Don’t Abandon NIT-Srinagar Students

As I write this at midnight of April 6th, scores of young students in National Institute of Technology, Srinagar (NIT-Srinagar) are nursing serious physical injuries suffered as a result of belligerent lathi charge by JK Police (JKP) earlier today. This is the second time in last few days that JKP has resorted to overwhelming force, including firing tear gas shells, barging into campus and dragging and beating up students, to quell a highly emotional but peaceful student protest on campus. These students, who’ve come to NIT-Srinagar from various parts of India, are not sure what additional misery the morning might bring. They feel isolated and besieged in a hostile environment and let down not only by JKP and NIT administration - both of whom they allege are targeting them in a partisan manner, but also by Ministry of Human Resource Development in Delhi and 24/7 media (local and national) that seem to be AWOL (absent without leave) during this crisis.

So, what’s really going on ? What is the student protest about and what riled up JKP to this extent ? Before we get into all that, questions and concerns that have emerged over last few days and need to be addressed include:

  • Many students have been hurt in police action and are lacking adequate medical attention. Who is responsible for physical safety of students and who is ensuring that injured students are being provided with adequate medical attention and counseling?
  • The faith of out-of-state students in the guardianship of NIT administration is badly shaken. They are alleging that administration and Police threatened them of consequences which shall adversely impact their academic record. They are also alleging that NIT administration is unfairly laying all blame at their feet and trying to frame them for destruction of property and physical assault on college courier. They deny these charges and claim to have documentary proof of their innocence. It is imperative that Ministry of Human Resource Development directly investigate this crisis and ensure that students are not subject to any sort of disciplinary or academic witch hunt.
  • Students, including female students, say they are being intimidated by some local miscreants of physical harm once the urgency of this crisis blows over. Ministry of Human Resource Development and local NIT administration is not only responsible for physical safety of these students but is also responsible for ensuring an environment conducive for education and without any fear of or anxiety about physical harm. If such an environment cannot be ensured, then the demand of these students that they be shifted to other NITs is justified.
  • NIT-Srinagar administration should clarify reasons and decisions that led to allowing JK Police to create mayhem on NIT campus and JK Police should explain their high-handed and belligerent behavior against students on campus.

Of Symbolisms and Coming of Age

The thirty one colleges that comprise the NIT system are geographically scattered over India. In addition to imparting high-quality technical education the NIT system is designed to promote regional diversity and multicultural understanding between students. Towards this end, the student body of each NIT is comprised of students from various regions of India. In essence each NIT is a microcosm of India and true to this pattern the student body at NIT-Srinagar includes many young students from Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, and various other South and North-Eastern states of India - in addition to local students from Kashmir and Jammu regions of J&K.

The out-of-state students are demanding that they be allowed to unfurl the Indian tricolor on their campus. Now, why would anyone object to that? Here’s what’s revealed by the testimony of NIT students.On March 31st local Kashmiri students at NIT, along with some friends from neighboring Kashmir University lit the sky with dazzling fireworks to celebrate the defeat of Indian cricket team. The night sky reverberated with ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ and ‘Hindustan Murdabad’ slogans as “freedom”-loving local Kashmiri students were unable to contain their joy. For good measure, when out-of-state students protested about ‘Hindustan Murdabad’ slogans, the freewheeling local students showered the hostel building with stones.

If you’re one those who’ve followed the saga of Kashmiri separatism - all this is old and ordinary. Also, clashes between students on college campuses are not uncommon and heated confrontations between Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri students have been reported in the past from other colleges in India as well. However, what happened next was anything but ordinary.

Next morning a large group of out-of-state students went up to the office of NIT Director to register their protest against the provocative ‘Hindustan Murdabad’ sloganeering and stone pelting they’d been subjected to previous night and demanded action against local students who’d indulged in these acts. They also asked for permission to unfurl the Indian tricolor in their campus as is done in other NITs and colleges all over India. NIT Director assured them of looking into the matter but denied permission to assemble and raise the Indian Tricolor. It’s quite possible that the permission was denied keeping in mind recent student protests in JNU and Hyderabad University. If that was the case then NIT Director clearly failed to instill confidence in his students who understandably upset about previous night’s sloganeering and stone throwing were aghast at being told they cannot unfurl what many would consider the most obvious symbol of Indian nation - the Indian tricolor - while all along being subject to the spectacle of Pakistani flags in Kashmir. Unable to contain their outrage about what they considered callous, partisan and ignominious attitude of NIT administration, the emotional students went ahead and raised the Indian flag amidst slogans of ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ (Long Live the Motherland) and Vande Mataram (I praise thee, Mother).

To counter this, another group of local students, allegedly accompanied by some non-NIT students from Kashmir University and some contractual teachers raised the Pakistani flag and started shouting Pakistan Zindabad and Aazadi slogans. Within minutes, stones started flying around and JK Police (JKP) rushed in firing tear gas shells indiscriminately. Out-of-state students allege that JKP targeted them and ignored the local group that had started the stone pelting and raised the Pakistan flag amidst the sloganeering.

In the past few months we’ve been witness to all sorts of faux-nationalism, leftist outrage and attempts at shaping the narrative by warring student groups, professors and administration in places like JNU and Hyderabad University. Nevertheless, one aspect of NIT-Srinagar crisis makes it unique and significant. That significance being that this is the first time a group of private citizens have raised the Indian tricolor in Kashmir valley. Let me repeat that : A group of private citizens - not some government agency, not politicians from Delhi who routinely airdrop into deserted Lal Chowk under a blanket of armed security guard - but rather a group of students have done something that has never been permitted or even attempted in Kashmir valley during last sixty six years due to fear of violent retribution.

We may differ in our politics (of Kashmir), we can have difference of opinion about Kashmir issue overall, we may even choose to give more credence to one point of view (about these clashes) over another - but there is no denying the fact that this is an unprecedented act of bravery displayed by these young students in the face of grave physical harm. It’s possible that this singular act was an emotional outburst from these young students (barely out of their teens) who came to NIT Srinagar thinking they were doing their bit for NIT’s mission of fostering inclusiveness and regional understanding - but unwittingly and in the process of confronting the occupational hazard of the job of habitating in Kashmir have left a seminal mark in the history of Kashmir valley and its relationship with the rest of the country.

But as the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished. For last few days these young students are facing open threats on social media from some local non-student population harboring separatist sentiments, veiled threats of retribution from NIT Srinagar administration, lackadaisical assurances from Police and shockingly no words of assurance from local government. Since April 1st these students have implored for help - on social media - such as Save the Students of NIT Srinagar and Insight NITSR but their pleas have largely gone unheard. It is from the above mentioned social media pages that I learned about this crisis and was shocked to notice total lack of adequate reporting in the media. Some reports that were filed in for publications by their local teams came across as diluted and grossly underreported the urgency of this crisis. Not surprisingly then, on April 5th, things took an ominous turn again when JK Police again barged into the hostels and beat up hundreds of students and demanded they handover the Indian flag. Things got so bad that eventually two battalions of CRPF had to be called in to save the students from JKP.

In all this, the students have been left bewildered and wondering why raising the Indian flag on their campus is being treated as an act of criminality. They are dumbstruck why the media, who to their credit reported fearlessly on JNU and Hyderabad, seem not to be responding to their pleas on social media. On my part, I’m also wondering why our Twitter-happy politicians have suddenly gone quiet.

It behooves our media, Ministry of Human Resource Development, our security establishment and indeed all of us to ensure our young students do not feel abandoned and insecure during this crisis.