An education in terror


NEW DELHI, India — The Mumbai terror attacks shocked India. Now the effects are spreading to the country's higher educational system, as well as its cultural and political relations with its neighbors.

Uncertainty hangs over the future of the planned South Asian University following the November 2008 attacks, which U.S. and Indian intelligence agencies say were carried out by people from Pakistan.

The university, scheduled to open in Delhi in 2010, is expected to eventually admit some 5,000 students from all parts of South Asia.

The university was seen as one of the most important "confidence-building measures" that the region's countries came up with to ensure that India and Pakistan didn't revert to the sort of nuclear confrontation they reached in 2002.

The Indian government is shouldering the initial start-up cost of 80 million rupees, or about $1.7 million, with further contributions coming from other South Asian nations.

But following the deadly attacks, former Indian foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal said that the idea of the university bringing peace to the region was just "sentimental and goody-good."

He is not alone in this pessimism.

Even though the Indian Parliament in late December rushed to approve a bill to create the university, many now feel the project won't be the same as first envisioned.

It hasn't helped that all 10 terrorists involved in the Mumbai attack carried fake identity cards from Indian universities, according to Mumbai police.

On November 26, terrorists in Mumbai killed about 200 people and severely injured more than 300. In October, coordinated bomb blasts in the eastern Indian city of Guwahati, which Indian intelligence officers believe were carried out with the help of Islamist militant students from Bangladesh, killed 77 people.

Indian intelligence also recently said that Bangladeshi players might have also been involved in the Mumbai attacks.

Observers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh say India is going to be exceedingly strict in giving out visas to anyone from Pakistan or Bangladesh, whether they are students or not.

"This is a Frankenstein moment that has come back. This means all interlinks including the university will be put on hold," said Mahesh Rangarajan, an Indian political commentator.

Sumit Ganguly, a political science professor at Indiana University and a member of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, said he doesn't see the situation changing for at least the next year.

"I think it is going to be exceedingly difficult in the light of what happened in Bombay that anyone in the (Indian) foreign ministry will be inclined to run the risk of letting people (from Pakistan or Bangladesh) in," Ganguly added.

According to Sibal, India needs strict restrictions "so the wrong people" don't enter.

For the university to become a reality, the governments of all the countries in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation had agreed that students selected for the university would be guaranteed visas.

"Without this agreement between the countries, the university couldn't have happened," University of Virginia's Gowher Rizvi, who prepared the concept plan for the university, said last year.

Ganguly, who severely criticized the U.S. government for its strictness with visa distribution post-9/11, said he is a firm believer in student exchanges, but not when national governments are "perfectly prepared to use student exchanges for potential purposes of espionage or intelligence gathering or acts of terror."

In this context, the very purpose of the university is called into question, he said. "Even if it happens, the university will limp along," added Ganguly, who is of Indian origin.

When told of Pakistani academic Syed Imtiaz H. Gilani's comment that "the whole project would be damaged if visas are refused," Ganguly replied, "So be it."