At South Asian University, India Finds it Takes Hard Work to Exercise Soft Power

The university may have broken its convocation 'jinx' but issues regarding its functioning – visas for students and campus construction – continue to plague the institution.

Credit: Facebook

Nepal’s foreign minister Kamal Thapa, Indian minister of state for external affairs V.K. Singh and other dignitaries at South Asian University’s first convocation ceremony. Credit: Facebook

New Delhi: Almost a decade after Manmohan Singh first mooted the concept in Dhaka, the South Asian University (SAU) held its first convocation in the cavernous hall of Delhi’s Vigyan Bhawan – an old favourite venue for staid government commemorations.

The university – “a centre of excellence” – was part of a slew of proposals made by Singh when he was prime minister to demonstrate India’s commitment to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, or SAARC, especially to assuage concerns after New Delhi postponed the 2005 summit for eight months due to annoyance with the government  of Khaleda Zia that was in power in Bangladesh.

Six years after its doors opened, the university is still largely a work in progress – the construction of a new campus finally began in May this year after delays over land and statutory approvals, and visa troubles for students and faculty continue to crop up intermittently.

But on the morning of June 11, the excited babble of rows of students wearing black gowns and yellow silk scarves raised some hopes that the institution may finally be finding its feet.

Wearing purple and velvet robes and caps lined with golden brocade, Nepal’s foreign minister Kamal Thapa and minister of state for external affairs V.K. Singh, walked at a stately pace to a flower-bedecked dais. Over the next hour, Thapa gave away nearly 350 masters’ degrees.

Standing amidst the 30-odd gold medalists was 27-year-old Amit Kumar Shukla, now a computer science Ph.D scholar who was part of the first MSc computer science batch in 2011. His first day at SAU is clearly etched in his memory, he says. “We went to the rooms, but they were still being prepared. We went to a common room and waited and met some others. Then, I met others. The second person was from Bangladesh. He was first Muslim person that I ever met,” he said. “See I am from a small town, Kapurthala and in Delhi I studied in an off-campus DU college, which cuts you off from the mainstream, so I was limited a bit,” Shukla said sheepishly. His batch had eight Indian students, eight Afghanis, two Bangladeshis, and one student each from Sri Lanka and Nepal.

The first international university of its kind in India, classes were held in rooms at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s school of languages, literature and culture studies, with hostel accommodation provided at Hotel Centaur on the road to Delhi airport. The university soon moved in entirety to Akbar Bhavan in central Delhi, the 10-storey. one-time five-star hotel constructed for the 1982 Asian Games that was made over to the Union government several years ago. At Akbar Bhavan, the SAU sharing space with the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs.

Visa troubles

The foreign ministry is the coordinating body for two educational institutions – SAU and Nalanda University. New educational institutions with an international flavour are thought to act as magnets for foreign students and teachers, and multipliers for India’s soft power. At least that was the theory. The hard reality of institution-building soon disabused officials and scholars of the notion of an easy pay-off.

The university had just a month to prepare for the convocation. One of the biggest impediments was to arrange for visas for the foreign students and their families, especially those from Pakistan. In the end, despite plenty of toing-and-froing between the university and foreign ministry, the visas arrived on time.

But for students like Subhash Sagar from Pakistan and Ashraf Uddin from Bangladesh, the visa troubles transcend the convocation and has impacted their studies; standing in line at regular renewals at the Foreigner Regional Registration Offices was not part of their initial plans.

Sagar had been promised a university visa, which was meant to be valid for the entire period of study, as well as allow him to travel all over India, enter and exit from any airport, and report to the police only once, after the first fortnight’s stay. “That was changed. We found our visas were only valid for Delhi and Gurgaon, and to one entry and exit. Also, it had [to be] renewed every year,” he said.

Similarly, Ashraf Uddin has been awaiting his visa renewal for the last two months. “My visa validity has ended, but I have been told that if I show my submission slip, then I won’t have any problem,” he told The Wire. He received a gold medal for his masters and is currently pursuing a doctorate with the university.

“This is a very serious problem,” said university vice president Sasanka Perera, the well-known sociologist from Sri Lanka. The agreement for SAU had resolved the terms of the special visa, which were issued to the first few batches. “Lately in the past two years, we see that the SAU visa is not necessarily issued. Instead, students get general education visa or even SAU visas for just six months,” Perera said

This has not just impacted students who have to worry about their visa renewals, but also affects teaching. “Students who come from Pakistan are getting only city-specific visas. Particularly, for people like me, we take them to other parts of the country for training in sociology. If I can’t take two of my Pakistani students with me, I can’t take my entire class,” he added.

SAU president Kavita Sharma said that there had been “ups and downs” over the visa issue, adding that the foreign ministry had now appointed a full-time liaison officer. She pointed out that obtaining all the visas for the convocation had been a herculean effort for which “everybody worked very hard”.

Inevitably, some of SAU’s unique challenges are a consequence of the volatile political situation in the region. The first convocation was to be held in 2012, but it could not take place as the then chair of SAARC and the visitor to the university, Maldives, was coping with the aftermath of the ‘resignation’ of President Mohamed Nasheed.

The following year, there was apparently a protocol wrangle. A foreign head of state’s travel required a ‘state visit’ tag – which necessitated his Indian counterpart to be also present during the trip. “The president was not available in Delhi during those dates, so there could not be a state visit. So, no convocation,” an SAU official said. The continuing instability in the Maldives apparently did not allow for the consideration of another visit for the remainder of its term as SAARC chair.

In 2015, the convocation date was set for June 11. “We were looking forward to have Nepal Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, but there was a lot of political upheaval there over the constitution. So, it got postponed again,” the university official said.

That “jinx” was finally broken this year – much to the relief of university officials.

Operational costs, and a permanent campus

Among the eight member states, Pakistan has still not made an annual contribution towards the operational cost of the university. As per the agreed formula, Pakistan was to bear 11.83% of the operational cost, the second highest after India’s 51.8%. In 2014, the dues from Pakistan stood at Rs 7.8 crore.

In the past five years, India has spent Rs 291 crore on the university – Rs 139.53 towards recurring costs and Rs 152.47 crore for capital expenditure, which the country has promised to bear in totality.

Regional geo-politics also almost had an impact on the start of the construction of the university building. Nepal’s first woman president, Bidhya Devi Bhandari, was to have inaugurated the construction, but the visit was cancelled at the last moment by an angry K.P. Oli government blaming India for being behind a move to remove him.

It was the latest in the long line of troubles for SAU’s campus construction, which should have begun in 2013.

Although the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) handed over a 100 acre plot of shrubland and thorny trees in south Delhi’s Maidan Garhi, it turns out the DDA did not give the university a clean slate for construction. There are at least three separate litigations over portions of the plot, on which the Delhi high court put a stay. It so happens that the Delhi ridge also intrudes onto the plot.

“The political will in India for supporting the project is strong. Problem was that we were getting bogged down in the day-to-day engagement with the local bureaucracy. If Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi says something very positive in Kathmandu, that doesn’t get translated into the way that Delhi-based bureaucrats work,” said Perara.

Meanwhile, every month of delay cost at least Rs 1.5 crore, which goes towards the rent for the eight floors leased in Akbar Bhavan.

The environmental clearance for construction came in last year, on the very same day that foreign minister Sushma Swaraj ‘broke’ ground and laid the foundation stone, with a bricked fence quickly raised.

“I started with a boundary wall to break the jinx. Because some jinxes have to be broken, otherwise some things don’t move,” said Sharma.

The first five buildings should be up in two-and-half years, which will house the departments of life sciences and earth sciences. “In another few months, we should be ready to construct the next seven buildings,” she adds.

Meanwhile, the expansion of academic programmes and increasing student intake has been stalled until the construction of the permanent campus is finished, as space at Akbar Bhavan is already cramped.

Boosting regional consciousness

One of the objectives of creating the university was to strengthen “regional consciousness”. This was also echoed when Swaraj talked about forging a “sense of South Asian consciousness”.

The university policy is to have multiple nationalities bunk together in a hostel room. Half the student population is made up of Indians, with a large number of Afghans, Bangladeshis and Nepalese. Pakistani students number around 20, with even fewer applicants from Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka.

The faculty could, perhaps, be more diverse – currently, around 50 out of the 56 university teaching staff are from India. But, the administrative workforce is more well-represented from the region.

Independence day celebrations for Pakistan and India are held together. “We begin our function at 10 p.m. on [August] 14, so that we start with Pakistani independence day and then after midnight, it will be Indian independence”.

Every week, all students have to attend a multi-disciplinary lecture on South Asia, which tackles topics ranging from economic challenges to tribal rights.

It has certainly been educational for most students, who arrive with their own mental sketches of their neighbours.

When he first came to SAU from Bangladesh, Ashraf Uddin’s top worry was food. “I was not sure that north Indian food would be edible,” he said. His batchmate, Sunil Kumar Jha fretted over whether he would find any common ground with classmates from Afghanistan. “My imagination was only shaped by TV, which showed Afghans in a certain way,” Jha said, making a gesture to depict flowing robes and luxuriant beards. “Then, I met them here. They are like Hollywood heroes”.

To his surprise, Jalal Shams from Kabul found that he got along extremely well with a Sri Lankan student. “We would talk for hours about war, civil war. How our country’s immediate neighbour work against us… What Sri Lanka faced 10-15 years ago, we are now going through the same thing,” he said.

An identity still in the making

A few years before Singh proposed starting SAU, Perera had been part of the group of South Asian intellectuals like Kanak Mani Dixit and Ashis Nandy who were discussing the concept of a pan-regional educational institution.

Having been associated with SAU from the beginning, Perera is not totally convinced that a South Asian identity has evolved among students as a result of their varsity experience.

“I hear a certain rhetoric. But I am a sociologist, so I am suspicious,” he told The Wire.

“When we organised a festival on Faiz, some students, about three-four, came and said why do you want to hold an event about a Pakistani poet. He is not really a Pakistan poet. He is a regional poet. It shows that just because we build a university, it doesn’t mean that the rhetoric and disruptions of nation states will dissolve overnight. This is what people think on the street,” he said.

Sharma remarked that “consciousness is a big word”. “But you can see it here,” she said with a wave of hand at the chattering, robed young men and women capturing their day with group selfies.  “First convocation and over 300 students came today. Obviously, this is an endorsement that they had a meaningful time here”.

She is rather concerned if there is space for institutional renewal within the university that brings a certain level of academic vibrancy. “Any good university should [have] a constant conversation on its curriculum, pedagogy. These are conversations that happen much more frequently in the western part of the world, rather than here… If I am alive 20 years down the road and this university is still holding these conversations. I will be the happiest person.”