The Gyanodaya Express: An appraisal in words and images

By Michael Heneise

NEW DELHI - Catering
NEW DELHI – Gyanodaya Express’s superb catering by IRCTC

This year the University of Edinburgh and King’s College London joined Delhi University’s third Gyanodaya Express (gyana = knowledge; udaya = dawn or ‘rising up’) – a week long student exchange and educational train excursion through the North Indian states of Haryana and Punjab. Over one-hundred undergraduate and post-graduate students from the UK joined dozens of faculty and staff, and nearly seven-hundred largely undergraduate Delhi University students. 

As a PhD student at Edinburgh conducting research in India’s Northeast since 2012, I joined the tour to get away; to see a different part of India; to practice my Hindi; perhaps to meet new friends; and certainly to engage in some much needed conversation about culture, society and politics in mainland India. This is particularly important for me as it is difficult to gauge popular Indian political discourse surrounding the upcoming election from the limited media coverage I receive where I am currently doing my fieldwork.

I discovered too quickly, however, that the Gyanodaya Express is not designed for this kind of knowledge exchange. And this is my greatest disappointment with the program. In fact I would not recommend this trip to UK students looking for a space to engage in serious sociological discussion and debate with local scholars. This is not to suggest there is no capacity for academic debate, only that it is clearly not the purpose of the program. This should be made very explicit in future programs, as I think many UK students and staff expected some level of academic exchange in relation to what they experienced along the trip.

Before I continue, I must say that the food and accommodation were superb, and after long hours of traveling or walking around under the hot sun, it was always a delight to see a gentle hand suddenly appear offering a cold drink and a snack. In this regard everything related to services was excellent. Also, the sites – particularly the religious sites – were just breathtaking, and I commend the organisers for putting together such a stimulating itinerary.

I must, however, speak plainly now and state that much of the time our lovely experiences were interrupted with over-zealous micromanagement. This was a lament expressed by students of DU as well as from the UK – and among many excellent staff members as well. I say this acknowledging full well the need to ensure the safety of hundreds – as well as to stay on-schedule. We all generally complied with the corralling, but I often felt that the insistent buddy-watch, and pushy demeanor among many staffers bordered on harassment. On several occasions I was shoved onto a bus in a hurry only to wait a very long time for other group members to catch up. Thankfully there was always a snack and good conversation to be had with the bus driver or a student. Also, clarity with regards to alcohol consumption is necessary. Seasoned staff and scholars from world class universities should not have to sneak around a surveillance regime to sip a cold pint after a long arduous day. Whether affidavits need to be signed, or designated drinking areas provided, it is an issue that will plague programs that involve UK and European university students if ignored.

Generally speaking, however, I have only pleasant memories, and look forward to returning very soon to the Punjab areas we visited. I have a four-year-old who is particularly enamored by the images of swings in the Rock Garden in Chandigarh, so we’ll see…

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In the following section, a brief reflection on one event we attended which I found particularly stimulating, and which left me rather wanting of a follow-up discussion. And I will just leave it there – as overall I had a good experience.

Our entire entourage attended the flag-lowering ceremony performed every evening at the India-Pakistan border. For the most part I found it to be great fun to watch. Unusually tall Jawans (well over six-feet tall) kicking, stomping their feet, and speed-marching toward the gate in defiance of the other side… what better way to express patriotic zeal than through drama!!

Prior to the flag ceremony the crowd is treated to a long playlist of popular patriotic songs – beginning with slow, nostalgic tunes and slowly increasing the tempo from song to song. The mass sings along in their seats for the first few selections. Eventually the itch is too great, and like popcorn in hot place (and we were melting!) intermittent bursts of energy led to an eruption of dancing in the stands. Soon, the dehydrated crowd was singing, shouting, and occasionally waving a fist or pointing a finger at their counterparts on the Pakistani side. This went on for well over an hour.

I joined in for a bit. My shirt was soaked and my head throbbed. But I was summoned repeatedly by friends to dance. After a few minutes of fun I felt as though we should all probably sit down and laugh at ourselves, because obviously we are just as likely to have as much fun if we had embarked from Lahore and spent the day on the Pakistani side.

This is the point of the exercise, correct?! Why else would the Gyanodaya organisers bus 800-plus universities students to the Indo-Pakistani border? Surely this is the beginning of some constructive discussion about normalising ties at least among scholars, and perhaps between Indian and Pakistani universities. Perhaps there is a future of cooperation between Panjab University in Chandigarh and Panjab University in Lahore! Something like this could lead to student exchanges, and perhaps Gyanodaya IV or V could include a sizable group of Pakistani undergraduates and research scholars. I have been involved with academic exchanges before – between Al Quds in Palestine, and Technion and Haifa universities in Israel, for instance. These were very friendly, and incredibly stimulating exchanges!

But I was wrong. And when I approached a few staffers about any planned group discussion of what we just experienced, I was met with blank expressions. Nothing like that was in the schedule. Dinner was next, then a shower – very welcome, indeed. But is that it?

A few days later, I stood in wonderment as the unison intonation of Tagore’s Jana Gana Mana filled the Panjab University hall in Chandigarh where Delhi University students and staff stood tall, faced forward, and sang with gusto! I know the poetry well. It is beautiful, remarkably simple, and a glorious vision. But what business do scholars have singing anything like a national anthem in unison?!

A fantastic journey, with room for improvement. My strongest suggestion would be to slow down the train and to talk about what just happened. For outsiders in particular, India is overwhelming to the senses – and its not just the amazing food! Everything students see and experience should be discussed, reflected upon, critiqued, debated. Only then will this program foster a new ‘dawn in knowledge’, and will such exchanges be the innovative educational initiatives they purport to be.

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The following is a collection of photographs I took during Gyanodaya III. Captions are simple and only include a location and basic description. My hope is that they will speak for themselves.