The National Institute of Technology in Srinagar remains tense, more than a week after clashes broke out between two groups of students – one from Kashmir and the other from outside the state – after India lost to the West Indies in the World T20 cricket semifinal on March 31.
The restive campus is now under the safekeeping of the Central Reserve Police Force, following the controversy over the Jammu and Kashmir Police resorting to severe baton charge on the protesting non-Kashmiri students on Tuesday April 5.
Five companies of central paramilitary forces numbering 600 soldiers are guarding about 1,500 students, as per a Times of India report – almost two soldiers for every five students.
The Union ministry of Human Resource Development also rushed a team to the campus to enquire into the matter. In a video of the interaction between them and the non-Kashmiri students uploaded to YouTube, a student on the stage, amid cries of “we want to live”, is heard saying that the environment there was not liveable and that they wanted the institution to be ”shifted”.
The students demanded the officials of the NIT be removed from the meeting and loudly cheered in unison as a ministry official asked institute authorities to leave the meeting. The students alleged that they had been threatened about their careers by the staff.
A day prior to the meeting a group of students was summoned to a meeting with the director and the heads of departments of the institute. A student, who was present at the meeting, wishing not to be named, alleged that some of the Heads of Departments threatened them shortly after the meeting – a claim that was denied by a staff member.
The students insist that some of the HODs asked students to meet them separately as they were leaving. That is is when the veiled threat was made by an HOD, a student alleged: “Tum logon ko exams mei dekhenge”. The students also alleged that, in another instance, they were told they would receive their degrees with the next world cup – in 2019.
In the meeting with the visiting ministry officials, a female student said that girls have been facing various threats and abusive language since the clashes erupted. In a video , a female student alleged locals threatened them saying “ek kaa rape ho jaayega toh sab chup ho jayenge” (If one of them is raped, the rest will go quiet). Continuing further, on the verge of sobbing, she raised questions about the problems non-Kashmiri students have to face for matters as simple as celebrating festivals.
Prior to the meeting with the ministry officials, students at the institute had been protesting by sitting in front of their hostels. Students claim that they had converged near the main gate and were discussing the matter when the Jammu and Kashmir police suddenly baton charged them.
The deputy chief minister of the state, Nirmal Singh, called the police response a “mild lathicharge”, and the police issued a press statement saying that the baton charge was in response to the students pelting stones at the policemen deployed there. The police statement read: “The mob of students resorted to violence by assaulting the policemen including officers and started stone pelting.”
Sub divisional Police Officer, Hazratbal, Sajad Bukhari told The Indian Express:
“We tried to stop them from moving out of the campus for their own safety…When they didn’t relent, we cane-charged the students to disperse them.”
The students disagreed with the police version.
“We know it’s not safe for us outside," a non-Kashmiri student said. “We assembled in front of main gate waiting for any media to come. Then the police started pushing us back and started beating us”.
Reportedly, some students heckled a senior police officer who was trying to pacify them. Another video recorded by the students showed policemen charging moments after a commotion. What sort of confrontation had occurred was not shown. The cops chased the students into their hostels.
In videos shot from the hostel a group of policemen are visible, of which at least two are seen thrashing a student who has fallen down to the ground. In another video, a posse of policemen is again seen thrashing students who have fallen to the ground. In yet another video shot inside the hostel lobby, a policeman is filmed mercilessly beating a student who is heard screaming at the top of lungs, “Sir, mei ne kuchh nai kia (Sir, I have not done anything)".
The students alleged that cops inflicted severe injuries and some were taken to a hospital in Rainawari. Dr Tajamul Hussain, deputy medical superintendent of the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Hospital, said four students were brought to the hospital in the evening. “They were given first aid and referred for orthopaedic consultation,” he added.
Repeated attempts to reach Senior Superintendent of Police, Srinagar, were unsuccessful. The police countered that the students had committed a serious breach of law and order that led to police action, the Daily Mail reported. The police also released a video showing non-local students of the institute vandalising property, pelting stones and confronting policemen on campus.
How it all began
On March 31, when India lost to the West Indies in the World T20 cricket semifinal, some Kashmiri students celebrated the team’s defeat by bursting crackers. Students also alleged that stones were thrown at them from outside the NIT campus.
This was not the first time, some non-Kashmiri students alleged. More recently, the security and canteen staff, who happen to be local Kashmiris, had threatened these students with dire consequences, they alleged.
The next day, students assembled in the grounds of the NIT, waving India’s national flag as they moved towards a fountain where they intended to pitch the flag, a non-local student said. Some Kashmiri students brought out a green flag (that was pitched alongside flags of other colours) and wanted to place it there instead, resulting in a scuffle.
The non-Kashmiri students gathered there were raising the slogan “Bharat mata ki jai” (Victory to Mother India), while some Kashmiris responded with the slogans of “azadi”, and “Jeeve Jeeve Pakistan” (Long live Pakistan). Non-local students heckled and assaulted their Kashmiri counterparts, including a contractual staff member “for raising pro-Pakistan slogans”.
In the chaos on the campus, some non-Kashmiri students damaged the institute’s infrastructure as well as some vehicles. In videos available online (see above for the one released by the police) the students are seen damaging a vehicle with sticks and stones. In another video, some non-Kashmiri students are seen damaging a security guard’s kiosk inside the campus.
The authorities issued orders to vacate the hostels, which was revoked later after senior police officers arrived at the campus. The next day despite police deployment in the institute, students alleged that a Kashmiri student threatened them, daring them to chant pro-India slogans one more time.
Students allege that in the days prior to the initial brawl over India’s defeat, there had been some tension after a senior Kashmiri student hit a non-Kashmiri student in the canteen. He had apparently taken offence at not being able to follow what the two non-locals conversing in their mother-tongue, in keeping with the mores of their home state, were saying, the non-local students said.
Stuck between a rock and hard place, the non-Kashmiri students of NIT citing insecurity, mistreatment and an overall unconducive environment are demanding the shifting of the institute, and their immediate evacuation, from the valley.
The students are seeing the Jammu and Kashmir Police as an extension of the locals who, allegedly, have been harassing them. While the Jammu and Kashmir Police has being branded as anti-national by some, it is pertinent to mention that the same police force assisted the army in an operation on April 7 that resulted in the killing of two top Hizbul Mujahideen militants.
It is also important to recall that similar brutal lathi charges by the Jammu and Kashmir police in the past have never come under such national criticism. The irresponsible use of pellet guns by the police force – more brutal than lathicharges – has also remained under the radar of such criticism.
In a television debate, Muzzaffar Baig of the People’s Democratic Party said: “There must be something wrong in NIT, Srinagar, that cannot be ruled out for which students feel uncomfortable.” He may be right.
In 1986 when the NIT was the Regional Engineering College, some students on the campus celebrated the defeat of India by Pakistan in the Sharjah cup final by bursting crackers.
Following the celebrations, several students were suspended. The authorities had claimed that those then suspended included influential students – sons of senior local officers and prominent politicians.
“The game of nationalism is very much a serious sport in NIT Srinagar,” said award-winning filmmaker Ajay Raina, who happens to be an alumnus of the REC. “In 1984 after Indira Gandhi was assassinated, students professing their different affiliations raised three different flags – Khalistani, Indian, and Green,” he added.
In recent past, the advent of the Bharatiya Janata Party, seen as a Hindu-majoritarian party, at the Centre and its subsequent entry in the state through a challenging coalition, may have changed the dynamics at the institute, agitating certain sections, while boosting the confidence of others, say former students.
The campus was never really peaceful, said Zumair Muzaffar, another student who has recently graduated from the NIT. “Tensions were always there,” he said, pointing out that they were intensified on such days as an India-Pakistan match. “The authorities would not allow televisions in the mess and hostels,” he recalled.
However, the situation never escalated to the extent it has this time. “Students have become more confident and vocal ever since Modi took power,” Muzaffar said.
Concerns of large scale backlash against Kashmiri students in other parts of India have also been raised. The Jammu and Kashmir BJP too warned that the “misaction” on the NIT campus would create situation or similar reactions against Kashmiri students in other parts of India.
Such concerns were shared by another former student of NIT. “It is up to the locals to step up,” he said. “After all these [protesting non-Kashmiris] are all only students. The elders must approach and make them feel secure.”
A trader’s body in Kashmir stepped up but was not allowed on campus. A handout issued by them mentioned the students of the NIT as “our own children”, while calling upon business organisations to ensure the students were able to study in peace.
Separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani in a press conference said non-Kashmiris should not be harmed, while pointing out that right wing groups such as the Shiv Sena and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh create troubles for Kashmiri students outside the state.
The state government has ordered a probe into the matter. However, with authorities not allowing media on campus to verify facts on the ground, the gravity of the situation cannot be ascertained fully.
The mysterious temple
It had also been reported that the students’ demands included a temple to be made inside the institute. There was no such demand, said Manu Rajeev, a third year student. “There was no talk of any religion and temple in our entire protest, not even between us,” he said.
A copy of the students’ demands finds no mention of a temple. The letter stating their demands of evacuation of students, shifting of the campus, and action against police, goes on to add: “Any discussion on above points (if needed) will be entertained by us [students] only in New Delhi.”
Just as the ministry of HRD officials visited NIT Srinagar, a university in Rajasthan suspended 16 students belonging to Jammu and Kashmir. According to the Indian Express, the university is also considering terminating the services of a Kashmiri employee.In Jodhpur, several Kashmiri students were attacked in an alleged fallout.
Meanwhile the non-Kashmiri students have expressed solidarity stating that Kashmiris are still their friends and Kashmiri students outside the state not be harmed.