Things spun out of control pretty quickly and badly. On the night of March 14, word went around in Mewar University in Chittorgarh, Rajasthan, that a few Kashmiris were cooking beef in their hostel room. Soon a crowd of students gathered around to protest. A picture started circulating on WhatsApp with the caption “Kashmiri students cooking beef”. A mob, reportedly including members of the militant Hindutva group Bajrang Dal, assembled outside the private university, demanding action. Violence seemed likely.

The police arrived at the campus in the middle of the night and broke up the mob. They also took away four Kashmiri students along with a sample of the half-cooked meat. The next day four other Kashmiri students went to the police station and turned themselves in “on the advice of the [university] administration”. They were in detention for two days, until a board of experts confirmed the meat was not beef.

It turned out a few Kashmiri students had sneaked some meat into the hostel that is “strictly vegetarian by policy”. They were cooking it in their room when someone smelled it and raised a protest, thinking it was beef. Things spiralled quickly from there.

Hilal Ahmad, an engineering student hailing from Kulgam in south Kashmir, says he was watching a movie in a friend’s hostel room at the time the fracas began. “When I went out there were students gathered outside, shouting someone has cooked beef in the hostel,” said Ahmad. “When phone calls went outside the campus, locals arrived and started throwing stones at the hostel building. The police came and dispersed them but [at the same time] said hand over the students who cooked beef.” The slaughter of cow, bull or bullock is banned in Rajasthan.

Ahmad, who was among the four who gave themselves up the next day, says the varsity supported the Kashmiri students all the way. “This has happened for the first time. We don’t face any issues otherwise.”

Harish Gurnani, media liaison for Mewar University, too attempted to emphasise the peace on campus, which has 5,000 students from 22 states, more than 900 of them from Jammu and Kashmir. “We are always with students,” he said, “but we simultaneously maintain discipline and rules."

Mewar University, in truth, has seen at least one incident of violence involving Kashmiri students before. Still, this university is not an exception.

For more than two decades, Jammu and Kashmir youth studying in educational institutions around the country – particularly north India – have been viewed with suspicion. They are perceived as troublemakers by the locals and the authorities, and rarely rented rooms. They are threatened, harassed, humiliated, sometimes assaulted. Every time there is a cricket match between India and Pakistan, or protests over Kashmir, or an event that is seen as anti-India, Kashmiri students who are filled with dread. There is a fear they will get caught in the middle of some unexpected outrage.

This fear among the students has been growing ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government came to power in Delhi in 2014. And more so after February 9, when a group of students organised an event at the Jawaharlal Nehru University to mark the third death anniversary of Afzal Guru, who was convicted and executed for the 2001 Parliament attack. In the discourse of nationalism that has followed the JNU row, Kashmiri students are presumed to be on the side of the so-called anti-nationals.

String of attacks

In the last few years, there have been several episodes of Kashmiri students being beaten up, manhandled or arrested. In February 2014, for instance, 67 students from the Swami Vivekanand Subharti University in Meerut were suspended and told to leave the campus for celebrating the Pakistan cricket team’s win against India in Asia Cup. The vice chancellor called the students' behaviour “unacceptable” and the police accused them of disturbing communal harmony. The charges were dropped later.

In May the same year, three Kashmiri students at a private university in Greater Noida were abused, assaulted, called terrorists and forced to raise anti-Pakistan slogans. Following this, then Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah tweeted:

A few months later, in December 2014, locals attacked and injured eight Kashmiri students at the Global Research Institution of Management and Technology, Haryana. In January 2015, the police detained 10 Kashmiri students at NIMS University, Rajasthan, after clashes broke out between them and students from Bihar. Fearing more violence, many Kashmiri students left the hostel. Two month after that, Kashmiri students in a Kanpur institution alleged that local students attacked them.

'Anti-national work'

Kashmiri students say people frequently tell them to be thankful to the central government, particularly if they are benefiting from scholarships.

A 31-year-old Kashmiri research scholar in Pune, who requested anonymity for fear of punishment from the university, says he is often told by fellow students or staff, “Jis thali mein khatey ho ussi mei cheed kartey ho” – loosely translated, that he is biting the hand that feeds him.

“We have an extreme right-wing administration and my supervisor is the saviour when it boils down to [the] Kashmir conflict,” the research scholar said. “We can’t watch Pakistan-India cricket match in the hostel TV hall, as we fear there will be a backlash. After the new regime [BJP government] came in, the right-wing people are more active everywhere.”

Mohammad Azhar-ud-din, a doctoral student at the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras, recounts an episode from September 2014, when Jammu and Kashmir was hit by devastating floods. Like many others who were setting up relief camps and raising funds, Azhar-ud-din too decided to do his bit.

“I thought of motivating people and raise funds for Kashmir in IIT,” said Azhar-ud-din. “There was mostly a positive response. I created a mail thread to share all the details. But some people with Sanghi mentality [sympathetic towards the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] heard about this and objected. One of them said this money would go to terrorist organisations and militants.”

Azhar-ud-din was told the money he raised should be given to Seva Bharati, an NGO affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. “I didn’t know it was a wing of the RSS. My friends had already told me that I won’t get any help here, but I thought otherwise. However, that is exactly what happened. So we gave up. It was a genuine cause and they politicised it.”

Azhar-ud-din had begun witnessing signs of the right-wing narrative on the campus soon after joining the institute. In February 2013, following the hanging of Afzal Guru, a complaint was filed against his senior Tufail Bashir, another Kashmiri. It was alleged in the complaint that Bashir was indulging in “anti-national work on social media”.

Media's role

Kashmiri students blame the media partly for the hatred they face everyday. As the research scholar in Pune points out, the Indian media’s hate-mongering coverage of Kashmir makes Kashmiri students more vulnerable. “Another point is that we are always reminded that we should be thankful to India as we study and avail fellowships. I was told by my Marathi friend that I should be thankful to the university and India.” The only silver lining of studying outside the state, the research scholar says, has been that he came to know “the dark face of the democratic dragon”.

Imran ul Haq, an economics student from Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune, says that local students are generally very friendly, but there is still a sense of insecurity. “Some local people see us with eyes full of doubt,” said Haq. “We face problems in finding accommodation. And of course being called ‘Pakistani’ is common for us. We don’t go out of campus when there is an India-Pakistan match. We know anything can happen.”

This insecurity has worsened since the JNU row, even though political leaders from Jammu and Kashmir have been urging other state chief ministers to protect Kashmir students.

Haq says that things have worsened with the negative coverage of JNU by the media. “It was already negative but now people here seem to be filled with negative thoughts on this issue. Some local Marathi newspapers are reporting stories like ‘Kashmiri chatrun ke aatankwadyun ke saath sambandh’ and the ground reality is most of these papers are associated with the RSS.”

A Kashmiri political science student from the Aligarh Muslim University, who requested anonymity, says it is more difficult to organise events about Kashmir after the BJP’s rise to power at the Centre. “During last year’s film festival, the administration stopped the screening of Ocean of Tears [a documentary made by Bilal A Jan on violence against women in Kashmir] at the last minute, saying the intelligence agencies had told them not to let it be screened.”

Some Kashmiri students screened the film later at a closed-door event, but soon after the event’s organisers started receiving threatening phone calls. “Now, Kashmiri students who ask questions about Kashmir during any panel discussion are removed from the halls and told not to ask such questions.” she added. “Soon after the JNU incident, there was an event where a lot of Kashmiri students raised questions and the volunteers, appointed by the administration, stopped them. Even though you’re not seen as a suspect in AMU, we have to be more careful now.”