing up for the national anthem of a nation you are staying at because it grates against your own nationalism, how about not getting coerced into getting ‘exchanged’ to that hareef mulk in the first place.
    2. And just while we are at it, how many Indian students have been thus ‘exchanged’, may I inquire?
    3. Both proponents and opponents of this dubious students’ exchange seem to consider it a great munificence bestowed upon India by Pakistan, while debating whether India should continue to be thus favoured with this generosity.
    4. May I humbly request of these ponderous gentlemen to spare us their largess. India is a skinflint poor, third-world nation, with perhaps its dignity the only permanent asset at its command, and I suspect it’s educational infrastructure will somehow get by without your patronage, thank you.

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  • Rahul
    May 22, 2014 - 10:54AM

    Well he went to maharastra the only state were people don’t like your country. Attitude towards your people may differ but some people have their prejudice there. Mumbai attack fanned it to huge extent now people view you as facilitators of terror coming here hidden in civilian carb.
    But rest states including Tamil tadu Pondicherry city don’t hold any grudge and are in fact warm to Pakistanis. They don’t remove their anger towards your estab/govt/non state actors on the pk Civilians. So attack on raza was hundred percent not because he was pakistani specially in place like Tamil tadu. The attacks on campus was going on since a month. The college students were being targeted,the juniors complained unidentified men doing mischief,hitting targeting them, some even broke to women hostel the administrators ignored their complains and let students be harassed. It was only when the student turned out to be an international student a pakistani they woke up what mess they had created after media expose of ignoring students plea for months of students harassment on campus

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  • pnpuri
    May 22, 2014 - 12:08PM

    my daughter studied in University of Bradford in 2007-2009. in june 2009. I and wife visited my daughter who was at that time staying in London. we went to Bradford for 2 days and stayed with her Muslim Classmates. It was an experience. we spoke same lingo (Punjabi ). but what we would always remember is that they did not cook Non vegetarian food for two days because my wife was vegetarian. similarly while traveling in Taxi, the drivers who were from Pakistan were friendly and there was no feeling of rancor. the Indians/ Pakistanis who have good experience are many more than those with bad one. but only bad experiences get reported. certain basic etiquette are expected. probably not standing while National anthem id being sung in UK or USA will be frowned upon. i expect even Indians visiting Pakistan to do the same

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  • Mega
    May 22, 2014 - 12:34PM

    @pakistani maybe when you stop posting wrong articles about india related to us we will. On second note also tell your pakistani brethren not to post on indian newspapers which they comment freely daily as comments there are not moderated. Then it’s even.

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  • Lalit
    May 22, 2014 - 12:50PM

    much needs to be done on both the sides before sensitive issues like students exchanges can be taken up.Recommend

  • Gratgy
    May 22, 2014 - 1:03PM

    Students getting into fights is a common issue in every college, only in Pakistan it becomes a national issue

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  • Murthy
    May 22, 2014 - 3:12PM

    @Pakistani Dear friend, I am an Indian and I too do not like the slanging game that takes place in the comment boxes. I avoid commenting unnecessarily and negatively on Pakistani affairs. Sometimes, when articles regarding India where facts have been twisted or misreported, I feel constrained to express my views. In ET itself there were two articles last week on the election of Mr Modi. While one deviated from facts I wrote a comment pointing them out and while the other was factual and reasonable I wrote an appreciative comment. I read the Pakistani papers on the net just to know how things are there and how India is viewed. I do it with an open mind and sometimes, immature comments of readers (on either side of the border), even irrelevant to the subject of comment make me sick.

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  • Parvez
    May 22, 2014 - 3:17PM

    @Indian: I wonder how many true Indians must be quite embarassed by your remark…….I would think quite a few.

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  • Pakistani reader
    May 22, 2014 - 5:24PM

    @Murthy:
    Sir, commentators like you, and especially from across the border are extremely rare. Thank you for your sane and sensible views.

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  • Mehul
    May 22, 2014 - 7:01PM

    @author “being obliged to stand up for a national anthem”
    Your are viewing it the wrong way, whole theatre stands to show respect and reverence to their country and when one sits you show disrespect and rude to the host country whether you are national or foreigner. If I wear in Pakistan and same happens with me I would stand in theatre too not because I believe in what you believe. But to show respect to what my fellow friends believe and not hurt their feelings being impolite, inconsiderate by sitting eating popcorn being ignorant.
    Once I was lax too when I went for a movie a Muslim family was next to me dad, son and wife. The child was sitting when anthem was on and eating wafer and me too. He slapped his son so hard behind the head to stand, I got shocked and stood too. I just realised something that day onwards at their behaviour I noticed we seculars and other community still lax and let go here and there but indian Muslims without doubt are most touchy,sensitive and nationalistic when it comes to india than any others.

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  • Rakib
    May 22, 2014 - 7:04PM

    @Murthy: Bravo!!

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  • gp65
    May 22, 2014 - 9:04PM

    @Parvez:
    @Indian’s comment – the way it was worded was undoubtedly impolite. But comments such as ““being obliged to stand up for a national anthem”” definitely rub people the wrong way. I too stand up for the US national anthem, given that I have chosen to live in USA and I do not think this is an unreasonable expectation. The author somehow makes it appear as though by allowing Pakistani students to go to India, it is a huge favor to India and that despite the poor treatment that Pakistani students get in India, Pakistan should be magnanimous and continue the patronage of Indian educational institutions. The pompous attitude grates.

    Even the other incident – of attack on the Pakistani boy was just flat out wrong. No reasonable Indian would support such behavior. But the reality is that all his fellow students supported him, the police came to investigate right away and the Governor too met him. I hope the culprits wil be brought to book. But, there is no evidence that the attack was on account of his nationality given that he had lived in India for 2 years without discrimnation. Fights do happen on college campuses – as unfortunate as they are. Violence must be dealt with strictly regardless of the identity of the victim. But why make them into an India-Pakistan issue unless there is a pattern of attacks based on nationality that is discernible?Recommend

  • Sam
    May 22, 2014 - 10:46PM

    I have always admired ET for its simple and elegant news website, probably the best online. I enjoy reading articles and opinions as it gives me an understanding of triumph and tears of a developing nation just like mine. We are now 65 years old as nations, its about time we mature as a two responsible neighbors and treat each other with respect. I hope Mr. Sharif and Mr. Modi spearhead our nations development agendas and not play into petty politics of hate mongering.

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  • Vipul (An Indian with Pakistani Roomies)
    May 24, 2014 - 1:00PM

    In my long years studying in Canada and working in Silicon Valley, USA, I counted Pakistanis among my best friends – Not because I was consciously out to collect cross-border friendships so I could wax eloquent on forums like this (I wasn’t) but because these men and women I met were among the warmest, most gargantuan-hearted individuals that ANYONE would have been forced to be fond of.
    There was the this guy who lent me his shoes for my first job interview in Canada (A Pakistan Army veteran). There was the foodie roomie who helped me discover the eateries around our University town (A Lahori). There was the workaholic genius who was my Masters degree project partner (An Islamabad lady). And there was the couple that were my closest friends and constant companions for many a dinner-and-movie nights (Proud Karachi exports). And then there were the numerous buddies with their rugged good looks who never had any difficulties attracting girl friends and I’ll admit, always made me jealous (Yep – Pakistanis all).
    I have a theory – The ones that spew the most cross-border venom (including the very embarrassing “Indian” above”) are the ones least likely to have actually met someone from the other side (and by that I mean, REALLY got to know them). In the words of the Dalai Lama, “We are not so different, you and I”… if only you’d take the time and effort to find that out for yourself. My top concerns in life are roti, kapdaa and makaan, just like you.
    I live in Bangalore, India and you can count me in the pro-Pakistan tribe here – And I’m not alone, I assure you. I hope our kind can make a difference to the juvenile way our governments have managed our relationship. India has a lot to offer and I hope to see a lot more Pakistani students and professionals here.

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  • Aditi Patwardhan
    Jun 25, 2014 - 3:30PM

    @Pakistani:
    we welcome our Pakistani brothers and sisters here! We’ll welcome you with open arms. The attacks do not speak about the Indian mindset, and vice versa for Pakistani mindset. People in general here and there are very good and peace loving.

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  • Aditi Patwardhan
    Jun 25, 2014 - 3:38PM

    @Vipul (An Indian with Pakistani Roomies):
    I agree with you Vipul, and tes, you are NOT alone. The “Indian” who has commented shamelessly looks like he’s never met a Pakistani. I have Pakistani friends and very very distant relatives living in Karachi. We Indians, in general, do have a soft corner for Pakistanis, I hope it is true the other way round too!! I’ll explain- Indians would behave well with British or Americans who are new to India, but we will treat you Pakistanis as our family, and make sure you are utmost confortable here.

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