The sun shines on all in Bhopal. Houses are easy to rent. Cops follow the rule of law. But we need to check with Abid. But where is Abid?
At a corner staff-room of Barkatullah University, Bhopal, his teachers are waiting to talk about the boy from Baramulla and how he has, with time, become their boy. “In the beginning, he may have hesitated to sing the national anthem; greeting us back with ‘Jai Hind’ may have taken him time. But these were our rules and he followed them. We did not try to convert him. It’s good that Kashmiri boys are coming here to study. It is good for the nation, it is good for them. Left behind in Kashmir, they just get more and more religious,” says Alok Mishra, one of his teachers.
Mishra shares a video with us on his smartphone as we wait. In the video, the maps of all other countries of the Indian subcontinent are seen to merge into one before getting a final saffron wash. But there is no need to sound a red alert. It’s only an animation, after all. Besides, Abid, the good Kashmiri boy, is finally here.
Video: Alok Mishra, Barkatullah University, talks of students and national integration
Barkatullah University has more than 200 students (out of a total student strength of 1,50,000) from Kashmir. “My teachers have indeed been good to me,” says the son of a Kashmir government employee who is set to complete his two-year Master’s course in Physical Education this year. “When some locals threatened to kill me because I stopped them from using our grounds for a private stroll, and brought cops to the campus, the head of my department Akhilesh Sharma took my side.”
It’s not an incident Abid is ever likely to forget. Nor that with his teachers’ support he was selected for the inter-university national games, details of which will look good on his CV when he applies for the post of a physical education teacher in Kashmir.
But it is equally unlikely that Abid, who grew up in the turbulent Nineties in Kashmir, has forgotten 2008 when the agitation around the Amarnath yatra took a communal turn leading to a punishing economic blockade; or 2010, when army encounters brought all of Kashmir out on the streets yet again. So, how will he forget Handwara, 2016, where two people, including a budding young cricketer, were killed when security forces shot at a civilian upsurge over a case of molestation by Indian army personnel, a fact that the latter contest?
But because he is not at home, Abid will just have to go very quiet on this. “Each time Kashmir erupts, I feel scared and guilty,” he says. “I am here, and I am safe. No, I do not discuss Kashmir here.… A girl is kept in police custody in Handwara but, no, I will not be discussing it in class…. Though something happens in JNU and it is debated for months. The discussions on violations of law should be equally intense everywhere, why this difference?” asks Abid.
This is why no matter how hard he rides his bike on the streets of Bhopal, or slides into a swing seat to catch a late-night movie in a city theatre, or dreams of organising a tournament, or looks up employment ads, sitting in his room with his flatmates, to work outside of Kashmir if need be -- he is never really quite out of Kashmir.
“My mom calls me eight times in a day before going to sleep,” says Shahlat, an engineering student in Pune. “I can’t tell this to my closest Indian friends. They wouldn’t understand, they’d laugh.” Student life outside Kashmir, however, has introduced him to a different world. “In Kashmir, life ends at 6 pm. That’s the time it starts here. In Pune, I can catch a movie or walk into a cafe. I can study without interruption and go to the library whenever I want.”
Youngsters also meet other youngsters with no connection to Kashmir. Zoaib,* who studies management in Pune, has a north Indian girlfriend. “He sent me a Facebook request, we got chatting and eventually met in a coffee-shop,” says Tanya. They plan to marry soon. Is she with him on the issue of Kashmir? “Kashmiris outside Kashmir are already ‘free,’” she says without missing a beat. He says she will believe it that “it’s really that bad in Kashmir when she sees it with her own eyes.”
Shahlat, a Pune student, speaks about the randomness of violence in Kashmir
The silence that most Kashmiri students face on the subject of Kashmir, even in relations of intimacy and friendship, actually keep them bound to their isolation in which they keep writing and re-writing the Kashmir story in their heads.
Zaheer, a medical researcher who has studied outside Kashmir, says his best friend and classmate, a Tamilian, were in agreement on most things – except Kashmir. “Once or twice when we discussed it, he called me a traitor. I have not brought it up since. I realise there is no use in my trying to make him ‘understand’.”
A student of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU has around 800 Kashmiri students out of a student population of nearly 40,000), Omar’s* experiences have strengthened his belief that real solidarity with another student is possible only if he is a fellow Kashmiri. “It’s a friendship of shared vulnerabilities and yet you can connect with the fact that both of you also want a career, it’s not just regional identification.”
After he completes his Ph.D, will he work in outside Kashmir? The short answer is a No.
Neither will the student of Jodhpur’s Vyas Dental College who was called “Pakistani”, chased to his hostel room and beaten up in retaliation for the violence in National Institute of Technology, Srinagar. Salim* says the college director asked him to withdraw his FIR “otherwise I might have problems during placements”. Kashmiri students studying in colleges outside of Kashmir have been attacked in at least 30 different instances since February 2013.
Did any of his hostel mates come to his help? Did any of his classmates ask him how he was the next day? “Everyone knew…no one said a word,” he says.
Indian academia – exceptions notwithstanding – also have their biases, says Omar*. During his stint in another university, his guide told him, “‘You guys come from Kashmir and expect it to snow here and that your supervisor will write your thesis.’” All this, because he had asked for leave to finish his thesis at home. “It was summer and I still had not got a hostel….”
Since the past five years more and more Kashmiri students have been studying outside Kashmir. The ongoing conflict in the state has impacted every decision – personal, professional or developmental.
Farah*, a law student in West Bengal who has also studied in Delhi, says the Kashmiri middle-class is the class that is “most insecure because of the conflict. Even those with 10 kanals (1,250 acres) of land, a house, livestock, have started to feel unemployed, so they feel the way out for them is to invest in their children’s education outside…It is felt that those who protest are the unemployed, those who are shouting azaadi means their key issue is unemployment…After a point, all that everyone is talking of are jobs.”
A senior education official in Kashmir, speaking on condition of anonymity, admitted to limited investment not just in education but in other key areas such as health in the state. “The private sector is hands off Kashmir. Before 2005, there was just one engineering college here,” he says.
J-K education minister Naeem Akhtar, speaking over the phone, said the budget allocation in education is “not much” and that “thousands” have been leaving home for higher education. While college enrolment in the Valley is 72,000 at present, post graduation numbers show a sharp dip to nearly 5,000/year. Students have also started leaving home younger – just after they finish their Class 10.
The irony is that a university degree from colleges outside Kashmir is not helping Kashmiri youth re-locate to Kashmir. Waqar, who finished his MBA in Pune now works with a firm in the same city. “So in a small way our money helps Pune develop, not Kashmir. Kashmiri youths have started to swell the Indian labour force because the conditions for entrepreneurship have been finished off in Kashmir…but the pity is, now I have the training and I have so many ideas. But what will I do if I go back?”
Tower of Babel
Waqar loves Pune. He’ll even stick his neck out to say “Jai Maharashtra”, he says. The city has been good to him. But given the right opportunity, he would go back home. He builds dreams only to topple them all the time. “I even did some ground-work for opening a business there. But then I thought that every second day in Kashmir, there’s a strike. You can’t launch a business in such conditions. ‘I can’t reach the product to you in time because of long Army convoys.’ Which client will excuse me because of this reason?”
A moment later Waqar goes quiet. “ Anything can happen in Kashmir. I want my youth to be stable,” he says in an oddly touching way as if bracing up for hidden dangers. When did a twenty-year-old of any Indian city have to talk of himself in these terms? What will Waqar have to do to feel stable?
‘Waqar’s way’ seems to be to talk of solutions. What is obvious to him, should be obvious to everyone else, he feels. “If Fundamental Rights given by the Constitution apply in Pune, why won’t they apply in Kashmir? The situation in Kashmir is not difficult to understand or to solve. Didn’t the corporators of Kondhwa [a Pune locality] solve its problems in the days when the locality was a badland with dons running loose, and frequent murders? No one gave you a job if you said you were from Kondhwa…but its corporators took charge, opened colleges here….” If he knew who was in charge in Kashmir, he would know whom to ask to fix things, he says tongue-in-cheek.
Hope and humour are compulsory in a people besieged by conflict. In his novel ‘Men in the Sun’, Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani talks of the non-existence of choice for his community. “…the Arabic teacher at the beginning of each school year asks the children to write an essay on whether they prefer life in the village or life in the city – and the children live in a refugee camp!”
Watch video: What’s so unusual if we study outside Kashmir, asks Faheem of Kashmir
What war and conflict also do is normalise the abnormal. “The cycle of repression-protests-normalcy in Kashmir is being pitted against corporate jobs-easy phone connectivity-exams running on schedule for our boys and girls in Delhi or Bangalore,” says Farah*.
Where students are concerned, there is never one single discourse, each will say different things, she adds.
“One will have imbibed the culture of Delhi, the other of Pune, one will be impressed by the fruits of neo-liberalism. Another won’t. Students are projected to have availed of Manmohan Singh scholarships and also scholarships instituted by the Narendra Modi government but not every Kashmiri student is on a scholarship. What the State has managed to create are two examples out of everything so as to say not everybody is with the Kashmiri resistance,” she says. Coercion, it seems, is not the only way in which the attempt to break the will of a people is made.
(* Names changed on request)