The students of Aligarh Muslim University are shocked and angry. One of their own, Mannan Bashir Wani, a research scholar enrolled in the geology department, went missing after January 2, and a photograph depicting him wielding arms appeared on social media on January 6. The text printed on the photograph alleged that he has joined the militant organisation, Hizbul Mujahideen.

While the leader of the Hizbul said in a statement on Monday that Wani, from Kupwara, Kashmir, had joined the militant group, the local police are yet to establish the authenticity of the photograph.

Other Kashmiris at Aligarh Muslim University are alarmed at this development. “He has been declared a terrorist and, by association, all the Kashmiri students have been declared terrorists,” said Faizul Hasan, former president of the university’s students’ union and a PhD scholar in sociology. “The university itself is being described as an institution that produces terrorists.”

Wani was last seen on campus on January 2, and had signed his department’s attendance register. He was set to leave for Kashmir on January 3 or January 4 – none of the students spoke to could be sure. On January 5, when he failed to show up at home, his family filed a missing person’s report.

An investigation prompted by the photograph and Wani’s disappearance led to the Uttar Pradesh Police and the university’s proctorial board searching his university room on Monday. This made the entire student body anxious, especially students from Kashmir.

Aligarh Muslim University is a popular choice for Kashmiri students pursuing courses outside the Valley. As per Hasan’s estimate, there are between 1,500 and 2,000 students from the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir at the university, which has over 30,000 students.

“Rumours were being circulated on social media that some terrorist unit from our university was planning an attack on Republic Day and Kashmiri students were worried that they would be randomly picked up,” said Sajad Subhan Rather, the union’s vice-president, who is also from Kashmir.

Rather believes the number of Kashmiris students in the university is closer to 3,000. “I called a meeting of Kashmiri students to calm them down,” said Rather.

Hasan said after the police search of Wani’s room at the university, many Kashmiri students refused to leave their rooms or engage with other students. “They feared they would be linked to the case because they are from the same place,” he said.

On Monday, Rather’s nephew, a school student who stays with him, refused to go for his private coaching class at Duty Society, a non-profit housed in and run by the university.

Irresponsible press

In addition of the strain of having the police on campus, students also had to contend with the maligning of their institution on social media and by the local press.

The students’ union’s new president, Mashkoor Ahmad Usmani, who has held that post for less than a month, has been busy writing to the offices of the local press to complain about what he describes as “sadistic coverage” of the issue. “To defame the entire university on the basis of what one individual has allegedly done is wrong,” he said. “It is defamation.”

Ghazala Ahmad, a member of the previous students’ union, pointed to Tuesday’s headline in the Dainik Jagran newspaper, which read: “Forgive us, Sir Syed, we are ashamed”. Addressed to the university’s founder, Syed Ahmed Khan, the headline clearly suggests that Aligarh Muslim University itself was complicit in whatever Wani was allegedly up to. “They are doing this because Muslims study here in large numbers,” said Ahmad. “But if he [Wani] did something, that was his personal choice. How is the university responsible? This is a campaign to show that terrorists, not students, graduate from AMU where we have doctors, academics and judges as alumni.”

Rather agreed with Ahmad. “Aligarh Muslim University has over 30,000 students – it is impossible to read everyone’s mind,” he said.

Social media has been particularly unforgiving with dozens of tweets declaring Aligarh Muslim University a “hub of terrorists”. Another said it “has a reputation of being a hotbed of Jihadi activities”.

Usmani, who found himself “reassuring students” on Monday and speaking to the police on their behalf, said students will “support a fair enquiry but not tolerate a media trial”. He said: “The police has our complete cooperation, the administration has suspended him [Wani] and we support the investigation provided due process is followed and the university’s permission is secured before other students are investigated.”

‘We are shocked too’

The shock and fear of being “attached to his case” are also related to the fact that Wani was not a loner or even secretive. His was a popular face, especially among student activists.

Ghazala Ahmad and Wani had been co-panellists on a discussion on International Women’s Day, on March 8. He actively participated in debates and discussions, said Usmani, and had also joined protests demanding an increase in research stipends, hostel accommodation, better placements and against the withdrawal of a fellowship in 2015. “[These are] all the things you would expect a student activist to be involved in,” said Usmani.

Rather said Wani was heavily involved in student elections in 2014 and routinely advised student leaders on “points to raise and how to argue”.

Those who knew Wani at the university said that they never got so much as a hint of his alleged involvement in militancy or even if he intended to join militant ranks. He had allegedly been harassed by security forces on his last trip home in November and had vented about it on Facebook. “He wrote about that but then he constantly wrote about many issues,” said Rather. “In fact, I met him a few days before [he disappeared] and he told me we should work together on education once he is back [from the winter vacations].”