On October 2, four people were injured when a group of students at a college in Punjab’s Ludhiana district attacked their Kashmiri classmates. It was the latest of a series of incidents reported from across the country over the past few months in which Kashmiri students have been assaulted and sometimes arrested on seemingly flimsy charges.

An Indian Express report suggested the fight in the Ludhiana hostel mess had broken out after more than 50 students had a heated argument over last month’s attack by militants from across the border on an Army base in Kashmir’s Uri sector in which 19 soldiers were killed. “Ever since tensions at the border started to rise, there has been taunting and even bullying from both sides whenever students from Bihar and Kashmir have sat together,” a Kashmiri student told the newspaper.

Such sentiments are being echoed on campuses elsewhere too. Earlier this year, four Kashmiri students were beaten up at a private college in Rajasthan’s Chittorgarh city over rumours that they were cooking beef. Another group of Kashmiri students was attacked by a mob at a private dental college in Jodhpur, an incident that was attributed to the stress on non-Kashmiri students at Srinagar’s National Institute of Technology.

In July, a group of eight to 10 unidentified men assaulted a Kashmiri scholar at Barkatullah University in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh.

And in September, two groups clashed at the Ganga Institute of Technology and Management in Haryana’s Jhajjar district after one student called his Kashmiri hostelmate a terrorist. “The problem started when one of the Kashmiri boys, who is a senior, played a prank on a non-Kashmiri in the hostel mess,” said Mansoor Ahmad, a second-year engineering student who comes from the Valley. “The whole group turned aggressive and started calling my friend a terrorist. When we reacted, they called us terrorists too and a fight ensued. Soon, many others, including some security guards, joined in and suddenly, there was a mob looking for all the Kashmiris on campus.”

A group of Kashmiri students later staged a protest outside campus, following which the students who had started the altercation were expelled and the security guards transferred to another campus, The Wire reported.

Identity clashes

Incidents such as these are connected to identity, especially in a climate where people are being challenged on their patriotism, said Manisha Sethi, an activist and assistant professor at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia.

“When Kashmiris interact with non-Kashmiris, there is always the question of national identity that comes up and often leads to conflict,” she said. “It is similar to cases of violence involving people from the north-eastern states in which the identity is racial.”

The current atmosphere – created in part by heightened tensions with Pakistan, a Kashmir uprising that has seen 90 people killed in street violence and the Bharatiya Janata Party leadership’s raising of issues like beef, Bharat Mata and patriotism – has made the situation tougher for Kashmiris.

“Most of the attacks on Kashmiri students are the result of a nationalist sentiment that has grabbed the centre stage,” said Showkat Hussain, head of Kashmir Central University’s law department. “The self-proclaimed desh rakshaks, who feel they are protected by the state, have taken up the responsibility of being aggressive towards all who do not conform to their idea of nationalism.”

Hussain, who was at Aligarh Muslim University in the 1990s when militant outfits were mushrooming in Kashmir, said there were some concerns then too but the climate was very different. Recalling an incident when Kashmiri students had protested outside AMU when George Fernandes, who was a minister then, was visiting, he said, “The next day, local newspapers had headlines saying Aligarh is the new den of anti-nationals. But the university authorities hardly paid attention to these things.”

An indication of how things have changed is that today, social media – a space increasingly being used for pronouncements and protests – turns out to be the source of conflicts quite often. Last month, AMU expelled a Kashmiri student for posting “objectionable” comments on Facebook, with the vice-chancellor saying there was no space at the university for “anti-national sentiments”.

In September, a crowd of over a hundred vandalised a private college campus in Rajasthan’s Udaipur. The provocation: A third-year civil engineering student, a native of Kashmir, had shared a Facebook post that, according to the mob, praised Burhan Wani, the militant commander killed by security forces in the Valley in July. The crowd calmed down only after the student was booked for sedition and suspended from the college.

Alienation effect

Such a response by institutions can have a chilling effect and take Kashmiri students further away from the mainstream.

“People are already frustrated with the system,” said a Kashmiri student from Jamia Millia Islamia, who asked not to be named. “And when they like and share certain social media posts, they do that to ridicule the system. I do not think reports of such incidents should affect the way a Kashmiri uses social media. However, the results may vary from person to person and the younger lot, mostly undergraduates, may feel threatened.”

Indeed, undergraduates face the brunt of such violence, possibly because they have just left the Valley and may not have fully adjusted to how the conflict and their identity is perceived in other parts of India.

“The Kashmiri students we are talking about are fresh out of school,” said a Kashmiri student pursuing an MBA at a private institute in Mumbai, who asked not to be named. “They do not have a good understanding of the conflict yet and do not know how to put their arguments across in a healthy way.”

Authorities have not been entirely blind to these incidents. The Jammu and Kashmir governor, after hearing the concerns of Kashmiri parents, approached the Union Home Ministry for help. The ministry, in turn, issued an advisory in March asking all states to show “utmost care and sensitivity” in handling Kashmiri students and to “ensure their protection”.

The same month, the Jammu and Kashmir Police launched a round-the-clock helpline for Kashmiri students pursuing courses outside the state.

Around the same time, their counterparts in Delhi appointed an Indian Police Service officer of the rank of special commissioner to act as the nodal officer for addressing issues affecting Kashmiri students in the city.

These were in some way a response to the Delhi Police action at Jawaharhlal Nehru University in February, when a commemorative protest against the hanging of Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru – which was attended by many Kashmiri students – turned into a major police case involving arrests and charges of sedition.

JNU fallout

At the time, it was said that the Delhi Police had chosen not to target Kashmiri students because the BJP’s alliance with the Peoples Democratic Party in Kashmir had to be maintained. But just because Kashmiri students were not arrested does not mean they were not targeted.

“It was a heated process that was underway and the February 9 incident intensified it,” said Jamia professor Manisha Sethi. “The JNU incident is one of the reasons behind the recent series of attacks on Kashmiri students over this national identity politics.”

Both JNU and AMU were outliers though, because most of the more violent incidents were reported from private institutes rather than from political campuses such as Jadavpur University or the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Some believe this is because apolitical spaces end up suppressing actual discourse and debate.

“In the process of being apolitical, they (private institutes) end up following the mainstream discourse, majoritarian in nature, which doesn’t help the conflict,” Sethi said.

Kashmiri scholar Shehla Rashid Shora, a former student union vice-president at JNU, echoed similar views.

“Places like JNU, Tiss, Hyderabad Central University and Jadavpur have a space where students can put out their views, which are challenged but, at the end of the day, it at least gives shape to a larger opinion,” she said.

“Most private institutes do not have that. So, the repressed anger often comes out during occasions such as watching a cricket match together, which is unhealthy in nature.”

The reference was to an incident in Meerut in 2014 when 67 Kashmiri students were suspended by a private college for cheering the Pakistani cricket team during a match against India.

The incidents are now perceptible enough that they might be encouraging Kashmiris to look beyond India for higher education opportunities – continuing the process of driving them away from the mainstream.

“A large number of Kashmiri parents today prefer sending their children to private colleges in Bangladesh for further studies, mostly MBBS,” said Showkat Hussain of Kashmir Central University. “Take any local newspaper in Kashmir, the number of advertisements by Bangladesh-based institutes reflects the rapid growth of their market in Kashmir.”