By the time Imtiaz Ahmad Mir arrived in Chandigarh at 3 am on Sunday, he had spent close to 48 hours in darkness and used plastic bags as a toilet for a full day.
A final-year postgraduate student of chemistry at Alpine College in Dehradun, Mir, 22 is from Pampore in Kashmir’s Pulwama district. The Uttarkhand capital in which his college is located has seen intense retaliations against Kashmiri students since over 40 members of the Central Reserve Police Force were killed in a terrorist attack in Kashmir on February 14.
In other parts of North India too, including Ambala in Haryana and Jaipur in Rajasthan, Kashmiri students have alleged that they have been threatened and attacked by Hindutva supporters and even fellow students.
For Dehradun’s Kashmiri residents, the trouble started on Friday, the day after the attack, as large groups of motorbike-mounted activists from the Bajrang Dal and other Hindutva groups began to roar through Sudhowala, a residential area popular with students from the Valley, Mir said. The men waved swords and shouted anti-Kashmir and anti-Pakistan slogans, he said. Like scores of Kashmiri students in Dehradun, Mir locked himself up in his room and stayed there for nearly two days.
It wasn’t long before some Kashmiri students were discreetly asked to leave because they were putting the landlords in danger. Others in the Sudhowala area were simply evicted and their belongings tossed into the streets, students alleged. Most students have left their belongings behind, including documents such as their education certificates.
On Saturday night, 29 students including Mir, escaped Dehradun for Mohali, next to Chandigarh, where the Jammu and Kashmir Students’ Organisation has set up a shelter in a housing estate. The organisation booked a taxi online to collect Mir and two others from their doorstep at midnight “when the Bajrang Dal members were asleep”.
A huge ruckus
Among those at the Chandigarh shelter is Javeed Ahmad from Lolab, Kupwara. He heard about the Pulwama attack while on a bus travelling back from Delhi to the Combined (PG) Institute of Medical Sciences and Research, where he studies.
“For the first two hours or so, things were normal,” he said. “But soon after, a friend rang to tell me the Bajrang Dal were looking for us Kashmiris. It became difficult to leave our room. For two days, we didn’t eat anything.”
A crowd arrived in Ahmad’s colony, Kuanwala, at around 4 pm on Saturday. “The first time they came, we did not go out and they left,” he said. “But they returned and this time they created a huge ruckus. But the police were there and they were very helpful. They dropped us at the bus stand and we hired taxis.”
In the hours immediately after the Pulwama attack, the Jammu and Kashmir Students Organisation offered a crucial lifeline to students in Dehradun. Members began by compiling lists of stranded students, using the messaging application, WhatsApp. “We added all the names [of Kashmiri students in Dehradun] we knew and forwarded it to as many people as we could,” said Ahmad. The organisation is coordinating with the police to rescue and evacuate students and guiding them on their journey to Chandigarh.
Khawaja Itrat, an engineering student in charge of the shelter, said that the organisation has hired four flats now and 20 rooms in which about 100 students can be accomodated. “But over 1,000 students are stranded, most of them in Dehradun,” he said. “We will need help from the state or others to feed and house them.” The group has rented mattresses and is organising food for students.
The students at the shelter would like to go home to Kashmir but airfares are prohibitively high.
By Sunday, a student from Maharishi Markandeshwar University in Ambala had also arrived at the shelter. The 20 year-old second-year engineering student, who asked not to be identified, told Scroll.in he spent the days after the Pulwama attack in near-silence. He hid in his hostel room on campus and spoke to no one.
“I saw all my friends among the crowds protesting against Kashmiris, I was terrified,” he said.
The student from Ambala learnt about the shelter on Facebook and contacted the students organisation. He slipped out of his hostel at around 9 pm on Saturday and took a bus to Chandigarh.
Till the Pulwama attack, said Mir, Kashmiri students felt quite at home in Dehradun. “We like the place, the weather suits us and many Kashmiris come here to study,” he said. Even the student from Ambala said that till the Pulwama attack altered things drastically, he had no complaints about his life as a student. He had heard good things about the university and does not blame it for failing to keep the protestors out. “My relationship with other students and teachers was very good – they are my friends,” he said. But they also joined all the protests against Kashmiris, leaving him scared and isolated.
So far the only woman at the Chandigarh shelter, Sobiya Sidiko, 19, is a third-year student at Combined (PG) Institute of Medical Sciences and Research. Hailing from Kashmir’s Baramulla district, she stayed as a paying-guest with a Hindu family about a kilometre from her college. She spent Saturday in her room with the windows shut and her door locked from the outside by her landlady.
“She said she would tell them [the Hindutva supporters] no one was home,” she said. When a crowd arrived around 3 pm on Saturday, it was dispersed by the police. Her landlady “handled the locals well”, Sidiko said, but asked her to find another room when she returns to Dehradun.
Ahmad was also asked to leave by his landlord, a Muslim, who feared the presence of Kashmiris was compromising his own safety.
Others faced even greater hostility. Mir said shop-owners in his area refused to sell anything to Kashmiri students. “They would just say ‘we don’t want your business, go away,’” he said. Both Mir and Sidiko have friends who were evicted from their rental flats on Saturday evening. “Some girls I was in touch with were told to vacate immediately and their landlords threw their books and other things out,” said Mir. His own landlord lives in Delhi and stayed silent but neighbours insisted they leave.
The students are also uncertain about their futures. Sidiko wants to go home and wait for the situation to blow over but clearly intends to return to complete her programme. The Ambala student has not thought that far ahead. “I am still very scared,” he said.
Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated that Ambala is in Punjab.