On the outside, Sharda University looks immaculate. Located in Greater Noida in Uttar Pradesh, around 40 km from Delhi, its high-rise buildings, manicured lawns and catchy tagline – “The world is here” – have made the private institution a top higher education destination for students from various parts of the world. The university’s website says it has students from more than 74 countries.
On the inside, though, tensions have been simmering for about a week now in the wake of clashes between student groups.
It all started on Monday with a classroom scuffle between two students, one an Indian and the other an Afghan national. Soon, videos of the fight went viral. The university suspended three Afghan students who were allegedly involved in the incident.
On Thursday, clashes broke out on campus after a group of students demonstrated against the university administration for allegedly not taking stern action against the Afghan students. According to media reports, a mob dragged some Afghan students out of an examination hall and attacked them, shouting “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” and demanding they go back home. A Kashmiri student, identified as 20-year-old Ahtisham Bilal, was assaulted in the ensuing violence, following which the university shut down the campus till Sunday. On Thursday night, a first information report was registered against 350 students and unidentified persons for rioting, said AK Shrivastava, the circle officer at the Knowledge Park Police Station in Greater Noida.
Aabid Hussain, a second-year student of Medical Imaging Technology, said he was sitting with his friend Bilal when a fellow student came over to them and asked to see Bilal’s identity card. “He asked him [Bilal] if he is Kashmiri or Afghan,” said Hussain. “Bilal said he is Kashmiri and the student snatched his identity card from him.” Hussain explained that Bilal was then beaten up, not by the student but “by outsiders”. Bilal had joined the university barely 20 days ago.
Hussain also said the altercation on Monday had ensued after local students had used “abusive words” against their Afghan classmates.
Other students, too, alleged that outsiders had created trouble on campus. They identified one of them as Deepak Sharma. “He abuses Muslims and Pakistan,” said Rahim Khan, 23, an Afghan student studying law at the university. “His main target is to create differences between Hindus and Muslims. He came on Monday and Tuesday and told people to beat up Kashmiris and Muslims... this is how he wants to increase discrimination.” Khan added, “His relative studies here.”
Ajit Kumar, spokesperson for the university, said, “We found out that Deepak Sharma is a Bajrang Dal activist.” The Bajrang Dal is the youth wing of the Hindutva group Vishwa Hindu Parishad.
Kumar said the university had launched an inquiry into the violence and would keep a check on the entry of outsiders. He added that it was still unclear how many students were injured in Thursday’s clashes.
Shrivastava, the circle officer, said another first information report has been lodged, this one against Deepak Sharma and another individual, Vaid Nagar. The two have been booked under relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code for offences related to promoting religious disharmony, and also under Section 66 of the Information Technology Act for “uploading videos on Facebook and WhatsApp which were against communal harmony”, said a police official requesting anonymity.
Such assaults on foreign students are not uncommon in Greater Noida.
In March 2017, a mob attacked African students in a neighbourhood in the satellite town after a teenager went missing. The African students were accused of peddling drugs and even of cannibalism and eating up the Indian boy. There were also campaigns to evict African students living and studying in Greater Noida in the wake of this incident.
In March this year, Sharda University suspended seven security guards for dragging a Kenyan student off the campus after they suspected he had brought in a pack of cigarettes.
After the incident on Monday, not just Afghan students but Kashmiris too say they have been receiving threat calls. “There is no safety here,” said Hujjat Sadat, a 21-year-old fourth-year BTech student. “We get calls from unknown numbers at night telling us that if we leave the campus, we will be beaten up. Now most of us don’t get out for our Friday namaz. We know elections are coming, so people will do anything to get more followers. We don’t want any such issues.”
Ayan, a 21-year-old Afghan student, said he too had been getting calls from unknown numbers. “We hear things like ‘Afghanistan murdabad’ and ‘Pakistanis are pigs’,” he said. “We consider India our second home but we feel unsafe here.”
The incident has once again triggered concern for the security of Kashmiris studying in colleges and universities across the country. In recent years, there have been instances of Kashmiri students being attacked by fellow students, booked by the police and even expelled or suspended by their colleges, sometimes for cheering Pakistan’s cricket victories.
In the wake of Thursday’s violence at Sharda University, former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti and the state’s governor Satya Pal Malik appealed to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath to ensure the safety of Kashmiri students.
A Kashmiri student, who did not want to be identified, said she too was attacked on Thursday. She said a man with his face covered by a scarf asked her if she was Afghan or Indian as she left an exam centre at around 11.30 am. “I told him I am Kashmiri,” she said. “After that he hit me on my left shoulder, which is now sprained.”
The student also accused the university of bias. “They suspended the Afghan students immediately but why have they not yet taken action against the local students?”
Referring to the university’s tagline, she asked, “The world is here, but where is the security?”
All photographs by Aabid Shafi