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Once upon a time at NIT in Srinagar, not too long ago

Locals, non-locals leaned on each other in floods, played Holi, they never erupted like this before: campus chorus.

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | Srinagar | Updated: April 9, 2016 9:45:35 am
NIT srinagar, nit srinagar protests, protests NIT sringar, out station students protest, srinagar nit protest, nirmal singh, nit Students march outside nit campus, NIT srinagar news, J&K news, kashmir protests, kashmir nit protests, kashmir news, india news Police officers check bags of students at NIT Srinagar, Friday. Shuaib Masoodi

Outside the National Institute of Technology, a vehicle disgorges a dozen or so non-Kashmiri boys. As they are picking up their suitcases and backpacks to walk into the campus, a couple of Kashmiri boys coming out of the institute just then stop to ask them:

“Kya hua, kuch jeetey?”

It is the college hockey side returning from a match at IIT Roorkee. Bar one Kashmiri Sikh, the entire side is made up of non-Kashmiri students.

“Nahin yaar,” a member of the team replies before proceeding inside, where their bags are checked by policemen before they are allowed in.

This typical campus banter at the NIT gates belied the tensions between “locals” and “non-locals” inside that began after Kashmiri students supported the West Indies side and celebrated India’s defeat in the T20 semi-final. Tensions are now so scaled up, aggravated, too, by the police cane-charge inside the campus on protesting non-Kashmiri students, that they want to be “evacuated” and the institute shifted to Jammu or elsewhere in the country.

Journalists are barred from entering the campus. And the protesting students from outside the state are not permitted to leave unless it is to go back home, with a letter of consent from their parents. Two grey CRPF vehicles at the gates block the view. Every now and then, students try to reach the gate, television reporters rush to position themselves, and police ensure there is no contact.

Away from from the cameras, The Indian Express spoke to many students, Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri, and found that they all spoke of a time not that long ago when they were conscious they were different from each other culturally and politically, but knew how to manage these differences, and even bonded in solidarity — as in the 2014 floods.

A week though has made a lot of difference, and so high is the insecurity that except for one student, all spoke on the condition that they not be named.

“At the time of the floods, there was only humanity. There was no national, anti-national, there was nothing like that, no Hindu-Muslim thing. There were only human beings and everyone was helping everyone else,” a third-year student from outside Kashmir recalled, after a long tirade about how the police who entered the campus had beaten students who were defending the country and did nothing to stop the “anti-national” students chanting pro-Pakistan slogans.

The NIT campus was flooded. Nearly 1,500 of the students took their belongings out of the hostel and took private transport to Leh from where the Army evacuated them. More than 500 students moved to Kashmir University (KU), less than a kilometre down the road.

“At that time, we got a lot of help from KU. They gave us space, drinking water, apples, bread. It was KU and locals together who helped us,” the student recounted.

Abdul Basit Khan, the only student who said he did not mind being named for this report, said he had just joined NIT as a first year student, when the floods hit Kashmir.

“I had not made many friends yet. I lived close to the campus, and after we all helped the students move to KU, I went to look them up at the relief camp in KU. I told them that I lived nearby and that if they needed any help, my house was nearby and they should not hesitate to come home,” Basit said. He took with him home-made chapatis made by his mother, and whatever snacks he could find.

“The next day, I had gone to rescue one of my relatives whose home was flooded, and in my absence, some three or four students came home. I can’t remember if they ate at our place, but I think they had some tea, and they came the next day also,” he said.

A senior member of the faculty said he could “not express in words the support the marooned students got from the locals during the floods”.

“I do have some local friends,” said the third-year student, “but we never discussed politics and any of these things that are happening now. We have a college friendship only.”

Another third-year student spoke about how from the day he arrived at the college for the first time, “I knew there were some local sentiments that should not be breached”.

Kashmiri students too said there was nothing new in their cheering an Indian defeat in cricket, or expressing support for Pakistan. “Everyone knows this is what we do, but,” said a first year Kashmiri student, “only a week before all this, we celebrated Holi with our non-Kashmiri friends.”

Today Kashmiris and non-Kashmiri students are so bitterly divided that for the students from outside the State, the only solution they talk about is to move NIT out of the Valley. There have been no violent clashes between the two on the campus since the day after the cricket match when some Kashmiri students were attacked and suffered injuries, but both sides are full of mutual recrimination and suspicion.
“We are not safe here anymore, we want to be evacuated from this Institute,” said a student from Delhi.

“What do they fear now? Why do the outside students suddenly want security? Most of them have spent years here without any need for security,” said Basit.

“We cannot bear to see India being defamed. No true Indian can tolerate it,” said another third-year student from outside the State.

“Where did these outside students get such a big Indian flag from, that too with a flagpole. Who gave it to them,” asked a second-year Kashmiri student.

“It is impossible to be friends with people who are constantly saying they hate India and Indians,” said a non-Kashmiri student from a southern state.

“They are our brothers and sisters but I am afraid they are not behaving like that,” said a Kashmiri student.

Mudassir Akbar Shah, a Kashmiri who graduated from NIT in 2010, taught there full time from 2012 to 2015, and is now a research scholar teaching two subjects in the chemical engineering scheme, said there was never a time that there were no differences between local students and outsiders, but this was the first time they were coming out in this way.

“In all my years at NIT, there has never been anything political that has taken place. This is the first time police entered the campus. I think it has to do with the general political atmosphere in the country. What happened at JNU has had an impact, and some people, or political interests, want to drag the same kind of things into NIT Srinagar,” he said.

Another senior faculty member, who did not wish to be named, said he, too, in all his years at the institute, had never seen differences erupt in the way they have now.

At the nearby Kashmir University, members of the teachers’ association are unequivocal in their condemnation of the police cane-charge in the campus, in which some non-Kashmiri students were hurt.

“We condemn this action. Whether they are from outside the state, or from Kashmir, they are students, and it is an educational campus. Police had no business there. The administration should have discussed with students and sorted it out,” said Dr. Manzoor Ahmed, vice-president of KUTA.

He and other members of KUTA pointed out, the Ministry of Human Resources Development never sent a team to any of the universities in other Indian states when Kashmiri students got beaten up. Nor was there such concern, they said, when the J&K police and its Special Operations Group invaded campuses in the Valley, went from hostel to hostel pulling out students in their hunt for militants.

NIT was established as a Regional Engineering College in 1960, the majority of the students were from the Kashmir Valley. In 2003, REC, Srinagar, was converted into an NIT and with it the demography of the campus changed: of the estimated 3000 students enrolled, around 2500 are from outside the Valley.

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