Eighteen-year-old Muqadas Hussain Kalas has many bills to pay. The Delhi University student is from Poonch in Jammu and Kashmir. “I have not paid my rent for this month,” he said. “My landlord was kind at first but now he does not understand my situation.”
His situation was precipitated by the communications blackout that accompanied the Centre’s announcement on August 5 that it was revoking the special status of Jammu and Kashmir. Ostensibly to prevent protests against the decision, a communications blackout was imposed in the region.
Over a month after its announcement, the government claims to have restored landlines across the region. Though mobile and internet connectivity is still suspended in the Kashmir Valley, the government says thatmobile phone services have been restored across Jammu.
However, students in Delhi say they are still struggling to speak to their families. Kalas says phone calls with his family in Poonch, a border district in Jammu division, last for only a few seconds. “The network was bad,” he said. “My father said that he would try to send me some money as soon as things become fine. And then the call got cut.”
The government also claimed banks and government offices were functioning normal. Despite this, reports suggest banks services in many parts of Srinagar have suffered.
The communication blockade and interrupted bank services have meant that students from Jammu and Kashmir living in other parts of the country face a severe cash crunch as they are cut off from financial support from home.
Kalas owes his landlord Rs 5,000 and his friends another Rs 12,000 after they pitched in to pay his college fees. He received money from home three months ago and is unsure of how long it will last. “I eat only twice a day from a food stall next to my house and that too on credit,” he said.
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Strapped for cash
On September 10, the state administration in the Valley had prohibited processions for Muharram, an occasion on which Shia Muslims mourn the death of Prophet Mohammed’s grandson in the Battle of Karbala.
On the same day in New Delhi, students and professionals from the state gathered at Jantar Mantar to mourn “our Karbala” and “the death of democracy”. Many among them were grappling with financial hardship.
Among them was 17-year-old Ayaz ul Haq, who arrived in Delhi to study Hindi literature just two months ago. “I was so stressed when I got to know of the complete shutdown in the beginning,” he said. He still owes his landlord Rs 10,000 for the apartment in East Delhi’s Laxmi Nagar he shares with five other Kashmiri students.
Twenty-year-old Zaira, who studies at Delhi University, was also unable to pay her rent of Rs 18,000 for September. She is also struggling to pay for her daily commute to college, for food in the canteen and for the books she needs for her course.
There is one thing she is grateful for, though. “We have a landline in our house in Anantnag,” she said. Unlike other Kashmiri students, Zaira is able to speak to her parents more frequently. But even then, the phone calls to her parents are sometimes filled with a deafening silence.
“I just don’t know what to say to them,” she said. “Both my parents and I are trying to be normal about this. I do not tell them I attend protests in Delhi because I do not want them to be worried.”
Sent away from home
For many young Kashmiris, staying at home is not an option either. Twenty-year-old Saira Bhat is from South Kashmir’s Shopian district, a nerve centre for militancy, and from where reports of severe military crackdowns have emerged over the last few weeks. On August 29, she returned to Delhi from Shopian along with her two younger siblings, aged 16 and 12.
“My parents sent them back with me because many children are being detained in Shopian,” said Bhat, a student at Delhi University. “I have seen so many children being taken away by the military. They come knocking at night and if you refuse to open then they break the door.”
Bhat’s siblings were having a difficult time adjusting to life in Delhi. “They cry every night,” she said. “I can manage because I am older but they are not used to being away from their parents.”
Halt in studies
While students fret about their living expenses, the cash crunch has meant that their studies have also suffered.
Kalas, who studies botany at Delhi University, said that he has not been able to attend any of the laboratory sessions at which experiments are conducted. “I do not have the money to buy the materials needed for these experiments,” he explained. The materials include slides, cover slips and needles. “My professor has told me that I can conduct these experiments later when I have the money to purchase the materials.”
Another Kashmiri student, preparing for his civil services exams in Delhi, had a similar story. “I spend around Rs 2,000 to buy magazines and other reading material to prepare for the exams,” said 24-year-old Irfan Ali, whose family lives in Baramulla. For the time being, Ali was making do with the money sent by his elder brother, who works in Qatar.
Ayaz ul Haq, the Hindi student at Delhi University, said that he needs Rs 1,500 a month to buy reading material. “We need to buy everything mentioned in our college syllabus like magazines, newspapers and books,” he said.
But he has not been able to do this for the last month. He is not sure how long he can continue this way but remains hopeful. “I know that I can manage because I am not alone in this,” he said.
While many Kashmiri students have been fretting over the past month, support has poured in from other students.
An initiative called ‘Students with Kashmiri Students’ was started in early August by students across the country. It aimed to provide legal and financial assistance to Kashmiri students. “For the students of the [Jammu and Kashmir] region, it has been even more difficult, since this is precisely the time of admission and re-admission to many educational institutions,” a statement from the group noted.
The group had distributed funds worth more than Rs 2 lakh to 61 Kashmiri students till August 25. Some members of the group also offered legal help and mental health services.
For students cut off from home and isolated in hostile environments, these services could be of vital importance. “People in college look at me like [I am] a terrorist,” said Kalas. “I have lost all friends from other parts of the country because we disagree on Kashmir. I have only found unity among other Kashmiris.”
But some have found solace in other places, too. Zaira was unable to go home to Anantnag for Eid as the situation in Kashmir was tense. The support she received from friends and teachers helped her through a lonely Eid.
“I have friends from different parts of the country who keep reassuring me that everything will be fine,” said Zaira. “My professors have also been helpful. A lot of these things matter to us. We need the moral support.”