Photo Courtesy: Astrid
On January 9th and 10th, Adityajit, Louise, Rohan, Sara M. and I attended the Harvard US-India Initiative (HUII) Conference. What I had thought of as a distant dream when we first got our confirmation mails back in October was suddenly happening right after winter break. The first Thursday in the new year, we packed our suitcases and headed for the unknown: a four day stay in Delhi.
In short, the conference is an annual event arranged by an undergraduate student organisation at Harvard. This student group includes Indians who have gone to study abroad and wish to use the conference as an opportunity to “give back” to their home country. Embracing the vast topic named Indian Development, this umbrella theme was examined in the conference through educational, social, cultural, economic and political lenses. As an audience, we were able to engage with these issues by listening to the various panel discussions and throwing questions at the panelists. The conference was structured in a way that allowed room for attending two general keynote sessions and three panel discussions of your choice every day. With members of parliament as speakers and professors and experts as panelists, we were guided through sessions ranging from “Words Will Never Hurt Me,” discussing censorship to “No Smartboards versus No Students,” dealing with the quality gap in the current education system.
In addition to our formal programme in the capital, we were free to spend Sunday in Delhi City as our return flight was not scheduled before early Monday morning. I believe all of us were particularly in favour of this idea of leisure! Within the hours we got to spend in Delhi, we visited the Humayun’s Tomb, the Baha’i Lotus Temple and Khan Market, and by the end of the day several street food stalls had also gotten new international customers.
For me personally, looking back on the weekend as a whole, what especially strikes me is how this very ambitious conference was initiated and organised by “just a group of students,” having both parallel engagements and rigorous studies. I believe this well exemplifies the power of the will, probably in addition to the advantage of having a highly prestigious university name to refer to.
On a more critical note, I noticed that although the presenters succeeded in praising critical thinking as a constructive tool, they partly failed to use it themselves. Even though we were “only high-school students,” we felt the need to question the rhetoric presented by the speakers on several occasions. The panegyrical presentation of Piyush Goyal, the current state minister, emphasised the efforts of BJP to bring joy to the people. The presentation, however, reminded one of election speeches and party propaganda rather than collective, party-independent efforts towards positive change. Another highly questionable rhetoric that was commonly used was the supposedly clear-cut divide between “rural and urban India,” that seemed to be inherent in many participants’ views of the country. May be not too surprising, taking our sophisticated venue into consideration – a giant hall decorated in chandeliers and carpets. In fact, the setting quite complemented the participants who themselves come from extremely privileged backgrounds. Yet as we spoke about this socio-economic divide, it was quite apparent how the gathering itself was extremely unrepresentative of the country as a whole. Had we become completely oblivious to the reality, or were we just comfortable telling half-truths?
If that was so, the remaining Sunday in the streets of Delhi was increasingly more important. There, we could get a fair representation of the diversity we claimed to have talked about in the preceding days. There, we could regain our sight, our ability to distinguish between shades and nuances. There, we could experience India instead of listening to the half-truths that experts of their fields and highly privileged students had formerly expressed as truths. It was our partly UWC-influenced understanding of reality that eventually found its resonance outside the Shangri La’s ballroom.
Photo Courtesy: Astrid
– Astrid Wik Hallaraker (Norway)
Class of 2016