Those familiar with the history of the National Institute of Technology in Srinagar will notice the irony in the demand by its non-Kashmiri students to shift the campus out of the Valley after clashes between Kashmiri students and those from outside the state following India’s loss to the West Indies in the T20 semi-finals. The institute, after all, was set up 56 years ago to promote technical education in the region, particularly among Kashmiris.

Clashes reportedly broke out on March 31 when Kashmiri students celebrated India’s defeat by bursting crackers. Non-Kashmiri students, who far outnumber local students at the campus, protested against the celebrations, and this led to further tensions – slogan calling, damage to property – and a lathi charge by the J&K police on non-Kashmiri students. It is these students who are now insisting that the institute’s campus be shifted out of Srinagar.

Some blame the tension between locals and non-locals on the changing demographics of the institute, which started out as a Regional Engineering College in 1960 and was upgraded to a NIT in 2003. Some Kashmiris say the move to convert the REC into an NIT was a masterful political strategy that they predicted would work against Kashmiri students. They now say they have been vindicated.

There are two opposing views regarding the institute’s upgradation from a REC to a NIT. While one camp believes that the upgradation reduced the number of seats available for Kashmiri students, the opposing camp argues that the upgradation brought with it better infrastructure and improved placements by multinational firms.

This piece will address each of these claims. But first, some history.

Premier institute

The Srinagar REC was one of the first of 17 such Regional Engineering Colleges set up by the Indian government as part of the second five year plan to meet the growing demand for engineers by India’s then rapidly-growing industry. The institute was initially affiliated to Kashmir University, and came under the jurisdiction of the state government. Admissions were conducted through a Common Entrance Test, or CET, for both the REC and the Government Engineering College in Jammu.

By all accounts, the campus at that time was very vibrant, with students from all parts of the country and even from countries like Palestine, Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan. However, state students, particularly local Kashmiris, formed a major share of the campus population.

Baramulla resident Firdous Hussain, an engineer in the JK Public Works Department, recalled how the REC used to be one of the most sought after engineering colleges in the region. Like all other engineering aspirants of his time, Hussain had attempted to get admission in the REC too, but was unsuccessful. This was in the early nineties. He eventually got an engineering degree through distance education from Anna University in Chennai.

At that time, he said, the institute was dominated by Kashmiri students. “I had a lot of friends in REC back then, and used to visit the campus quite frequently,” said Hussain. “The CET conducted by the state government was highly competitive, and only the best students made it. The largest share of students at REC Srinagar was from the Kashmir division. Overall, 90%-95% students were from the state. It was one of the best RECs in India and had a very good ranking.”

In 2003, when the late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was the chief minister, the college was upgraded to a National Institute of Technology. The state was convinced to agree to the upgrade on the grounds that it would bring in central funds and better infrastructure. The institute then became an autonomous institution, getting 50% of its funding from the Centre, and the balance from the state. The NIT also came directly under the Union Ministry of Human Resources Development. The J&K chief minister was the chairperson of the board of governors of the REC, but the HRD ministry nominated the chairperson and board members for the new NIT.

A senior Kashmir University official, who did not want to be named, said that the decision to upgrade the REC was a “master political move” designed to change the demographics of the institute.

Hurriyat leader Nayeem Khan, who was a student of REC’s civil engineering class of 1984-85, said hundreds of Kashmiri engineers earlier graduated from the institute. “Today, Kashmiri students have to go to other states to study engineering, where they routinely face discrimination and harassment. When the news of converting REC into NIT was announced, we were also taken aback. We had said back then that this move will backfire. It won’t benefit the Kashmiri students. Today, the results are for all to see.”

Number of seats for Kashmiris

But has the seat share for Kashmiris really decreased from the the time the institute was a REC, as so many have alleged?

NIT professor AH Mir, who is dean, students welfare, said this is a “widely-believed misconception”. Mir, who was an REC student between 1977 and 1982, said that the institute always had 50% reservation for students from Jammu and Kashmir. For the remaining 50%, each state was allocated a certain number of seats. That policy continues even now, he added.

“Many of our classmates were from other parts of India,” Mir recalled. “There were also many foreign students. So, there were a good number of non-state students even then. Only the format was different.”

But one thing changed post 2003. The Union government decided that state students, who already had a 50% quota, should not be allowed to compete with non-state students in the remaining 50% of seats. This policy is followed at all NITs, including the one at Srinagar. “The government’s logic was that the institute should have students from all cultures and backgrounds,” said Mir. “If 50% seats are reserved for state students, and for the rest 50% also, they compete with non-state students on the basis of merit, it would result in a very high proportion of state students as compared to non-state ones.”

But the question remains: If the seat share for J&K students hasn’t changed since the institute was made an NIT, why do most locals feel it has?

According to Mir, one reason is perhaps that since not many Kashmiri students are able to get the ranks in the Joint Entrance Exam or JEE (formerly known as All India Engineering Entrance Exam or AIEEE) needed to crack NITs, most state seats at the Srinagar NIT are taken by students from Jammu division.

“One has to understand that Kashmiri students are at a disadvantaged position considering the political and security situations here as well as lack of infrastructure,” said Mir. “There are not many coaching centres of good standards available in Kashmir as compared to other parts of India including Jammu.”

Ummer Ashraf, 26, who completed his engineering degree from a private college in Chennai in 2008-2012, seconded this argument, claiming it was unfair to expect Kashmiri students to compete at a national-level exam without a level-playing field. “Reputed coaching institutes such as Akash and Bansal classes have started their offices in Srinagar only a year ago,” said Ashraf. “However, their branches in Jammu, Delhi and other cities have been functioning for many years. So, how can students qualify for the exams without proper guidance?”

Ashraf added: “From 2008-2010, the schools in the Valley had to be shut for weeks due to shutdowns, curfews and tension. How can they appear in exams when sometimes, even our syllabus was not completed on time?”

Professor SA Lone, head of the department of electrical engineering at NIT, Srinagar, offers three possible factors that have contributed to the belief that Kashmiri students’ share of seats in the institute has decreased as compared to previous years. Lone studied at the institute from 1985-1989 and joined the faculty in 1990.

The first factor was that when militancy was at its peak in the early nineties, the REC stopped admitting non-state students over security concerns. “The situation had worsened; militancy was at its peak,” said Lone. “It was not considered safe to have students from other states here. The presence of foreign students was also viewed suspiciously. No admissions from candidates outside the state were entertained. The 50% seats for state students were filled; the rest were left empty.” This situation lasted for about a decade from 1990 to 2000. During this time, Kashmiri students naturally dominated the campus. “For almost 10 years, there were only Kashmiri students studying in this campus which is why, many believe that Kashmiris had a larger share in seats,” said Lone. “That is just a misconception.”

REC only started admitting non-state students again in 2000, when security conditions had improved. This was just three years before the institute was upgraded to an NIT and possibly explains why locals still feel that the seat share for Kashmiris had dropped.

The second factor concerned quotas for students from other regions of the state that were done away with when the REC changed to an NIT. Lone said as an REC, apart from the 50% quota for J&K students, the institute also reserved seats for students from Reserved Backward Areas (RBA), Actual Line of Control (ALC), and children of defence personnel. This added to the total number of students from the state in the institute. However, these categories were done away with during the institute’s changeover. Now, besides reservations for state students, the only other reservations are for the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes. “There is no quota for RBA, ACL or any others,” said Lone. “Very few Kashmiri communities feature in STs and almost none in SC or OBC. So, these category seats almost always go to non-Kashmiri students.”

Finally, there is no quota either for J&K students in MTech and PhD programmes – introduced after 2003. Admissions to these courses are held at the national level and students from all over the country qualify on basis of merit.

The result of this, as one Kashmir University official put it, is that the institute, which was originally built “to promote technical education in the region, particularly among Kashmiris” hardly has a substantial number of Kashmiri students today.

“The only REC we had was taken away and converted into NIT,” said the Kashmir University official. “When the move was proposed, not many in the state were aware what the ramifications could be. It slowly dawned upon people what the move had translated into on the ground.”

Better facilities

But there are some who say the institute’s upgradation has benefited everyone as the number of BTech seats has gone up, said Mir. “Earlier, there were 225 seats for BTech. Today, the number of BTech students graduating annually from NIT Srinagar is 632. We have introduced MTech and PhD programmes and fellowships that were never offered by the REC. So, overall, the institute has gained.”

Despite this, several Kashmiri students aspiring to be engineers have to look elsewhere when they don’t make the cut for the NIT. They either apply to GEC in Jammu or take admission in institutes as far as Bengaluru or Chennai. Other relatively newer options in the Valley include the Islamic University in Awantipora, which began offering BTech degrees in electrical engineering from 2012-13, and Kashmir University’s College of Engineering, which opened two years ago. There’s also SSM college near Srinagar, a private institution affiliated to Kashmir University, but that is comparatively expensive.

Waleed, 24, recently graduated from the Government Engineering College in Jammu. He had attended one of the Valley’s oldest and most prestigious schools, Tyndale Biscoe, and tried unsuccessfully to get admission into the NIT when he passed out of school in 2010. Of the more than 100 students in his school batch of the science stream, only eight made it to NIT Srinagar, two of them through the sports quota.

Ummer Ashraf is another Biscoe student who said that only four students of his batch of 200 students of the Physics-Chemistry-Mathematics stream got through the NIT. “I couldn’t make it,” said Ashraf. “SSM was charging a very hefty amount and my mother is a single parent. I had no other option. Either I had to move out or change my stream. I chose the former and took admission in a lesser-known college in Chennai.”

The placements claim

Faculty at the institute claimed that though the placements of the institute have always been very good, after it became an NIT, the institute saw 100% placements with many candidates landing more than one job.

Mir, the NIT students’ welfare dean, said that even though there were no campus selections in earlier days, the degree from REC, Srinagar “held so much value” that across the state, engineers are all products of this institution. “Whether there were campus placements at REC or not, it was sure its graduates would get a job,” said Mir. “But after it became NIT, multinational companies come and take up most of our students.”

This is corroborated by most students spoke to. For instance, Waleed’s classmates, who made it to NIT, were all placed during campus selections. In comparison, there were hardly any placements in GEC, Jammu.

J&K PWD engineer Hussain said claims that placements had improved in the institute were untrue because companies used to visit the campus even before it became an NIT. “Many of my friends were placed in Indian Space Research Organisation, and other reputed departments,” said Hussain. “Militancy changed things when campus selections became rare. Eventually, companies stopped coming altogether. No doubt that the NIT degree is more valuable (than an REC degree), but it did not benefit Kashmiri candidates because there is no industry here. And the seat share (of Kashmiris) was cut.”

The nationalism scourge

Others argue that the current tension in the NIT campus is an offshoot of the larger ongoing battle regarding nationalism in the rest of the country.

Mushtaq, a PhD scholar at NIT, said that the political situation in Kashmir had never hampered the environment on the Srinagar campus before. Engineering students, whether locals or non-locals, tend to focus on their careers rather than meddle in politics, he said. “Everyone has a career-oriented attitude,” said Mushtaq. “There is a bit of polarisation during matches but it is not to a great extent. This time it blew out of proportion because some elements wanted to misuse it.”

The Kashmir University officer agreed. He said that students from other parts of the country who came to Kashmir to study didn’t face problems earlier. “The problem is it is now being turned into a nationalism debate,” said the officer. “The Centre’s reaction is shocking. You have an elected chief minister in the state who had been sworn in two days before. She should have been allowed to handle the situation. Now this whole talk of shifting the institution, flag wapsi, false stories of non-Kashmiri girl students being threatened with rape – internal political sensibilities are attached to all these things.”

Hurriyat leader Khan agreed that the current controversy was politically-motivated and has been blown out of proportion by “Arnabs who dub us as intolerant Kashmiris”. “There could have been a full-fledged clash if even one Kashmiri student from NIT had called up his or her friends at the nearby Kashmir University campus where thousands of Kashmiri students study,” said Khan. “There are lakhs of Indian labourers in Kashmir; students in BEd colleges and tourists. They are all safe here".