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The adverts portray it as a potpourri of cultures and ideas. Students from Latvia, Gambia, Nepal and Mali adorn Sharda University’s publicity blitzkrieg that builds it up as a “truly global” institution. “Where are you? The world is here,” we are told. Lofty ideals, but it doesn’t really translate on the ground, as was proved last month when the institute in Greater Noida outside the capital saw smashed windowpanes and Indian and Afghan students in violent clashes. What was supposed to be a dispute over a parking lot turned out to be far worse, unravelling the institute’s publicity spiel overnight. Finally, the police had to be called in to quell the tensions that left eight injured.
Worryingly, it isn’t just at Sharda where tensions along racial lines, probably brewing for long, actually spilt over. In the past year or so, there have been several incidents of violence involving Indian and Afghan or African students. The latter two constitute the largest groups of foreign students in India. Before Sharda, the National Institute of Technology in Rourkela witnessed a fight in February this year between Indian and Afghan students that left five injured. It reportedly started after a group of Indian students ‘evicted’ some Afghans travelling in an autorickshaw because they were looking for one.
There are an estimated 7,000 Afghan and 2,500 African students currently studying in India. In keeping with India’s strategic interests, the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) reserves 675 of its 2,325 scholarships for Afghans and another 500 for Africans. It has also had to intervene in some of these incidents to ensure its wards continue to study peacefully on Indian campuses. ICCR director-general Suresh Kumar Goel, speaking to Outlook, played down the pattern of violence saying a “few stray incidents” should not lead one to draw drastic conclusions. “One or two odd events are in no way indicative of a conflict between any group of students. In fact, it could have occurred between any group, even among Indian students,” he adds.
But that is living in denial; the problem has deeper roots. Lovely Professional University in Jalandhar awarded an honorary doctorate to Afghan president Hamid Karzai last month to raise its international stature and it can ill-afford a repeat of the clash between Indian and African students that left one Indian dead on campus in ’11. Unfortunately, unlike the universal condemnation of ragging on our campuses, hate crimes arising from racism or scant appreciation of foreign cultures isn’t still considered a huge problem.
An Afghan student at Sharda, who wished to remain anonymous, says there’s little intermingling. “We live in different blocks and only meet in the classes, when we are busy with our studies. It seems from the outside as if there is a good relationship but in fact there are real tensions,” he says. Shamim Zakaria, an Indian mass communications student at the same university, adds that the administration has made few attempts to ease the situation. “There was a student orientation programme when we first joined, a basic one where we are told about the course etc. But there’s been no programmes at all where students can get to know each other better. Even the cultural programmes tend to be segregated,” he adds. The ‘international office’ at Sharda didn’t respond to queries from Outlook.
So is it the case that foreign students are being lured into campuses that aren’t multicultural enough to host significant non-Indian populations? Navras Jaat Aafreedi, an assistant professor at Gautam Buddha University in Greater Noida, thinks so. “Leave alone multi-national, our campuses aren’t even national in the true sense. Often they are provincial and casteist to their core,” he says. To dispel some of those biases, Aafreedi organised a dialogue between Indian and Afghan students at Lucknow University in 2008 where everything from the Taliban to a common love for Bollywood was discussed. The campus there too had turned violent the preceding year when Afghans attacked and injured an Indian student.
Prawal Mani Tripathi, who runs the New Delhi-based Learning Academy (a popular coaching institute for Afghans), says they tend to be sensitive when it comes to religion and their identity. “I have regular counselling sessions with them to avoid any flare-ups. Some of the ones who come to India are also from the rich and feudal classes and they can have low tolerance levels.” Sediqullah Sahar, the education attache at the Afghan embassy, says cultural and social interactions have to be maximised on the campus. “I think the more chances Afghan and Indian students have to mix with each other, the better it’ll be for them. They’ll be able to avoid such clashes.” He says separate inquiries are on to ascertain the exact cause of these clashes. Azizuddin Sultani, an MBA student from Bamiyan at Osmani University who’s been studying in India since 2007, says these incidents are just “aberrations”. “As is the case everywhere, it will take some time to get used to each other’s ways.”
But even foreign cultural programmes tend to get ghettoised. “Maybe we should stop using the word ‘foreign’ when it comes to campus festivals because few Indian students show up. They don’t feel invited...they think the fest is only for the foreigners,” says Mbaya Lenbuka Guy Davis, a Congolese student at New Delhi’s School of Planning and Architecture and a representative of the Association of African Students in India. Incidentally, the spats have found voice online too—there’s a lot of chatter and some vitriol too, like posts asking for Afghan students to “be kicked out”. The first “confession”, on the Facebook page of Ravenshaw University former students (the campus has also witnessed violence between Indians and Afghans), expresses regret for beating up an “innocent Afghan guy”.
Meanwhile, the varsities are treading a more cautious path. Galgotias University, also in Greater Noida, has adopted a somewhat cautious international admission policy. “We are not simply going after numbers. We do try to keep the student population as diverse as possible but at the same time are looking for genuinely interested students,” says university pro-vice chancellor Renu Luthra. “For some institutes, cross-cultural management is still difficult to understand. Instead of just handing it to the foreign students, we also have to draw from their cultural diversity,” she adds. Universities setting themselves up as global ideals is an inspiring thought but the real challenge ahead lies in ensuring that students who come here don’t end up feeling ghettoised.
By Debarshi Dasgupta in New Delhi