Ahmad Bhat* says it felt like a dream come true when his son Mohsin*, 21, was awarded a scholarship under the Prime Minister’s Special Scholarship Scheme for Kashmiri students.
A low-ranking government employee from central Kashmir, he was struggling to support his four children and now Mohsin had a chance to graduate in the subject of his choice, business administration, at the Swami Vivekanand Subharti University in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh.
Eighteen months on, however, the youngster is back home — with the tag of traitor and an even more uncertain future facing him now than before he left.
Mohsin was among 67 students suspended, evicted and sent home from the university earlier this month, after some of them reportedly cheered for a Pakistani team that defeated India in an Asia Cup cricket match.
There are two versions of what happened as the match played out on TV in the Madan Lal Dhingra Hostel of the university.
“We were provoked,” says Mohsin. “Every time India played well, a group of students would jeer at us and show us the middle finger. We even asked a senior to intervene and stop the group from taunting us, but that didn’t help.” When the Pakistani team finally won, the group says that, having been taunted, they cheered.
The non-Kashmiri students’ version is quite different. They say the Kashmiri students cheered at every six scored by Pakistan and every wicket lost by India, and shouted slogans against the country that had paid for their scholarships.
Either way, one thing is certain. When a scuffle broke out after the match and the university authorities were called in, no one was certain which of the Kashmiri students had been involved. So all 67 were suspended, evicted and sent home in disgrace.
“Sensing escalating tension and possible confrontation, we decided to suspend the errant students,” says university vice-chancellor Manzoor Ahmad. “We tried to identify the handful of students responsible for creating the trouble but nobody came forward to reveal their names, leaving us with no option but to suspend all 67 students.”
Hours later, the local police herded the students and their belongings to railway stations where they could take trains home.
“It was a sensitive issue and we dropped the students to the station only to prevent any untoward incidents on the way,” says senior superintendent of police Omkar Singh.
The police then filed cases of sedition — a colonial-era charge that carries a life term — against all 67 students.
Amid mass protests in J&K, which prompted chief minister Omar Abdullah to phone UP CM Akhilesh Yadav and protest against the charges levied, the police eventually dropped the sedition charge. The university has since said it will revoke the suspension after the national elections in Meerut, to prevent the issue from becoming further politicised.
Speaking to HT on the Meerut university campus, a group of students reacted to this news by saying that they had a clear message for their “guests”: “We will welcome you if you come here as students and respect our motherland. We will not tolerate the slightest act against the motherland.”
State Of Discomfort
Those who have studied in universities across the country as part of the PM’s Special Scholarship Scheme for Kashmiri students — in all, 2,896 scholarships have been awarded so far — are not surprised at the turn of events in Meerut.
“We were always given ‘special treatment’ by college authorities,” says one 21-year-old who was among 60 Kashmiri students allotted engineering seats at a Haryana college in 2012.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, he adds: “We were allotted an ‘exclusive hostel’ which the non-Kashmiri students joked was probably stocked with guns. We were like outcasts. The separate hostel confirmed us as ‘outsiders’. Has anybody heard of an allPunjabi hostel, an all-Bengali hostel?”
The students say they also felt neglected by the administration. “Our hostel had no facilities,” says another former student of the Haryana college. “We didn’t even have a warden or security guard, like the other hostels had. Days would go by and nobody would check in on us.”
The 67 students at Meerut too say acceptance was low from the beginning.
“We were always fair game for anyone to pick on,” says Mohammad*. “We felt like second-class citizens.”
This is ironic for a programme that was launched, in 2012, to help Kashmiri students experience India and perhaps develop a greater sense of belonging to their country.
Unfortunately, no ground work was laid to achieve this objective.
Even basic potential flashpoints such as college dress codes that forbade beards — a sign of identity and religious devotion for many Kashmiris — were not addressed even two years into the scheme, allowing for confusion and misconceptions even among faculty.
One professor at the Meerut university, for instance, told HT that he had always found the Kashmiri students extremely courteous but had felt that it was unfair that they were allowed to violate the institute’s dress code by sporting beards.
While in class the Kashmiri students managed to blend in, on campus, they say most of their fellow students would either ignore them or stare at them and make hostile remarks as they passed.
In a sign of the arbitrary nature in which the scheme has been implemented overall, the Jammu & Kashmir state government was given no role to play.
“If the scheme had been routed through the state government, we could have offered the students some counselling, helped them integrate rather than be further alienated,” said a senior government official who did not wish to be named.
Even measures laid out in the scholarship programme were not implemented — such as a cap of five Kashmiri scholarship students per college, to ensure that they were not ghettoised.
As a result, the success rate of the scheme has so far been poor.
In one college in Maharashtra where 72 Kashmiri students were admitted under the programme in 2012, only seven remain.
“Nothing seems to be working for us. We feel like total outsiders. Teachers don’t talk to us; students keep their distance. Even our results are suffering,” says one of the seven who is still at the institute.
Now, educational activists such as Rabia Baji, who has been helping students secure the scholarships, say the scheme is likely to suffer overall. “This will affect the prospect of getting admissions in the future, as well as hit the scheme itself,” she says.
For those sent home, the prospect of returning to complete their course is more daunting than the prospect of trying to navigate their way to another institute.
Most of the students that Hindustan Times spoke to said they did not want to return to the Meerut campus.
“We just want our migration certificates. What guarantee do we have that we will not be targeted again,” said Mohsin.
Mohammad adds: “We look so Kashmiri that we can easily be targeted.”
(* Names changed on request, to protect identities)