JNU to Kashmir: The anatomy of protests and right to freedom of speech

  • Abhishek Saha, Hindustan Times, Srinagar
  • Updated: Feb 19, 2016 19:33 IST
A protester carries a poster during a march demanding release of JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar, in New Delhi on Thursday. (Hindustan Times)

Kashmir and its political history play a crucial role in the controversy surrounding the shouting of “anti-national” slogans at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and Kolkata’s Jadavpur University (JU).

The importance of Kashmir in the narrative of this crisis is multi-fold. Firstly, at the heart of it was an event on the hanged Kashmiri militant Afzal Guru and secondly, the slogans shouted at both JNU and JU were centred on Kashmiri separatism.

“If what’s reported on TV is true, it seems the JNU event and the sloganeering was a replica of the protests that occur in Kashmir every other day,” Sheikh Mushtaq, a senior Srinagar-based journalist, told HT.

“Any Kashmiri can say that the slogans of ‘Hum kya chahte/Azaadi’ – that are reported to have been shouted at JNU and JU – are heard every other day in the Valley. It is a fact that many Kashmiris bear a real sense of anger against the Indian state.”

Read More | Fear of witch-hunt makes Kashmiri students in JNU leave hostels

The Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) -- an umbrella organisation of various rights groups and NGOs -- in a press statement issued on Thursday expressed solidarity with the striking students at JNU but criticised how “the public narrative” has condemned the “irresponsible slogans”.

“These sentiments (that were expressed through sloganeering in JNU) are neither mere slogans nor represent the ‘fringe’ in Kashmir, the very place they were made in reference to. As Kashmiris, we believe that the right to self-determination is inseparable from the right to political association, dissent and free expression, and these rights cannot be selectively asserted or upheld,” it said.

Read more: Unusual silence on JNU campus but students say won’t be silenced

Guru, a convict in the 2001 Parliament attack case, was executed in Delhi’s Tihar jail on February 9, 2013. So was the founder of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) Mohammad Maqbool Bhat – convicted of murdering a CID officer – in the same jail on February 11, 1984.

The remains of Guru and Bhat were not handed over to their families by the government and both the executions continue to resonate among a large section of Kashmiris. For large sections of Kashmiris, Bhat remains an iconic “freedom fighter” and Guru remains the victim of an unjust system. And, every year, the Valley observes a complete shutdown on February 9 and 11.

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Like the shutdowns, the poster of the controversial JNU event said that it was aimed to protest against the “judicial killing of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat”.

But Professor Noor Ahmad Baba, a Srinagar-based political scientist, believes that the pro-Kashmiri-azaadi sloganeering in JNU was primarily reflective of how sections of the Indian youth were out to fight against the “flaws in the functioning of the Indian state” rather than a commitment to the “Kashmiri cause”.

“Protests or sloganeering in the Valley has a more radical element to it. There is a difference between the shutdowns on February 9 and 11 and the JNU sloganeering. Even had Guru got a ‘fair trial’ – as many believe he didn’t – the Valley would still observe a shutdown, but perhaps JNU wouldn’t protest. Bhat and Guru have become symbols of resistance for many people here,” Baba told HT.

Overall, the Kashmiri response to the JNU controversy remains varied.

The senior separatist leadership of the Valley – including both factions of the Hurriyat leadership and the JKLF – has condemned the police action on JNU students and the arrest of JNU students’ union leader Kanhaiya Kumar.

Former chief minister Omar Abdullah too condemned the crackdown in a series of tweets. The PDP has called the controversy a “debate about the idea of India”.

Speaking to HT, Mannan Bukhari, head of the human rights division of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) said, “The entire episode is unfortunate. Lawyers beating up Kanhaiya Kumar is highly condemnable. This shouldn’t have happened.”

Some Kashmiri political commentators also criticised the Left because of how the JNUSU distanced itself from the pro-azaadi slogans immediately after Kumar’s arrest.

In the Valley’s largest educational institute, Kashmir University (KU), the students’ union has remained banned since 2009. The ban had actually existed since early 1990s – when KU was thought to be a hub of anti-India sentiments – while being allowed only for a short period of time from 2007-2009.

Aala Fazili, a PhD student in the pharmaceutical sciences department in KU and a prominent student activist in Srinagar, said that the JNU incident “has exposed to Indian people what the state stands for actually”.

“What JNU faced last week, Kashmir has been facing for many, many decades now. And, as far as the resistance politics among students in Kashmir is concerned, I feel it doesn’t matter whether JNU or JU students support the cause or not,” he told HT.

Another post-graduate student of political science at KU, Rouf Dar, wrote in the online news portal Kashmir Dispatch on the JNU controversy, “We (Kashmiris) have to stand up and spearhead our movement. There is no room for representation or appropriation from any quarters. Good if anyone stands by us. Better if they don’t.”

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