Kashmir Report

Why Kashmir’s students are facing off against the security forces

Violent crackdown at Pulwama Degree College triggers demonstrations across the Valley.

Pulwama Degree College in South Kashmir bears the marks of a place touched by conflict. The telltale stones and shattered glass seen in so many parts of the Valley have arrived here as well. It is deserted, apart from a lone gatekeeper. Opposite the building marked “IT Centre” is scrawled the legend, “Love you Burhan”.

The college has been closed since Monday. On Saturday, this desolation had been filled with students and security forces, flying stones, tear gas fumes and pellet showers. About 54 students were injured in the clashes that day. Some of those seriously wounded had to be shifted to hospitals in Srinagar.

Saturday’s violence has galvanised campuses across the Valley. The Kashmir University Students’ Union had called for protests in all colleges and universities on Monday in solidarity with the students of Pulwama. Students in Baramulla and Sopore towns in the north, Anantnag and Tral in the south and Srinagar in central Kashmir clashed with security forces. About 70 more students were injured in these incidents, many of them in Srinagar. Among the critically injured are two students with brain injuries.

Graffiti on a wall at Pulwama Degree College. Image credit: Ipsita Chakravarty
Graffiti on a wall at Pulwama Degree College. Image credit: Ipsita Chakravarty

On Tuesday, universities, colleges and high schools remained closed, while protesting students in Banihal blocked the Jammu-Srinagar highway, the Valley’s primary supply line. A dour silence descended on Pulwama town, which had gone into shutdown mode, with shops closed and streets sparsely populated. Naveed Dar, a second-year arts student at Pulwama Degree College, had limped to a dim, curtained tea shop in town. This was the first day he could walk after being beaten up by security forces.

“I thought these were stories, these things don’t happen,” Naveed Dar said, bemused. “We came to see the real face of the forces.”

On Wednesday, schools opened but colleges and universities stayed shut.

A skirmish

It started last Wednesday when two armoured Army vehicles known as Caspers entered the Pulwama college campus, said Taufiq Farooq, a first-year arts student who was hit by pellets that day. “You know the situation here, students started pelting stones and the Caspars went back,” he recounted. “Then there was a protest outside the administration block; why had an Army vehicle entered the college?”

According to a statement by Army spokesperson Rajesh Kalia, soldiers had gone to visit the administration to talk about a “painting, drawing competition” in the college. But students did not know the purpose of the visit. “Students thought they were going to raid or pick up students,” Farooq explained. This is common after there is stone-pelting. Anything can happen any time.”

Two days later, Farooq said, a security cordon was laid right outside the college’s gates, and not 200 metres away as the police claimed. According to another student Rayees Mohammad Bhat, however, the cordon was farther away, near the toll post leading into the town, and it was a regular exercise.

Either way, the college students started pelting stones just outside the gate. “They used tear gas from the start,” said Farooq. “After 10 or 15 minutes, they started using pellets.” What followed next, according to Farooq’s account, was a thrust and parry between the students and the security forces that lasted nearly four hours until the evening.

The security forces’ vehicles retreated at first, then they drove up to the gate and started firing shelling into the college, Farooq continued. “They must have called the police station because two Rakshaks [armoured police jeeps] then entered the college premises and stopped at a barricade near the gate,” he said.

Taufiq Farooq shows his pellet injuries. Image credit: Ipsita Chakravarty
Taufiq Farooq shows his pellet injuries. Image credit: Ipsita Chakravarty

Trapped in a stone-pelting crowd, they first fired sound shells, then they stepped out of the Rakshaks and started shelling and spraying pellets. Angry students managed to chase the vehicles out of the campus.

Some students, thinking they had driven away the forces, moved into the administration building to protest against the incursion. Then the police and the CRPF returned with bunkers and reinforcements. “Stone-pelting inside the college had stopped then,” said Farooq. Yet, students at the administration block came under heavy shelling. Though they retaliated with stones, they were forced into classrooms.

“I went into a classroom after I got injured,” said Farooq, whose shoulder and upper arm are still peppered with pellet scars. As pepper and tear gas clouded the classrooms, many girls fainted. When vehicles carrying the injured students tried to make their way to the hospital, boys were pulled out and beaten up, he alleged.

To the library

There were students who did not join in the clashes. Naveed Dar, for instance, said he had taken cover in the geography department building and then the library, where he saw girls fainting from the gas fumes. Then the security forces also entered the library.

“Some teachers came and said nothing will happen, come out,” Naveed Dar recalled. “We were leaving but then the girls were beaten up so we went back in.”

They tried to go out again, twice. The first time, the girls were sent out unharmed but the boys who followed them were beaten. The second time, the security forces said they could all come out, nothing would happen, Naveed Dar continued.

“When one boy came out, they beat him up and he fell down,” he said. “Then they said run now, and we ran. Whoever came in their way was beaten. I was hit twice in the legs and once on my back.”

Naveed Dar with Taufiq Farooq. Image credit: Ipsita Chakravarty
Naveed Dar with Taufiq Farooq. Image credit: Ipsita Chakravarty

After that, he made his way to the principal’s office, which had been vandalised by the students, to find crying girls crouching there. Then the teachers told them to get into a college bus, Naveed Dar said, and that’s how they managed to escape.

Shahbaz Ahmed Dar, recovering at a Srinagar hospital, said he was attending class when he saw girls being sprayed with tear gas shells by the security forces outside. When he went out to protest, they beat him up. He now has a fractured knee and shoulder injuries.

‘Mild force’

Pulwama Degree College Principal Abdul Hamid was not available for comment. But when contacted by local newspapers a couple of days ago, he had said, “ I too rushed towards the gate and saw two police vehicles entering the college. I stood in front of the vehicles and pleaded, with hands folded, to the policemen not to enter the premises…I told the policemen that 5,000 students were in the college and the situation would turn bad. However, the policemen did not listen to my pleas.”

Bhat admitted that there was shelling on students but he claimed it was only from near the gate. Afterwards, they did return with reinforcements to the administrative building, but it was to rescue, not to attack.

“There were SOS calls from the college, from girls and teachers, saying we are trapped, we have been locked inside our rooms,” he said. “That’s when the police went inside. Mild force was used and the miscreants were chased away. The teachers, staff and students were let out.”

According to Rajesh Yadav, commandant of the 161 battalion of the CRPF, just two units of the paramilitary force are stationed in Pulwama. They are deployed as and when requested by the police. He refuted the claim that students had been beaten up, saying action was taken against stone-pelters alone.

‘You were protecting the boys’

Similar scenes were repeated in other parts of the Valley on Monday. Iqra Sadiq, 20, lay with a fractured skull at the Sri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital in Srinagar. A first year student at the women’s college in Nawakadal, Srinagar, she had been part of a protest march into the city.

“The boys were leading us,” Sadiq said, speaking slowly. “When we reached Eidgah [a neighbourhood in old Srinagar], the boys started stone-pelting and we ran away. There were CRPF men on the right and left and a Rakshak in front of us.”

In the chaos, a stone hit her on the head. A friend visiting Sadiq at the hospital said she was brought to the hospital by four boys in an auto-rickshaw, early in the afternoon. The doctors had removed blood clots from her head, family members said, and she was expected to be released in four or five days.

“It was a peaceful protest [in the beginning],” Sadiq said. “We were shouting slogans for Azadi, student power zindabad, etc. The police told us to move ahead. They signalled that they would not do anything.”

Iqra Sadiq at Sri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital in Srinagar. Image credit: Ipsita Chakravarty
Iqra Sadiq at Sri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital in Srinagar. Image credit: Ipsita Chakravarty

Meanwhile, a lecturer at Baramulla Degree College said the slogans started around 11.15 am. “Earlier, two cops had come asking the administration if any police deployment was required, we said no,” she recounted. The college authorities had locked the gate so that students could not leave and the forces could not come in.

“Around 11.45 am, three tear gas shells were fired into the college,” she continued. “We could not see anything in the buildings. One teacher fainted. Another, who was pregnant, had a difficult time even after the smoke cleared up. Boys ran into the college grounds from the main building and the forces also came in. They cleared the boys from the grounds. One was caught near the administration section and brutally beaten. Some members of the staff were also roughed up. The police said, ‘you were protecting the boys’. There had been negligible stone pelting. It was mostly sloganeering.”

The Baramulla police confirmed that they had fired “some” tear gas to disperse the students but denied beating up the college staff. One student was trying to damage a car and he was pushed and beaten up as were three or four other boys, the police claimed. After the violence subsiuded, the police and the tehsildar went into the college to meet the students, said the lecturer.

Fear and anger

For students such as Naveed Dar and Shahbaz Dar, this was their first brush with the security forces. Unlike Farooq and their other classmates, they had not gone out protesting in 2016. Naveed Dar, for one, was worried about finishing his course.

The conflict in Kashmir has hit student life with its constant curfews and shutdowns. In 2016, the boys said, Pulwama Degree College was shut for six months. When it reopened, they went straight into exams. “It’s been three years and I am still in my third semester. At this rate, I will finish college in nine years,” he said.

The turbulence has also meant that students cannot imagine a future. Naveed Dar only knows he wants to get out of an increasingly violent Pulwama as soon as he can. Neither Farooq nor Naveed Dar have career plans. “We never got to think about it,” said Farooq. “When you have to think whether you’ll make it to the next day, it changes things psychologically.”

Such extended periods of closure have also meant that student politics has not taken root in colleges, not in recent years at least. Pulwama Degree College is not strict, students said. During the protests last year, pro-freedom posters and slogans went up and were not taken down by the college authorities. But there were no protests organised by the students as a group.

The last time a protest march started from the college ground was in 2009, when the Valley rose in protest against the rape and murder of two young women in Shopian, allegedly by security forces. The “Shopian Chalo” call, in fact, had come from Pulwama Degree College, said Farooq.

Unlike other parts of the country, student unions are proscribed in Kashmir. The Kashmir University Students’ Union was banned in 2010, the year mass protests erupted and its offices were demolished by the authorities. Its current iteration is not officially recognised. Could the latest spate of clashes between students and security forces lead to a new phase of mobilisation and political organisation in Kashmir’s colleges?

It remains to be seen. For Naveed Dar and Shabaz Dar, it means the last bastion of security has been breached, giving rise to new fears. But Farooq said fear has disappeared among students, it is only anger now. The next time such a clash happens, he added, it could be even more intense.

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