Ten days after Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri students clashed at NIT-Srinagar following the India-West Indies semi-final, the standoff continues. Non-local students are refusing to attend classes, demanding shifting of the college outside Srinagar and the deployment of the central forces on the campus.
Kashmiri students have opposed both the demands. They argue that the permanent presence of central forces at the institute could make it vulnerable to disturbances “owing to political events outside the campus”. But the incident as it has played out at the national level displays yet again a crude lack of understanding of the situation in Kashmir — both in New Delhi and across the political spectrum — which invariably reflects in the unsophisticated handling of the state.
In this case, the clash was just waiting to happen. Kashmiris since 1947 have been celebrating India’s defeat in cricket match. Nothing new about that. This is a preference fuelled not by the communal sentiment but by the lingering conflict in the state whereby New Delhi is generally perceived as the oppressor — a country that didn’t let Kashmiris decide their fate in 1947 despite pledging to do so at United Nations.
And even before this T20 World Cup, in all cricket World Cups, all Test matches, one-dayers and the T20s, Kashmiris have behaved the same way. Just like there has been a separatist sentiment and its political and militant expression all along. In all the cricket matches, the nit has been witness to a similar spectacle: Kashmiris celebrating India’s defeat, non-Kashmiris objecting and then making up a day or two later. Or vice-verse: Non-Kashmiris celebrating India’s win and Kashmiri objecting to it.
At this juncture, to turn around and express shock and disbelief at the behaviour of the Kashmiri students at NIT is inexplicable if not utterly simplistic. At the same time, media interest in the issue is understandable. The incident fits snugly into the ongoing nationalism debate in India. More so, with its location being Kashmir, whose troubled political context lends itself easily to the polarising political agendas in the country. And this time the slogans Bharat Mata Ki Jai and Pakistan Zindabad were in direct competition with each other. As with everything related to Kashmir, politics followed in full swing. Pictures of the injured students went viral on Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter.
Political parties followed with their own spin, turning the Bharat Mata ki Jai slogan into a weapon against the BJP. No less than Arvind Kejrival, the only Indian politician who enjoys substantial goodwill in Kashmir, played to the national versus anti-national gallery — thus, in effect, branding all Kashmiri students anti-national. This kind of political position is always reductive and dangerous as in popular perception it inevitably gets reduced to the binary of patriotic Indians versus separatist Kashmiris. And ‘separatist’ in media and popular discourse now passes off easily as a euphemism for ‘terrorist’. This discourse played up on primetime television then provokes attacks against Kashmiri students in other parts of the country. But the Centre would send no MHRD (Ministry of Human Resource Development) team there, nor deploy an “unbiased” police or paramilitary force.
And this is where the Centre grossly erred in the case of NIT. Soon after the college erupted, New Delhi despatched a three-member HRD team headed by Director Sanjeev Sharma. What is more, the J&K Police was removed from the campus and the CRPF deployed. The moves grated on the nerves of common people in Kashmir which, anyway, will not bother New Delhi. This was interpreted in communal terms as preferential treatment for the students of one community only. And validly so, as similar incidents against Kashmiri students in other parts of the country had gone a-begging for attention from New Delhi. This was also read as the lack of trust in the elected J&K government which was just one day old when the NIT issue playing out for a week came out in the open. It didn’t before, as Governor NN Vohra’s rule offered little opportunity for politicisation to the actors on the scene now.
More damagingly, the deployment of CRPF has upset J&K Police, the force at the forefront of the anti-militancy operations in the state and responsible more recently for wiping out the top Hizbul Mujahideen leadership in Valley. The force which has lost 3,000 personnel in its fight against militancy was called “communal”, “biased” and “anti-national” by right-wing groups and the media. BJP sought action against the “guilty personnel”. On Prime Time television, scenes of the police personnel beating outstation students were played over and over again, something that is never done when they do this to the Kashmiri youth, even when they killed three youth in cold blood in the courtyard of a house in Anantnag during 2010 unrest. No personnel was ever booked for the murders. Nor for the killing of 120 protestors — most of them teenagers — that year. Instead, some channels preferred visuals where protesters stoned police and CRPF. This makes media reflection of Kashmir an exercise in rank prejudice — or is hostage to TRPs.
Police reacted to this portrayal with its own video, showing outstation students attacking them with stones and breaking their vehicles before they swung into action. For once, nobody trusted them. “Many of my colleagues have been asking and many more must be thinking: ‘Whose war are we fighting?’,” wrote DSP Feroz Yehya on Facebook. “All I can tell them is that this is just another phase and will pass. Further, J&K Police doesn’t need any certificate.”
He further wrote: “Police action is not doubted when a student from any other institute is booked for breaking law, but there’s controversy while we are dealing with students of a particular institute!”.
But if J&K Police with all its sacrifices and the record in fighting militancy loses confidence in a jiffy for one lathicharge against outstation students, it reflects an inherent lack of balance in our national political discourse. The police in Kashmir can be heroes as long as they keep killing militants and unarmed local protestors.
The NIT crisis didn’t happen in a vacuum. For this, the evolving ideological climate in the country is
responsible. It is in a continuum with Hyderabad Central University and JNU.