After students clashed with security forces in Pulwama Degree College in South Kashmir in April, campuses across the Valley have been swept up in protests. On the face of it, the agitations seemed leaderless and uncoordinated. Most student unions have been proscribed in Kashmir and the banned Kashmir University Students’ Union only provided nominal leadership to these protests.

Yet Kashmir has a lively history of student movements. The current protests do not seem to be politically well defined. But, like the movements that went before, they are driven by a rejection of the political old guard, and a backlash against government repression.

Student politics has also been the wellspring of separatism in the Valley. It has shaped prominent political leaders, both separatist and mainstream. Several militant separatists of the 1990s also emerged from student politics.

The Students’ and Youth League: The 1960s

In the 1960s, the spread of education and a growing awareness about global events, such as the liberation struggle in Algeria against the French, spawned a phase of student agitations. On December 26, 1963, a sacred relic of the Prophet Mohammed kept at the Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar disappeared, triggering a frenzy in the Valley and riots in other parts of the country. The tensions left behind by the incident fuelled the political energies of that decade.

On March 19, 1964, students from different colleges demonstrated outside the United Nations Military Observer Group office in Srinagar. As the United Nations Security Council debated Kashmir, the students demanded a plebiscite.

Anwar Ashai, the son of Kashmir’s first Muslim graduate, was tasked with organising it. He had hired a taxi to spread word of the protest in Srinagar’s prominent colleges. “Everyone was hooked to the idea,” he said.

The crowd that marched towards the UN office carried banners declaring themselves the “Muslim Youth Organisation”. But they were not really organised. Ashai explained that the name was just meant to create the impression that they were.

The students presented a memorandum to the officer in charge and demanded an acknowledgment of receipt on BBC radio. “Jis Kashmir ko khoon se seencha, woh Kashmir humara hai [The Kashmir that was brought together with blood is ours]”, a slogan that reverberates in the Valley even today, was perhaps heard for the first time that day, said Ashai.

Within days, the excitement over this act turned to anxiety as the authorities started calling up the parents of students involved. “It was then that we thought of getting organised,” said Ashai. And so the Jammu and Kashmir Students’ and Youth League was formed, with Ashai as its first general secretary and Abdul Rashid Kabuli its chief organiser. Their key demand: the right to self-determination. In other words, a plebiscite.

“We started the political conception of student politics,” said Kabuli. Soon, the league had branches across the Valley, and in Doda, Kishtwar and Poonch districts of Jammu.

The league organised several protests. Once, a policeman’s moustache was pulled from his face, recalled Ashai, who also remembered snatching the karakuli cap off the head of Ghulam Mohammad Sadiq, the chief minister at that time, after students mobbed him in Srinagar.

Another time, Sadiq, as chairman of the Regional Engineering College’s board of governors, was scheduled to speak on campus, but the league protested. “We wanted that Sadiq stick to academics only,” Ashai said. “We were not going to accept talk of accession and [Kashmir being an] integral part [of India].”

Sadiq complied.

Ashai recalled how they prepared posters, demanding a plebiscite, in six languages. Ashraf Batku, the league’s publicity secretary, and Ashai had then approached foreign tourists, staying in houseboats on the Nagin lake in Srinagar to help them with translations. In the translations, the feminine pronoun was used for the league, making it sound as though its demands had been made by a woman.

“The tourists who helped us were all women,” Ashai explained, adding that the posters “went viral” with newspapers outside the Valley publishing them. Ashai recalled that newspaper headlines at that time labelled the student leaders “CIA agents”. These were the years when India was said to have turned “pink”, gravitating towards (red) Soviet Russia.

Against the old guard

In April 1964, when the “Lion of Kashmir”, Sheikh Abdullah, was released from prison, members of the league joined the crowds that welcomed him. Abdullah was still perceived to be fighting for a plebiscite and Ashai recalled that they had strung up a banner that read “Your Lead, Our Struggle”. But when Abdullah saw it, he used his walking stick to pull it down as he passed by. After Abdullah’s release from jail, his “first action was this, against the students”, said Ashai.

The league was also given the cold shoulder by the Plebiscite Front, which was headed by the Kashmiri politician Mirza Afzal Beg but whose patron was Abdullah. They were afraid of the outspoken student leaders and resented the league for refusing to merge with them, Kabuli said. He added, that to counter them, the Plebiscite Front pushed a rival organisation, the Young Man’s League, which eventually merged with the party.

Ashai and his colleagues once got into a scuffle with the Plebiscite Front when it tried to prevent them from commemorating Kashmiris killed by the Dogra regime on July, 13, 1931, commemorated as Martyr’s Day in the Valley. The league members had led a chariot decorated with satin and flowers through Srinagar, shouting “Aye marde Mujahid jaag ja, waqt-e shahadat agayi [Wake up, oh fighters, the time of martyrdom has come].” Ashai said Abdullah termed the league members uncouth and added that Ghulam Mohammad Shah, the Sheikh’s son-in-law, “told us not to take the chariot any further”.

“We had a fight,” said Ashai. “Shah was bruised.”

Students and Youth League delegation with Sheikh Abdullah. (Photo courtesy: Abdul Rashid Kabuli).

War and peace

In August 1965, Pakistan attempted to wrest the Kashmir Valley from India by sending in regulars from the Pakistani Army to stage an apparently indigenous uprising. Many students provided logistical support to the infiltrators, Ashai said. But Kabuli and Ashai distanced themselves from these activities.

Meanwhile, Ashai added, two members of the league crossed over into Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, to try to start an armed struggle in the Valley. These members were informed that arms and ammunition had been dumped in a village on the Indian side of the Line of Control, he said, adding that some grenades were distributed and even used.

“Unfortunately, the police had already planted its people [among the students] and the dump was recovered in Bandipora,” said Ashai. “They transported the weapons in six trucks. An Army general said the dump was enough to defend Srinagar for six months.”

In Srinagar, students, including women, held demonstrations. These coincided with rising hostilities between India and Pakistan. The demonstrations by students of the Women’s College on Maulana Azad Road drew attention across the border and a song, valorising the protestors as “Nidar diler bachiyan, Srinagar ki betiyan [Fearless, brave girls, the daughters of Srinagar],” was produced by Radio Pakistan and blasted out of radio sets in the Valley.

Kabuli said the protests were not pro-Pakistan, and that they only sought the right to self-determination. But the people of Kashmir were “naturally buoyed by an India-Pakistan confrontation”, he explained.

The State would not countenance student protests. Demonstrations were crushed with force, Kabuli said. Many students were jailed. Ashai was once whisked away from Lal Chowk and locked up for seven months. Kabuli was put in solitary confinement for two years in a jail in Udhampur, near Jammu. He wrote his college examinations from prison.

And there were deaths. “Seven people were killed in police firing,” Kabuli said, though he could not remember the exact incident. “Sadiq had then said that the police was not equipped to deal with protests. He confessed that the constabulary from UP and BSF soldiers killed people because they saw them as Muslims.”

As the elections of 1972 approached, Maulana Masoodi of the National Conference and Mirwaiz Mohammad Farooq of the Awami Action Committee convinced Kabuli to enter mainstream politics. They argued that it was better to raise one’s voice inside the corridors of power.

Kabuli went on to contest elections as a joint candidate of the Plebiscite Front and the Awami Action Committee. It was the beginning of the end for the league. Other members of the league made their way to the Legislative Council and the bureaucracy. One retired as the Inspector General of Police in Kashmir.

Abdul Rashid Kabuli (centre) with Prime Minister Morarji Desai. (Photo courtesy: Abdul Rashid Kabuli).

In its last days, the league engaged in “petty issues like bus fare concessions”, said Ashai. “India’s greatest weapon is to corrupt people,” he concluded. “There was no one left to sit down and discuss things with.”

The Islamic Students’ League: The 1980s

In the 1980s, Kashmir saw a resurgence in separatist politics, this time more overtly rooted in a Muslim identity. A band of passionate Kashmiris, who would discuss politics at a tea stall in Srinagar, came together to form the Islamic Students’ League. This student group considered religion central to its politics, and its first president was Syed Abdullah Shirazi, a cleric in Srinagar. It did not shy away from violence.

The former members of the Islamic Students’ League described it as “a force in the city” during the 1980s. They said they would wave Pakistani flags as there was “no concept of independence in Kashmir in the beginning”. They created awareness that Kashmir was disputed ground, which they felt most Kashmiris did not know. Separatist leader Shabir Shah would inspire the youth and send instructions from jail.

Another separatist leader, Hilal War, who was then a student in Srinagar’s Sri Pratap Higher Secondary School, was affiliated with the group in those days. He said that the league was “purely political” and did not focus on students’ issues in educational institutions.

War said the league once mobbed and held hostage Jagmohan, the state governor, in the Women’s College on Maulana Azad Road in Srinagar. It was regarding a confrontation over the Regional Engineering College, which the Centre sponsored, and which admitted more non-local students than local.

The students saw themselves “as liberation commandos”, War said. When Jagmohan banned the sale of meat on Janmashtami in 1986, the Mirwaiz of South Kashmir, Qazi Nisar Ahmad, slaughtered a sheep in the Lal Chowk of Anantnag town in protest. War and other students went to Anantnag to take part in stone pelting. “We were the stone pelters of that time,” he said. “We introduced the concept of stone pelting to Anantnag.”

In 1986, War and others attacked a liquor vend in Srinagar. War recalled the store’s Kashmiri owner smashing a bottle on his head. That evening’s radio broadcast attributed the attack to Punjabi militant organisations. “Even though the DSP East knew we were behind it, the government didn’t,” said War, with pride. “The seeds of Kashmir’s freedom movement were sowed by the ISL [Islamic Students’ League].” The league’s members also burnt down the communist library above the Kashmir Motor Department office in Srinagar.

Shahid-ul-Islam of the Mirwaiz faction of the Hurriyat was in Sri Pratap College when he joined the Islamic Students’ League. Islam said that their movement did not gain momentum until Omar Mukhtar, a movie about a schoolteacher-turned-resistance fighter who led the Libyan struggle against the Italians, was screened in Srinagar. It led to comparisons with Kashmir’s own teacher-turned-political leader, Sheikh Abdullah, who had, by then, abandoned all talk of self-determination. His posters were burnt by the moviegoers.

“The worst violence we did in those days was the few petrol bomb attacks to enforce shutdowns,” Islam said.

Another former member of the league, who did not want to be identified, said the Muslim United Front, an amalgam of separatist parties that decided to contest polls, offered the Islamic Students’ League tickets for around five seats in the Assembly elections of 1987. The league agreed to support candidates but did not field its own. Shahid-ul-Islam and another member, Mushtaq-ul-Islam, left the group in protest to revive the defunct Muslim Youth Federation.

Meanwhile, the Islamic Students’ League campaigned for Mohammad Yusuf Shah, known today as Syed Salahuddin, the chief of the Hizbul Mujahideen. War said they did not seek votes but shouted slogans such as Zalzala hai kufr ke aiwanon mei, lo mujahid agaye maidan mei [There is a tremor in the legislatures of the infidels, see, the Mujahid have entered the arena]”. War claimed that the government was shaken and responded with the infamous rigging of the 1987 Assembly elections.

Subsequently, the student leaders were arrested and beaten severely in police stations. Humiliated and deceived, many of them took up arms in the early 1990s, when militancy broke out in the Valley. Mushtaq-ul-Islam founded the Hizbullah, which Shahid-ul-Islam also joined. Yasin Malik and Ashfaq Majeed Wani would join the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front.

The Islamic Students’ League eventually faded, though its name still survives. Its current head, Shakeel Bakshi, took over in 1987, after being released from prison. These days, they focus on academic work. “It has grown old now,” Bakshi said, with a smile.

Chairman of the Islamic Students’ League Shakeel Bakshi (centre) at a procession to mark the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed in Srinagar in 2008. (Photo credit: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP).

Shrinking spaces: After 1989

In the 1990s, both education and student politics would be disrupted by the violence that had broken out in the Valley. In the late 2000s, the Kashmir University Students’ Union came to the fore, organising protests and talks on the university campus. The union had been banned since the early 1990s but was briefly allowed to function between 2007 and 2009.

The banned union continued to organise protests, but after 2011, its activities began to peter out. A former member put it down to the fear of arrests after the 2010 uprising. But members of the organisation are restive. “In a conflict, if the universities do not talk about politics, what does it do?” he asked. “We need to push to get our space.”

He added that Kashmir University allowed pro-India student unions to recruit members and organise events, while proscribing the anti-establishment Kashmir University Students’ Union. But the pro-India unions did not last as they lacked ideological commitment, he said. When it came to the Kashmir University Students’ Union, the authorities left no stone unturned to punish its members for their anti-establishment politics, he said. “They identify you and trouble you wherever you are, at home or the university,” he said. He has seen his share of jail as well.

Besides Kashmir University Students’ Union, smaller organisations have been floated from time to time, with many new names cropping up last year, during the unrest following the death of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani. At present, the Islamic University of Science and Technology has a student union. Anti-establishment politics, however, remains largely spontaneous and unofficial.

On May 24, state Education Minister Altaf Bukhari said that students had the right to protest on campus. “Had I been of their age, I would protest every day in campus and organise people for it inside campus,” he said. “But when students come on roads they become a law and order problem.”

But the government has also said that it wants to end student protests. Going by history, the State is unlikely to allow student politics to flourish in the Valley’s campuses.