April 2016 News

A Fragile Peace In The Valley

15 April 2016
The Hindu
Amit Baruah

Srinagar: The ground is wet after the morning rain and policemen are deployed all around. A bunch of bored television reporters are standing outside the entrance of the National Institute of Technology (NIT) in Srinagar. It's a Monday, a day that should have seen a steady stream of students entering the institute for scheduled internal examinations. Instead, it's an exodus of sorts with hundreds of students, some haggling with autorickshaw drivers on how much to pay for their journey out of the campus on their way home to different parts of the country. The March 31 incident, where local and non-local students clashed on campus over India's defeat to the West Indies in the semi-final of the ICC World Twenty20 championship, exposes the fragile peace of Kashmir, where hordes of tourists have begun to land as part of the summer rush. Among the students negotiating with the auto drivers is Iqbal, an MTech student from Champaran in Bihar, who had come to see off his friends. He's planning to leave for home later in the week. Iqbal agrees to show me his hostel room. As we walk towards the hostel, our conversation builds up on the March 31 incident and the encounter with the police on April 5, in which 60 students were injured in a lathi charge. As we walk, a long line of outstation students can be seen waiting to collect their gate pass to go home since they have been exempted from taking the internal tests. Some are carrying bags, other are pulling their strolleys along as policemen look on. It could have been a mass vacation break, but it's not. We reach Iqbal's hostel room. Even by crummy standards it's crummy. Six MTech students share one room, there's one bathroom between 36 students, which is now on extended sharing with the Sashastra Seema Bal or SSB, the Central paramilitary force deployed after the violence. He's clearly upset and anguished by what's happened. His parents are worried sick and are asking him to quit his course and come home. 'Abbu-ammi mujhe ghar bula rahein hain. Keh rahen hain ghar vapas aa jao. Course ko chhod do (Dad and mom are asking me to quit and return home, to leave the course).' The deepened divide: Iqbal says during the match Kashmiri students raised slogans like 'Pakistan Zindabad' and 'Bharat Tere Tukde Honge'. To which there was a counter of 'Hindustan Zindabad'. 'How can anyone abuse their country like this?' He's at a loss for words. The problem is compounded by the fact that Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri students appear to have lived amicably, without issues prior to the incident. Outstation students have many local friends and socialising is quite common. In short, the student community did not recognise these divisions even though there is often local support for Pakistan during cricket matches. 'It's nothing new,' says Moonis, a BTech student from Srinagar. 'Kashmiris have been rooting for Pakistan for a long time during cricket games.' But he admits that the March 31 incident has led to a deep divide among students. 'My friends have stopped talking to me. A [local] faculty member was pushed around in my presence. All this does make us angry And why is the Central SSB on our campus while the Jammu and Kashmir Police has been labelled anti-national? Is our security not important?' Moonis demands to know. Many other students as well as a doctor, who attended to the students, maintain that a police officer was pushed around by students, which reportedly led to the lathi charge. Of the 60 students injured, three were seriously hurt, including one who had to get a wrist implant. 'Most of them were simple injuries,' the doctor explains. The political game: And now comes the P-word. Sadaf, a Kashmiri student from Baramulla, enrolled for a PhD in Delhi but doing her dissertation at NIT, says, 'I feel there is some politics behind it. This [cricket incident] was not such a big issue.' 'All concerned should sit around the table and resolve the issue,' is Sadaf's advice. Well, that's easier said than done. Some local students believe the entire chain of events was pre-planned, but others reckon that what happened on March 31 was spontaneous. A senior officer in Kashmir's police establishment said their assessment was that the cricket fracas happened without political involvement. 'But after that first day, many calls were made from inside NIT to ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad) leaders. We have details of these calls since we monitored them,' he said. There's little doubt that unrest in other educational institutions like the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and Hyderabad Central University is not far from people's minds. Many local students wonder whether this is all part of a design to shift the NIT out of Kashmir. Significantly, the NIT is probably the only institution of its kind in the Valley where 50 per cent of the students are from the State and the other 50 per cent from outside. In that sense it's a rather unique institution in Kashmir. 'Not a single student has been harmed outside the university campus. We know there are thousands of Kashmiri students in other parts of the country,' a general store owner, who preferred not to give his name, says. 'They come to my shop to buy things. They go to eat at restaurants outside. They are nice kids and used to feel safe in Srinagar. Even at the peak of the unrest in the Valley in 2010, this was a safe zone for students.' Separatist leaders from Syed Ali Shah Geelani to Yasin Malik have called on people to ensure the safety of outstation students in Kashmir while at the same time hitting out at the Central government for failing to stop attacks on Kashmiri students in other parts of India. An uneasy calm: There's little doubt that Kashmiris will judge the working of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance on the basis of how an issue like this is handled. The Srinagar NIT, set up as a Regional Engineering College back in 1960, is an institution to which they attach considerable pride. Any decision to shift or close an institution like the NIT could have consequences for the longevity of this coalition government. Demands for shifting the institute out of the Valley did set the alarm bells ringing, but these appear to have stopped following official assurances that the NIT will remain where it is. The decision to not allow persons like actor Anupam Kher to enter the NIT campus shows that the State government is aware of the incendiary potential of this issue. A short distance from the NIT campus is the Kashmir University. There's a gathering of Kashmiri students where full-throated slogans of 'azadi' are being raised. Both male and female students are present. At a time when slogans have become a barometer of nationalism, it's evident that this measure will fail miserably in Kashmir. Though life appears normal on the face of it, incidents like the recent firing in Handwara just add to the bitterness that people have towards Delhi. Dissatisfaction writ large: Top police officers and intelligence officials believe that it's not militancy that is the real problem but civil unrest and dissatisfaction that are more evident. And civil unrest comes laced with unpalatable slogans, something that the BJP, as part of the PDP-led government, must grin and bear with for the moment. There is also anger at the polarising reportage of some television channels, a charge that was levelled during the JNU agitation as well. Politicians-using-the-media-to-further-their-narrow-ends is a narrative that you will hear often on the streets and in the new, glitzy cafes of Srinagar. Iqbal, of Champaran, hopes to return to complete his degree in the NIT. And hundreds of parents in Srinagar and other parts of the Valley are hoping to send their children to different parts of India to study medicine, engineering and liberal arts. 'I studied medicine in Bengaluru, but am scared to send my son to the same college,' says a cardiologist from Srinagar. 'I was very happy to study in Bengaluru,' he adds at the bustling Srinagar airport, readying to travel to Hyderabad. More than 26 years after militancy rocked the Valley, it is evident that education has become a bridge between Kashmir and other parts of the country. It has created opportunities where few existed. This space needs to be expanded, not shrunk - both at the NIT and elsewhere. Careers and lives depend on this space.

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