February 14, 2019, is an important marker in Haris Manzoor’s life.
In the nine months since that day, Manzoor has become a changed man. He is religious and prays five times a day. He rarely steps out of his home. And, unusually for a 20-year-old, he’s no longer on any social networking sites.
“My faith has taught me the patience to cope with what happened,” says Manzoor, a Kashmiri nursing student in Bengaluru from Dahama village in Kupwara district and a recipient of the Prime Minister’s Special Scholarship Scheme.
On February 16, two days after the terror attack in Pulwama, Manzoor was arrested on charges of sedition along with two of his friends, Gowhar Mushtaq and Zakir Maqbool, for an argument on Facebook with a classmate over the incident.
After spending seven months in Bengaluru’s Central Jail, Manzoor was released on bail on September 20, and is struggling to get his life back.
He remains suspended from Spurthy College of Nursing, and his PM’s scholarship has stopped. And, in between writing to the government to restore his scholarship and pleading with the college to revoke his suspension and marking attendance at a police station, Manzoor attends court hearings to prove he isn’t guilty of sedition.
“When we filed a complaint with the police, we didn’t know this would become a case of sedition,” says Babu Dharmaraja, principal of Spurthy College of Nursing. Manzoor was studying in the second year of the BSc (Nursing) programme, and Mushtaq (22) was pursuing a general degree in nursing at the time of the arrest. Maqbool (24) was a student of the Chinai College of Nursing.
“Their (Manzoor and Mushtaq) academic performance was fine, and so was their behaviour. There was no disciplinary action against them till that day of the incident,” says the principal.
The incident that Dharmaraja refers to took place on the evening of February 14, shortly after the news of the Pulwama terror attack broke. Koushik Debnath, a third-year student of the college, posted a few messages on Facebook seeking revenge for the attack that led to an argument with Manzoor, Maqbool and Mushtaq.
The next day a scuffle broke out between the students in the college mess. On February 16, the three students and Debnath were summoned to the principal’s office. “Till that point, it was just a fight between students. We were surprised when the college called the police on campus,” says Manzoor.
Within a few hours, the principal filed a complaint with the police requesting “appropriate legal action” against Manzoor and his friends Mushtaq and Maqbool for “sending messages abusing our Indian army and disrupting national integration”.
Justifying the administration’s decision to call the police, Dharmaraja says “people were protesting outside our college”. “There were rumours that Kashmiri students of our college were celebrating the attack. We had to call the police to control the situation and protect our other (Kashmiri) students,” he says.
‘Who expects this to happen’
Speaking to The Indian Express at his lawyer’s office in Bengaluru, Manzoor says he still remembers “the moment when the police officers were taking my mug shots while I held up a slate with my details”. “I had only seen that in the movies. I couldn’t believe what was happening to me,” he says.
In the aftermath of the Pulwama attack, many Kashmiri students across the country were either expelled or suspended from their colleges, and some were even accused of sedition for their allegedly anti-national remarks on social media.
Since he was arrested during college hours, Manzoor was still in his uniform when he was brought to Bengaluru’s Central Jail, he recalls. “Who expects such a thing to happen to them. We spent the first few days crying inconsolably in prison” he says.
“The enormity of the problem sank in once we found out what we were accused of. We found out about the sedition charges only a week later when my brother visited us in prison,” says Manzoor. His brother Mudassir had to abandon his studies midway in Pune to spend seven months in Bengaluru to help his brother get out of prison.
According to Manzoor, it was then that the three men turned to their faith for help. “The prison authorities were nice to us. The fellow prisoners gave us books to read. We read the Quran and Sahih al-Bukhari. We started praying five times a day. That helped us gain patience and remain hopeful of getting bail,” he says.
While their first application was rejected in March, the court accepted their plea on September 20. “Except the Facebook conversation between friends, no other serious allegation is made against accused No. 1 to 3. Considering the age of accused No. 1 to 3 and the fact that they are pursuing their studies, I feel that in the interest of the future of the accused No. 1 to 3, they deserve to be enlarged on bail with stringent conditions as they hail from Jammu and Kashmir,” states the bail order issued by the additional district and sessions court.
Bail was granted on the condition that each would furnish a personal bond of Rs 1 lakh each and cash surety of Rs 25,000 each. Besides, they cannot leave the jurisdiction of the court; have to compulsorily mark attendance at a police station every month; and should attend all court hearings. The next hearing is on Monday.
‘Feel like I’ve grown up suddenly’
Since he cannot go back to Kashmir till his case is disposed, Manzoor’s father, a government school teacher in Kupwara, has been bearing his living expenses. Along with Maqbool and Mushtaq, he spends most of his time in their apartment in Bengaluru.
“We lived together in a prison cell for seven months. We no longer feel the need to step out. We keep each other company,” says Manzoor, adding that they also prefer to stay indoors as they fear being attacked outside. Both Mushtaq and Maqbool declined to comment.
Manzoor has approached his college four times since his release to request revocation of his suspension. “I am ashamed of my unintentionally mischievous activity… The incident has caused havoc to my family and I request you to consider my repentance as a positive step towards my career by helping me resume my studies further,” reads an email he wrote to the college’s Registrar on November 7.
“We had to suspend them because there was an FIR against them. We have forwarded their request to Rajiv Gandhi University of Health Services (the affiliating university). We have no objection in taking them back, but we need the university’s permission,” says Dharmaraja.
Spurthy College of Nursing now asks students to sign an undertaking that they will be “solely responsible” for their “involvement in any kind of undesirable/ indisciplinary/ anti-social” activities and social media posts and they should not expect any support from their college in such cases. The college currently has 19 Kashmiri students — no new Kashmiri student has taken admission in the current academic year.
Asked about Manzoor’s scholarship, AICTE chairman Anil Sahasrabuddhe says, “I will get this checked and find out and inform. But if the sedition charges were not proved and if this college is cancelling the admission, we will take this up with the college and try to help the student. Either there or elsewhere.”
Asked about how the events of February 14 had changed him, Manzoor says, “I try to not think of what happened to me. But yes, I think I have changed. I used to be arrogant, but I now believe in a higher power and feel closer to the Almighty. I feel like I have grown up suddenly… My main focus now is to finish my graduation and prepare for civil services exam.”