It was in June 2007 that I joined Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, India, as a student. I had appeared in a three-hour subjective entrance exam held at a local government school while visiting Delhi a couple of months before. There were many other prospective students but I must have been the only Pakistani. I returned to Pakistan soon afterwards, and was thrilled to learn some time later that I had passed, and had gained admission to the Social Sciences Department at JNU to pursue my Masters in Sociology.
The website for the Indian High Commission in Pakistan had details on how to apply for a student visa. This was immensely helpful, as I did not know of anyone else who had previously studied in India. I was called for a visa interview a couple of weeks after applying, and was given a one-year double-entry student visa. This meant that I would have to apply for a visa again after a year and that I could travel to and from India twice in the designated year. The visa was valid for Delhi only.
I was aware of some of the visa restrictions because I had travelled to India previously, but on visit visas. This was different. It did not bother me much as I did not encounter any issues obtaining the student visa. I was finally on my way to JNU. It was a surreal feeling given the fact that I was from Pakistan and was about to begin a two-year Masters course at a university in India. I had some apprehensions about how things would unfold but it turned out to be a wonderful experience. Given the opportunity I would do it all over again. The two years went by as quickly as they had begun.
I had travelled to India several times before, to visit family friends or with my parents when they went to conferences and seminars. But this would be my first time living there and was bound to be a bit different. I would be dealing with everyday life in India. The India I had seen and experienced earlier was through the warmth of our various hosts. This time it would be through my own direct experiences.
My classes started in August. I remember the first time I met my classmates. Most were surprised and curious to find a Pakistani amongst them. The one question that I was asked quite frequently was, why did I choose to study in India? The answer was that I had heard about JNU and about its rich academic history from our family friends in India. I had visited the University with my father, while considering the option of studying there. We had family friends from Afghanistan who were professors teaching Pashto and Farsi at JNU's School of Language, Literature and Culture. They had been very helpful in providing further details about the university and answering our questions.
It was a novelty for my classmates to interact with someone from across the border. They took the liberty of satisfying their curiosity about life in Pakistan and about the 'Real Pakistan', which is generally not how it is depicted in Indian films and by the Indian media. While they asked me about Pakistan, I learnt about India and its rich multi-faceted social, cultural, religious and political ethos.
My teachers at JNU were very supportive. They encouraged me every step of the way and never treated me any differently for being a Pakistani. On the contrary, I was always treated as just another student expected to do his best while going through the various components of the Masters Program. The course was completed over four semesters, two per year. Each year, we had to go through a process of registration, and had to give exams, written assignments, and in-class presentations.
JNU has quite a beautiful, expansive campus, with its own football stadium, gymnasium, and an open-air theatre situated right next to the Parthasarathy Rocks (the highest natural point of Delhi). It also has its own little bazaar with restaurants and shops offering subsidised rates to students. There is a vibrant political atmosphere, with most major Indian political parties represented by their student wings.
I experienced this vibrancy during the annual student union elections when the entire campus comes alive with public meetings and debates followed by the elections. Campaigning starts a couple of weeks before the elections and is a rigorous affair for everyone involved. Posters fill the walls around the campus. Hostels, dhabas, classrooms are full of hopeful candidates who don't miss on a single opportunity to get their message to their voters.
The best part of the campaigns that I enjoyed most, were the General Body Meetings (GBMs). The candidates delivered speeches about what they would do if elected. They talked about issues that students faced on a daily basis inside campus, as well as the state of affairs India was going through at the time and would make sure to refer to their parent parties and their work on a national and international scale. It was quite something to witness student politics function with such liberty, so different from Pakistan where student unions are still banned in colleges and universities.
Along with all of this, different departments organised talks and seminars with speakers from not only India but also other countries.
Another thing that stood out for me was the dominance of the leftist political spectrum in JNU. Although as I mentioned, most major political parties had student wings at the university, it was the student wings of the various factions of the Communist parties in India that dominated student politics in JNU. Groups of students gathered around in the host of dhabas around campus, drinking tea, discussing the prevalent socio-political scenarios of India within the context of their political affiliations, which added to the character of JNU.
I was a part of such discussions many times and it helped me in sharing information about Pakistan. I never witnessed any physical brawls amongst the opposing student bodies. It was quite the learning experience.
One of JNU's most loved Dhabas is the 24/7 Dhaba, famous for its Paneer Bhujia that happened to be my favourite. It was called 24/7 because the it was literally open twenty hours a day, seven days a week! Another one of the most interesting Dhabas was Mamu's Dhaba run by Shehzad Ibrahimi, who had completed his PHD in Urdu from JNU. His colorful and charming personality made his dhaba one of the preferred spots for many students.
I lived in the on-campus Chandrabhaga Hostel along with other Indian students, as well as students from all over the world including Afghanistan. It was quite an experience and a good one at that. From dining together to celebrating some of the wonderful Hindu, Muslim, Christian festivals made the entire experience of living on-campus well worth it.
I never faced any problems or issues for being from Pakistan. If anything, at times, I too forgot that I was in a different country. I learnt so much about some of the exciting and colourful festivals celebrated in India, especially through the cultural nights hosted by all sixteen hostels of JNU towards the end of the academic year. The University also hosted an annual Food Festival and especially encouraged foreign students to participate. It makes for a very celebrated event as students invite their families and friends and everyone gets to experience exquisite cuisines from different areas and countries.
There are students from all over India at JNU, which made it easier for someone like me to not only learn more about different regions but also to experience the varied cultural dimensions that make India the nation that it is because of the multiple ethnicities, religious denominations, social and political viewpoints.
By the time my Masters program ended in 2009, I had made many wonderful friends from around India with whom I had some wonderful times. Some wonderful memories that remain with me include: tea at dhabas, going to watch a films, studying for exams together, going on long walks on the ring road inside JNU, hiking through the trail of caves (JNU has a wonderful trail for hiking full of mysterious caves), helping each other with assignments at the last minute. And also occasionally bunking classes to enjoy a bread omelette (a speciality of the canteen at our Department).
We keep in touch through email and phone. Some of my friends continued with their academic pursuits and are still based in Delhi and I try to visit them whenever I can. What I cherish the most about these friendships is that whenever we are together, we never feel like we are from two different countries. I hope that with time, travel between our countries becomes less complicated and that my friends will be able to visit me in Pakistan too.
Student exchanges between India and Pakistan are very rare. There are no official mechanisms in place to facilitate such exchanges. Based on my own personal experience, I feel that it would benefit both the countries greatly if such exchanges were initiated and encouraged. It would definitely help to destroy some preconceived notions that exist on both sides of the border. Our countries share more than a border and we need to base our relations on our commonalities.
The writer is based in Islamabad and works with Awami National Party.