The sedition controversy involving students of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi has exposed the contradictory policies of the mainstream political parties in Kashmir with regard to student politics.

On February 9, a group of students organised a public meeting on the JNU campus to commemorate and protest the hangings of two Kashmiris – Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru and Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front founder Maqbool Bhat, who were hanged and buried in Tihar Jail in 2013 and 1984 respectively. After the sloganeering at the event was branded seditious, students union president Kanhaiya Kumar and fellow students Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya were arrested over the past fortnight.

The arrests invoked strong reactions from nearly all the political parties in Kashmir, including the People’s Democratic Party and the National Conference, which share similar views on Guru's hanging. But their views on the JNU row do not reflect the reality back home in the Kashmir Valley, where student unions remain a banned entity and universities are forced to be apolitical by the government of the day.

Ground reality

The Kashmir University Students Union has been banned intermittently since the armed rebellion of the late ’80s. Though the ban was removed in 2007, it was imposed again in 2009 by the National Conference-Congress government after students protested against the rape and murder of the two women in Shopian.

The following year, the student union office was demolished as police nearly took over the campus. The police crackdown continued for days as the hostels were raided at night.

Not much has changed since the People’s Democratic Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party formed a coalition government a year ago. Dissenting voices on campus continue to be muzzled. Last June, the police arrested university student Muzamil Farooq for leading a protest march against the imposition of a Yoga Day programme. Police fired aerial shots and tear gas shells to quell the student protests.

According to Kashmir University scholar Mehraj ud Din, politics – even left-leaning politics – still works in the constitutional paradigm of Indian democracy. However, he added, activism on the KU campus is resentment against a colonial power with no rules.

“NC and PDP tried hard to start their student wings in Kashmir, supported by the KU administration, but they never succeeded,” said Mehraj ud Din. “The Kashmir University Students Union, being the majoritarian union gaining the support of students for decades, forced NC in their time and PDP during their reign to crush the students.”

Home truths

In its 2014 election manifesto, the PDP had dedicated 2015 to the youth, as a tribute to their role during the floods that had devastated the region. “Democratisation of student politics: Allow conduct of elections to student bodies in colleges and universities,” read a section of the manifesto.

However, once they formed the government with the BJP, their coalition partner rejected the suggestion of lifting the ban. Professor Khurshid Andrabi, who was the Vice Chancellor at the time, had said that while forming unions was appropriate for an institution like JNU that had made a mark, the same did not apply for a more low-profile Kashmir University.

“Since the PDP-BJP alliance, the authoritarianism of administration got more vehement and repressive,” said Mehraj. “Sending the police to students’ homes, putting known activists in the police station on the day of certain events, fear psychosis, administrative pressure, and police threats are the tools they use to suppress the voices of dissent on campus.”

Criticising Delhi

The political situation in Kashmir is at the root of Kashmiri parties' contradictory approach to student politics at home and in New Delhi. Neither the NC nor the PDP have let Kashmir’s students have politically active institutions, primarily because the students’ views are anti-establishment.

Aala Fazili, a PhD scholar in the pharmaceutical sciences department at KU, said that the banned KUSU's position on student activism is clear: that it represents the popular narrative of the right to self-determination.

“I think the JNU row has actually exposed the Indian as well as the Kashmiri political parties when it comes to the student politics,” said Fazili. “Mainstream politicians in Kashmir are puppets in the hand of Indian rulers. For their every action in Kashmir, they have to get clearance from the Indian state.”

In the wake of the JNU row, former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister and working president of the NC, Omar Abdullah, criticised the PDP. He said that the rival party was negotiating over government formation with the BJP, the same party that launched crackdown against the JNU students. Abdullah had tweeted: “This is the same BJP that Mehbooba Mufti is negotiating with. No wonder she’s completely silent & hasn’t said a word about the #JNUCrackdown.”

For her part, Mufti condemned the action against the JNU students and sent two party leaders to meet the university’s vice-chancellor to seek an assurance on the safety of Kashmiri students on campus.

“I hope that Constitution will be followed in the JNU issue,” said Mufti, PDP chief. “It should be left to the court as to who is guilty and who is not. Political parties should stop advocating someone’s innocence or guilt.”

Adding to his criticism over the handling of the JNU row, Abdullah had also said that if the Delhi Police and the Union Home Ministry wanted to unleash a dictatorial and tyrannical crackdown on dissenting voices and students in Delhi, they should not make Kashmiri students convenient scapegoats, stigmatise them and ruin their careers. But he did not elaborate on whether the same policy should be applied back home.