I was born and raised in Dehradun, a town which has been on the front pages of this newspaper in recent days, for reasons that do its history and reputation no credit at all. A series of chilling reports have appeared on the harassment of Kashmiri students studying in that town. They were forced to flee back to their home state, while the administrators of their colleges have been made to pledge that they will admit no Kashmiris in future. In at least one case, a senior faculty member of Kashmiri origin has been dismissed from his post.
Those persecuting innocent Kashmiris in Dehradun were led by activists of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. Radical students of both the left and right are not prone to reason at the best of times, and in this case the ABVP has, at it were, a visible external stimulus for their anger — the horrific attack by terrorists on a CRPF convoy in Pulwama. The attack was coordinated by a jihadi group based in Pakistan, a group aided by the Pakistani Army and the Pakistani State. But why attack young citizens of the Republic for a crime committed by someone else, and orchestrated from across the border? And particularly the Kashmiris, who have come to seek a decent education outside their own state, hoping thereby to equip themselves for a job in the modern economy? How will attacking these students help in the war against terror and in the shaming of Pakistan?
The leaders of the ABVP are not known for careful or logical thinking. It may be hard for them to comprehend that the Kashmiris who come outside their home state to study are, in effect, India’s best hope for stemming the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism in the Valley. If these Kashmiris can go to college safely and with self-respect in Dehradun, and then go on to work safely and with self-respect in places like the town I now call home, Bengaluru, then other Kashmiris will come to recognise what the jihadis seek to obscure — namely, that for a better future for themselves and their families, a country like India offers far better prospects than a country like Pakistan.
The ABVP is unwilling or unable to understand that knowledge-seeking Kashmiri students can be an indispensable aid in India’s battle against jihad. But surely the president of the BJP can. He is an exceptionally intelligent and well-informed man. However, he has an election to fight, and surveys suggest that his party will be hard put to achieve anything close to a majority in the Lok Sabha. So he chooses to go down the path of communal bigotry. Thus, in a recent speech in Guwahati, Amit Shah said that if the BJP returned to power in New Delhi, it “won’t allow Assam to become another Kashmir”. It is very clear what he means by this; that the BJP will not allow Muslims to settle in that state. The President of the BJP is willing to stigmatise citizens of Kashmir on the basis of their religion, in order to win more seats in Assam (where the majority religion is more compatible with the ideology of his party).
What the ABVP did to Kashmiris in Dehradun and what the BJP president said about Kashmir in Assam was awful enough. Even worse, from the point of view of constitutional propriety, were the tweets of the Governor of Meghalaya, endorsing the boycott of Kashmiris and of their products by the rest of India. These tweets were brought to the attention of the President’s Office soon after they were issued. But they have not been retracted; indeed, no doubt in the knowledge that he is protected by those he reports to, the governor has defended his despicable statements in an interview to this newspaper.
The prime minister has been silent on the subject — as is his wont, when it comes to matters disturbing or controversial. One word by him would have stopped the goons of the ABVP in their tracks. Expectedly, it has not come. Notably, though, the president of the Congress party has said nothing either about the demonisation of ordinary Kashmiris in the streets of Northern India, on social media, and by powerful people in office. He, too, has an election to fight; and so cowardice has prevailed over courage, political expediency over plain human decency. While the BJP seeks to demonise Kashmiris to win seats elsewhere in India, the Congress will act as if Kashmiris do not exist at all.
Kashmir, says the political class in one voice, is an integral part of India. Kashmiris are another matter altogether. So, instead of identifying, isolating, and weakening those elements in the Valley who promote Islamic fundamentalism, the ruling party now wants us to think of all residents of the Valley as traitorous. And the leading Opposition party is happy to go along with this. This is not just morally wrong, but politically suicidal — that is, if one’s conception of politics goes beyond winning a particular election to assuring a secure and prosperous future for our Republic.
The threats and intimidation issued by the ABVP, the dog-whistles issued by Amit Shah and by the Meghalaya governor, the silence of the prime minister and of the Congress president — not one of these will make our jawans any safer. On the other hand, they will please and comfort our enemies, and embolden them further. If young Kashmiris are told that colleges in the mainland have no place for them, who does that help but the jihadis? If the governor of one state asks us to boycott citizens of another state, who does that help but the jihadis? If the president of India’s ruling party insinuates that all Muslims are untrustworthy, who does that help but the jihadis? And if all these statements go uncontested by the prime minister and by the Congress president, who does that help but the jihadis?
The political response within India to the barbarous attack in Pulwama has played absolutely into the hands of the Lashkar, the Jaish, and the ISI. When we should have been proactive in shaming and stigmatising the Government of Pakistan for its sponsorship of terror, we have instead been proactive in shaming and stigmatising ourselves.
This article first appeared in the print edition on February 21, 2019, under the title ‘Alienating one’s own’. The writer is a Bengaluru-based historian.