Spirituality on campus

Continuing the series on what faith means to students, Varun Anand, a 3rd year medical student from

Before I came to university I have to admit I was not very religious and did not know much about Hinduism, except that we have many religious scriptures and are not allowed to eat beef. Although we are a Hindu family, we only celebrate the major festivals like Diwali (festival of light) and Holi (festival of colours), of which I knew little about. I was more interested in the fun aspect like lighting fireworks and throwing coloured powder! However, this changed almost immediately when I joined the University of Birmingham.

At the societies fair in the first week of university, I got talking to a few committee members of the Hindu Society and then a week later I went to their first event; a ‘Meet and Greet’. It was nice to meet people of a similar background and make new friends and it was then that I became a member of the Hindu Society.

It was not until the society’s Diwali show, ‘Ujala’, that I was able to become more interested in my religion and culture. The true significance of why we celebrated it was explained with a play followed by an interactive talk. Afterwards I commended the members of the committee on such a brilliant event. They told me that I should apply to be on the sub-committee if I wanted to help out. At first I was unsure of the responsibility so early on in my university life. However, they persuaded me and by November I gained the position of PR on the society’s sub-committee.

I enjoyed being on the committee as I got to know the other members quite well and played a part in organising and promoting the Hindu Society’s annual ball, ‘Roshni’, which was a good experience. However, the highlight was when the sub-committee was left in charge to organise a Holi event. At times it was stressful but in the end it was rewarding because the event was a huge success.

In second year I got introduced to another society called Krishna Consciousness Society (KcSoc) where every Tuesday evening a group of about 20 students got together and had informal spiritual discussions. The discussions were mainly based on the Bhagavad Gita, which is an important Hindu scripture. I enjoyed KcSoc as I learnt a lot more about the basics of spirituality and aspects of Hinduism and since then have been reading related books whenever I have had time.

In my second year, the new Hindu Society committee introduced a weekly worship known as ‘aarti’. I vaguely knew the words of the prayer as I had sung it before at various festivals. What I liked about this was that I could come here once a week in this spiritual environment and forget about the hustle and bustle of university life. Sometimes there were also talks on an aspect of Hinduism or a yoga class which I really enjoyed as I invariably learnt something new.

Last year my interest in my faith and religion took up about 2 evenings a week and hence played quite a significant role in my student life. Of course the main reason why I participated was to practice Hinduism and to learn more about it, but the events were also very sociable and a nice catch-up with people I wouldn’t otherwise see in lectures.

Later on in the year I joined the committee of National Hindu Students Forum (NHSF). I felt it would be a new challenge so I applied and got a role on the PR team. I believe that my involvement with NHSF has meant that I now have more knowledge about the Hindu faith. So when I come home and we celebrate certain Hindu festivals, I am more aware of why we are doing what we are. I look forward to being part of NHSF this year and I hope to carry on going to the discussions at KcSoc as well as the weekly Hindu Society aarti. Over the past 2 years I have definitely gained a greater understanding about my religion and culture and I hope this continues throughout my student life and beyond.

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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.