Kashmiri students studying outside the state say they fear for their safety
As a group of Kashmiri students prepare to de-board a train at Hazrat Nizamuddin station in New Delhi, the ticket checker asks them for their identity. “We are from Jammu,” the students reply in unison, completely avoiding the mention of Kashmir. Not that they are ashamed of their Kashmiri identity, but they had already noticed the presence of a group of Hindu priests sitting nearby along with a small high-browed crowd.
“One never knows what is going on in the minds of people travelling besides you, so to be on a safer side we usually prefer to hide our identity wherever possible,” said Javid Ahmad, one of the Kashmiri students. “Sometimes we completely avoid J&K and say ‘we are from Himachal Pradesh’.”
Hiding their identity is one of the few precautionary steps that Kashmiri students have taken during the last few years. Earlier they used to talk proudly about their Kashmiri identity and people would love to listen about the beauty of the valley. Not anymore. The rise of right wing ideology, patriotic fervor, intolerance and 24X7 media coverage of even a small violent incident in Kashmir, often covered in a biased tone, has put a lot of pressure on Kashmiri students studying outside the state.
The number of Kashmiris going to other parts of India for education has increased over the years, and so have the harassment cases and attacks on them. Sometimes fights are triggered over who will support whom in a cricket match or sometimes a small discussion over a contentious issue leads to a bigger fight.
On December 06, 2014 a small incident of Kashmiri students objecting to a fellow student for breaking a food queue inside the canteen turned into a free for all fight at Global Research Institution of Management and Technology (GRIMT) in Nachroon district of Yumna Nagar, Haryana. Eight Kashmiri students were injured, one of them critically, in the incident in which even outsiders joined to beat up the Kashmiri students. “It was a mob of around 90 people who attacked the Kashmiri students with kicks, rods and God knows what weapons. We fled from every direction for safety,” says Aamir as he recollected the incident. “When they closed the main gate, we climbed over walls. It was a nightmare.”
After some condemnations and promises of action, the situation is brought under control. “Even if everything is normal, the situation has changed forever for the Kashmiri students at the college,” said a Kashmiri student studying at GRIMT. “Now we can’t even go freely to the market as we have become enemies.”
With every attack, the precautions and preventive measures taken by Kashmiri students are increasing. “With the rise of right wing parties at the centre, there has been a significant change in the mentality of a certain section of the people,” said a student at Meerut. “As if they tell us that ‘now we will see you and nobody can stop us now from teaching you a lesson’.”
Amood Gulzar, a graduate student at Aligarh Muslim University, feels that there is no end in sight for such incidents in the near future too. Amood, who is from South Kashmir, has also used ‘Jammu Ruse’ number of times to thwart any unwanted attention. Some Kashmiri students even use Iranian tag, taking advantage of their Persian looks while throwing few Persian words intermixed with Kashmiri language. “While visiting some posh restaurants I often claim to be an Iranian and it usually gets a lot of respect as against revealing your Kashmiri identity,” said Afaq Shah, who has studied outside and now works in New Delhi. “The problem is that if God forbid any violent incident happens at a place where people know that I am a Kashmiri, I would be the first person to be picked up on suspicion by locals as well as by police.”
According to Amood, who also works as a volunteer and is at the forefront of welfare of Kashmiri students outside the state, the worst time for Kashmiri students was at the time of hanging of Afzal Guru. “At that time, it was a panic situation among the entire Kashmiri student community. We got reports of harassments and beatings of Kashmiri students from almost everywhere in India,” says Amood. “On one hand they say that we are part and parcel of India and on the other hand they treat us as terrorists,” he says. “What kind of double standard is this?”
To help students at that time, Amood and his friends at AMU started to reach out to the Kashmiri students at various colleges and universities. “We wanted to do something. We started a small survey so that we know where Kashmiri students are and if they need any help,” says Amood. “During the course of our work, we assessed that there were around 85,000 Kashmiri students in various states and that gave us happiness and we were also worried. We were glad at the numbers but at the same time concerned for their safety.”
The students were scattered all around India right from Haryana to Tamil Nadu. “We networked with students from Bhopal, AMU, Meerut, Punjab, Indore, Pondicherry, Mumbai, Rajasthan etc,” says Amood. “We even wrote down some ‘Do’s and Don’ts’ for Kashmiri students in order to remain safe,” he says. “That was a good initiative and students then came forward to get help and help each other.”
Before Haryana there were around half a dozen high profile incidents of attacks on Kashmiri students. In the famous Meerut incident the university authorities even slapped sedition charges on some students for cheering for Pakistan team during their match with India. The charges were later dropped after massive outrage from various quarters. Although most of the 64 students were rehabilitated and taken back but some had to forego their degree.
The Prime Ministers Special Scholarship Scheme (PMSSS) launched in the wake of 2010 agitation has also been a major factor in increasing the incidents of harassments among Kashmiri students. “The PMSS scheme is a flawed scheme. The colleges selected under this scheme are the worst kind with no regard for safety of students,” said an educationist in the state. “Those colleges don’t have proper infrastructure and students have to live in their dangerous hostels with no facilities in order to get the scholarship amount which is also released in the account of those colleges.”
The educationists said in absence of any proper safeguard from state or the centre, the scheme has created more hatred than imparting education among the students.
“We were selected under the scheme and have been forced to live in the college hostel. Here the vegetarian canteen always prepares pulses and we are not even allowed to bring an egg from outside,” says a Kashmiri student studying at GRIMT. “Even during Eid we were not allowed to consume any meat. They simply don’t know our culture. They always call us as terrorists, meat eaters, thieves etc, all the time.”
Hundreds of students selected under PMSSS were denied the scholarship amount, some even after three years, which led to bad relations between the students and the colleges. “When we came here, everything was fine. But when we were denied the scholarship, the attitude of college management changed and for them we became thieves, untrustworthy, lethargic people with excuses and with every bad quality,” says Sheikh Tariq, a student at the Shekhawati College of Pharmacy. “The scheme destroyed our career,” adds Tariq, who later left the college as his poor family was unable to pay for his fee.
Like Tariq, hundreds of Kashmiri students were tricked by some Non Government Organisations and self-styled consultants in Kashmir to opt for PMSSS, which later turned out to be fraud. Despite a case registered against them by the Crime Branch, action is still awaited.
Verbal abuse has been a major issue with Kashmiri students outside the state. “As if they are waiting for any chance to abuse us, be it cricket match or some patriotic movie or the news of some terror attack, the Kashmiri students become punching bags,” says Amood. “The senseless 24X7 news coverage of sensitive issues has also vitiated the environment for Kashmiri students.”
Given the increasing number of students moving out to study in colleges and various universities outside the state, Amood wants government to take concrete steps for ensuring their safety. “During our assessment of student relations, we went to NIT Hazratbal too, which is the non-Kashmiri majority institute inside Kashmir. Here we found that the outside students are happy and have never experienced any kind of discrimination or harassment,” says Amood. “Kashmiris treat them well but unfortunately the treatment is not reciprocated in kind outside the state.”
Amood, who is also part of a volunteers group in AMU, wants the government to move beyond the usual lip service. “More than good education itself, the security is the need of the hour. J&K government should initiate a process to address this issue as soon as possible,” he says. “If that is not done, thousands would lose their education.”
At a smaller level the process of heading back has already started in some cases.
The students of GRIM want the state government to arrange their migration from the institute back to some institute in their home state. “We met the IGP and he assured that the students would be brought back,” says Aamir, one of the students. “It depends on the situation. If nothing changes and things become worse, we may have only one option left and that is to head back home.”