Reflections on India trip for security course

by Lauren Wilcock – Early this month I was very fortunate to have been able to go on a 10 day trip to New Delhi, India with the University of Birmingham to participate in an intensive module on Security and Development in South Asia. Three universities participated in the module; University of Birmingham (UoB), University of Melbourne and University of Delhi. This meant there was students from all three universities but with a total of at least 10 different countries covered in the students’ backgrounds. In addition, the lectures were held by lecturers from each university with their own individual backgrounds and interests.

The trip seemed to creep up on me all of a sudden, I think due to workload and assignment deadlines making it still seem far away. Suddenly the trip was here; I was heading home from work, packing, all the UoB students were at my house to all meet as one group for the first time, and getting ready to go. Before I knew it I was at the airport and realised I hadn’t really thought much about what I expected this trip to be like. Having never been to any of Asia, let alone India, before I didn’t really know what to expect or what New Delhi would be like. As a fan of movies, I was happy to see ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ under the film options on the plane and, although a Hollywood movie, I hoped it would prepare me slightly for what to expect.  (side note: I also enjoyed trying to work out which English character I would be most like once I arrived in India. Desperately hoping it would be more Dame Judy Dench’s character who throws herself into Indian culture rather than Penelope Wilson’s character who basically moans a lot and doesn’t leave the hotel).

We were lucky enough to have almost two weekends, the weekends before and after the lectures, in order to look around, sight see and be touristy. On our first day we managed to hire some auto-rickshaw for the afternoon who took us to some sights, like the Lotus Temple and India Gate. On the second day we went on a half day city tour visiting a number of site including Humayuns Tomb. After these visits I quickly became aware of the number of religions living side by side in India. Members of other religions would visit monuments/ temples etc. of those belonging to other religions, while the temples and monuments drew inspirations from the other religions they had encountered. I am not saying this does not cause issues in India and as I am not and I am by no means an expert on these matters, however I was quite inspired by the little that I saw.

I absolutely loved the hustle and bustle of New Delhi and my new favourite mode of transport is definitely auto rickshaws. Yet, New Delhi is clearly a capital city with a lot of development going on inside it. I do wish I had more time to go exploring some more of India outside of the city to see the difference. We did head out of the city to visit the Taj Mahal and although the rest of my colleagues in my car were asleep as we had to leave very early, I was so happy I stayed awake to see a snapshot of life outside Delhi.

Snoozing Colleagues

Snoozing Colleagues

On the nice new highway we went past many farms and brickmaking areas where people were starting their days and already working away. Lives and livelihood here was very different from that in the city and it was nice to catch a glimpse of this. Upon arriving in Agra I realised this was more of what I had expected a city in India to be like, I’ll try my best to explain. It was ‘less developed’ that New Delhi, with a more animals like cows etc. around and used for transport, IMG_4035and the shops were more like stall and stands rather than actual shop buildings as in Delhi. As stated I have never been to Asia so I found what I saw was extremely different to anywhere I had been before, yet at the same time I also felt a strange type of familiarity.

After visiting the Taj Mahal, our cars and tour guides took us to a place for lunch. This place was clearly the typical spot for white tourists to go have food, needless to say it was the most expensive food we had in India. There were snake charmers out the front alongside hawkers and upon entering a child was dressed up in traditional dress and dancing. This made a lot of the group members rather uncomfortable as we hadn’t been overly touristy until this point (or at least as far as we were aware). My fellow colleagues had a discussion surrounding the child dancing at the entrance and, assuming the child is there in the week as well as weekends, about how they should be in education instead of here entertaining us. The discussion progressed into dissecting whether in their opinion places like these touristy places are good or bad for the development of the area and county. One of the lecturers said something I found very interesting; that the ‘real India’ is a construct and therefore different for everyone. So for some people the touristy lunch spot was the ‘real India’, whereas for my colleagues it was touristy and to a degree disgusting, yet for others what we thought was our attempts to see Delhi and the restaurants we went to may be considered with the same distain as the touristy lunch spot. I found this idea very interesting as I found the white tourists debating why the tour company/ university thought we would like the clearly white tourist lunch spot as slightly ironic.

The lectures focused on South Asia, which as I have not covered much before due to coming from mainly an African focus at university and the Middle East at OC. I found the lectures very interesting due to having little background knowledge on the topics. In addition, the topics were covered from both a development background which I am used to and an International Relations stance which I am not so familiar. With the IR stance there was a lot more focus on the relationships and interactions between countries, it was fascinating to learn about India’s relationship with Pakistan or China and how others see these relationships. Another interesting aspect was the different lectures and their different approaches, with the Birmingham and Melbourne lecturers having PowerPoints with group tasks and allowing questions throughout the lecture (more like a lecture cum

Being awarded my certificate for the course

Being awarded my certificate for the course

seminar), whereas an Indian lecturer went for a more descriptive approach and a traditional lecture style of speaking at the group. We had a brief discussion about this with the University of Delhi students and were interested to hear from them how they saw the differences, they said they were shocked at the way we had laptops and phones out in lectures, interrupted to ask questions and how critical lecturers were of other scholars or theories. Also, for those interested, my group’s final presentation is available online.

Our tour group at the Taj Mahal

Our tour group at the Taj Mahal

The greatest thing I think I will take away from this intensive module is what I learned from the people I met, including OC friend and contact Danish Aziz, who kindly invited me for dinner and so I was introduced to some good Indian hospitality and where we looked at some collaboration plans between OC and DevProQuo. As students we were each put into groups to create and deliver a presentation on an assigned South Asia country’s security issues. These groups were a mix of students from all three universities, it was a great opportunity for people to get to digress into other great conversations about the cultures and issues of the members from my group. We got into great discussions about the treatment of women in Delhi and India and other such interesting topics, in addition to exploring the security issues in Bangladesh for the presentation. It was also interesting to hear how people were getting on in different groups and being able to see how different people worked, for example I believe I am more of a ‘practical’ thinker (as in I try to think how that theory or idea would practically affect me or people in the field), whereas some others were purely theoretical thinkers. It was great to see these two ways of looking at the same thing could complement each other or fire up some excellent debates. In addition, I am now rather embarrassed to say how little I knew about Australian politics and international relations, the Melbourne students talked about the issues Australian politics has faced due to being involved in Iraq etc. I found this quite strange as, here in England, when you hear about these issues the UK and America are usually the only ones mentioned, yet Australia is also apparently experiencing the same issues.

I definitely had an amazing time, learned a lot (not just about security issues) and wished I could have stayed longer. Thank you to everyone in England that made the trip possible and to everyone on the trip and in India that made it such a great experience! I think it has definitely further enhanced my insight into development issues and how some cross over into possibly humanitarian issues, subject to resilience.

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