For the past five years, 22-year-old Bilal Malik has followed his father’s advice, almost religiously. “He sells dry fruits and has travelled across India for his trade. He had only one thing to say when we were stepping out of home, out of Kashmir, for the first time in 2011: ‘It doesn’t matter if you are right, you can’t do anything about it, so always mind your business. And more importantly, learn to tolerate’”.
Bilal heeded the advice, first, as a paramedical diploma student in Delhi, and now as a BSc student pursuing a degree in paramedics at the National Institute of Medical Sciences and Research (NIMS), near Jaipur. Bilal and his brother had enrolled in the diploma course in Delhi and while his brother subsequently returned home to Kulgam district in Kashmir, he chose to push on.
But it was not until last year that his father’s teachings were really put to test.
“I was riding a friend’s bike and was going to visit another friend at the SMS hospital here. I was halted on the way, for a ‘routine’ check. The policeman asked for my identity card,” says Bilal. When the card confirmed his origins — perhaps, his appearance was a giveaway, too — the policeman’s demeanour changed. “Are you a terrorist?” he asked, and Bilal silently resigned to another instance of prejudice “without protest.”
In the weeks after the February 9 incident at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, when a group of students organised an event to mark the third death anniversary of Afzal Guru, hanged for his role in the 2001 Parliament attack, universities across India have witnessed a wave of protests against the central government’s crackdown on student politics and the freedom of speech in educational institutions. Caught in the crossfire between “nationalists” and “anti-nationalists” are graduate and post-graduate students from Kashmir — “outsiders” who have been accused of inciting violence against India at JNU, allegedly cooking beef in their hostel at Mewar University in Rajasthan and supporting Pakistan during cricket tournaments. Following on the heels of the Kolkata police’s directive to the city’s colleges to provide them with a list of students from J&K, in Goa, a door-to-door campaign to identify Kashmiri tenants is waiting to take off.
But these instances of bias are not new. For most Kashmiri students studying in the “mainland”, the most important instruction they receive from their families is to keep a “low profile”. In Pune, a sizeable number of Kashmiri students are pursuing their post-graduate studies.“Our parents have only heard stories about what happens in the mainland. They ask us to not expose our Kashmiri roots too much. But after coming here, we realise that things are not as bad,” says Sajjad Ahmed Malik, a PhD student at Savitribai Phule Pune University, who is currently researching insulin resistance.
In Pune for the last five years, Sajjad admits that stereotypes exist both ways. His friend Mir Shahnawaz, an MPhil student in History at SPPU, says, “People have an image about Kashmir and Kashmiris. But they know nothing about the ground situation in Kashmir. They ask us, what does an AK-47 look like, you must have seen a terrorist or what happens during an encounter?”
The recent debates on intolerance and the beef ban in Maharashtra in 2015 have made them wary and even more careful. “Back home, we eat beef at least twice a week. Our food tastes different, we eat lots of vegetables with meat. We use fresh condiments and don’t like spicy food. Kashmiri students mostly cook their own food. We don’t cook beef in our hostel now. If you don’t eat beef, you will live. But what if you eat it and it leads to an incident where your career gets affected?” says Sajjad.
A cricket match derailed Adil Ahmad’s career. In February 2014, he and his friends were watching an Asia Cup match between India and Pakistan in the hostel at Swami Vivekanand Subharti University (SVSU) in Meerut. After Pakistan won the match in the last over, a fracas broke out between the local students and the Kashmiri students. The police in Meerut booked 67 Kashmiri students for sedition for their show of “support” to the Pakistan cricket team and the university expelled them from SVSU . At the time, most of the students were enrolled in the college under the Prime Minister’s Special Scholarship Scheme.
“After India lost the match, we were attacked and the proctor ruled in favour of those against us,” says Gulzar Ahmad, 22, a resident of Soibugh in Budgam district, who was also expelled. “We were dropped at the Delhi Railway Station and we had no money. Somehow, we reached Srinagar.”
The charges of sedition against the students sparked an outrage and soon, SVSU revoked the suspension, allowing the students to return — all but nine of them, including Adil and Gulzar. “We were made to appear in the fourth semester exams. Immediately after the results were declared, they asked us to leave the University,” says Gulzar. Last year, he completed his Bachelor’s degree in business administration from Sri Sai University in Palampur, Himachal Pradesh. Five fellow students, too, joined different colleges to complete their degrees. But Adil and two other students were not as lucky. He returned home to Kreeri village in Kashmir.
Seher Tanvir knows better than to watch an India-Pakistan cricket match. “When Afzal Guru was hanged, my mother called to warn me. She said, ‘don’t take any unknown calls and don’t write anything on Facebook’. Even during India-Pakistan matches, I’m told that I should not watch the match with anyone else because it could lead to an unpleasant incident,” she says.
The 26-year-old student of Mass Communication at AJ Kidwai Mass Communication Research Centre at Jamia Millia Islamia University wears a headscarf and constantly feels the “burden” of explaining herself to those she meets. “I am constantly asked to prove my identity in terms of whether I feel Indian or not. People say that they are scared of visiting Kashmir. I tell them that no place is really safe in these times but, of course, the threat is more obvious in a militarised state,” says Tanvir.
While there may be a host of problems in Kashmir, for the students the biggest one is the dearth of colleges. “Frequent hartals hamper studies,” says Bilal. In Pune, Shahnawaz echoes this argument: “In Kashmir, there is just one university which will offer a few dozen seats for post graduation. There are no research labs or infrastructure there”.
Mir Mohsin, 19, is a student at the St Joseph College of Commerce in Bangalore. A resident of Baramulla in Kashmir, he is happy with his decision to move out. “The standard of education here is far better than Kashmir and we also get lots of industry exposure and job opportunities,” he says. Mir says he has not faced any discrimination. “But when people talk about politics or cricket, we are being regularly questioned for our view. We prefer to remain silent,” he says.
They might not answer every prejudiced query but the questions never end.
“Why do you Kashmiris do that?”
This seemingly benign question from classmates, or college staff subtly reminds several Kashmiri students studying outside J&K of a prejudice that is borne out of ignorance and misinformation. “On March 8, the International Day of Women, a girl asked — in all sincerity — if Kashmiris respect women,” says Haseeb, 27, an MS Radiology student from Srinagar.
“Last weekend, while the India-Pak T20 game was on, other students got drunk and playfully hurled abuses at us — “Pakistanis” — while walking by our hostel,” says Naseer, a final year postgraduate student. Mansoor Qureishi, 28, pursuing an Operation Theatre technology course, recalls how a man, claiming to be from the Indian Army in Jharkhand, called him and told him he would kill him “at his home in Kashmir,” after a debate on social media over a video shared by a news channel had escalated.
The most difficult part of being in Delhi for Burhan Qureshi has been finding a place to live. “I looked everywhere and then ended up living in a ‘Muslim ghetto’,” he says. While pursuing a masters in Sociology at Jamia, Burhan, 28, moved in with a friend at Batla House after an unsuccessful house hunt. “It is especially worrisome for house owners if you are a bachelor who sports a beard,” he adds.
Meanwhile, Burhan has moved to a more upmarket area in a house owned by his uncle. Now an MPhil student at Delhi University, Burhan says that the calls and warnings from home have only increased. “Parents are always asking you to focus on studies and not get involved in politics but with the recent attacks on students and the manner of the attacks against students has got them especially worried,” he says.
A politically aware, but not necessarily politically active student, Burhan has been a part of several student movements. The most famous Kashmiri face of student politics, of course, is the 27-year-old vice president of the JNU students’ union, Shehla Rashid. A BTech from Srinagar, Shehla’s politics took shape in Delhi but it does not exclude Kashmir entirely.
Not many Kashmiri students are as vocal as her though. While their number is few, some students have managed to experience a normal campus life. Syed Murtaza Hussain, 26, a second year student of MA in Linguistics at Lucknow University, left his home in Surankote, Poonch district, after class eight and studied at AMU School in Aligarh. After class 12, he came to Lucknow where his elder brother had earlier stayed to study at a madrasa. “I completed my graduation from Islamia College in Lucknow. I have been staying in Lucknow for over five years and I have not felt any insecurity,” he says. Although Lucknow has not seen any violence against Kashmiri students in the last few years, recent incidents involving Kashmiri students, like the one in Rajasthan where students from the Valley were detained by the police, allegedly to save them from Bajrang Dal activists, has made Syed “a little nervous”.
But Syed will have you know that he is no “troublemaker”. “I am the only Muslim student in my class of eight, and I am very close with my classmates. Political discussions with them have never led to any strong disagreements. I have never felt the urge to bond with Kashmiri students studying in other departments of the university,” he says. Syed is now hoping to pursue an MPhil in Linguistics at JNU.
*Some names have been changed on request