Politics is such a bad word in Kashmir University that everybody talks about it. Chief Procter Mohammed Zargar offers a reason why this is so. “There is no need for undue protest,” he says. Vice-Chancellor Abdul Wahid notes that “our students are highly career conscious and there is no restriction on anything.” Showkat Shafi, editor of Gulala, the university magazine, lists the other areas where freedom of expression gets full play: “Social themes, economy, culture, poetry, drama. Our students prefer not to write on politics,” he says.
This is the official version.
Unofficially, it’s another story. Students and a section of the faculty call it a conspiracy of silence. A systematic suppression of the spirit of democratic protest. A derailment of academic culture without discussion, debate, dissent. Sixteen years since the rise of separatism in the Valley, every act of assertion is seen as an act of defiance and “judged from the prism of national security,” says a senior teacher.
Students are frisked daily on campus. Saaqib Amin, the president of the Students Union — formed after two decades at KU last month — complains of a hyper-vigilant atmosphere on campus. A CRPF company is permanently positioned at the KU guesthouse. A Jammu Kashmir Armed Police contingent is there to, as the Procter says, “improve the security scenario” too.
The fallout: students are always on edge, says Babar Qadri, of final-year Law. “We are not treated as students, but as militants,” he says. “I have visited JNU. Students are allowed to protest and take up issues. When they do, they are not told their names will be given to IB. If JNU students in Delhi can protest about Nandigram in Bengal why can’t we take up issues about our own university and our state?”
‘Law and order’ and its ‘misuse’, like the notion of Kashmiriyat — a notion of cultural harmony used for building bridges at particular historical moments — is, as Mridu Rai says in Hindu Rulers, Muslim subjects, politically useful vocabulary. Its terms and conditions are kept vague and adaptable and its value inflated to strike down dissent.Gautam Navlakha, a writer who has been involved with civil movements in Kashmir for the last 19 years says: “Political questioning has been banned for the last 16 years. There is a fear that if the students of KU are radicalised, it will spill over in society.”
Both the students and faculty are on watch. “We received a notice during Mr Tareen’s (the last V-C) Vice-chancellorship that the teaching staff should not speak to the media without prior permission. Once you receive such a notice, it is censorship,” says Mr Baig, a teacher.
In the classroom, there are not too many positions a teacher can take. A senior teacher in the Law faculty, talks of the irony of the situation of having to tailor academic discourse to “theoretical politics for discussing the merits of Indian democracy.” “I tell students what we teach, you may not find it here in Kashmir. The law operates but it is law as it is in the books. There’s something else in operation. Democracy as an ideal and democracy beyond J&K — students have come to realise the difference.”
The breakdown of trust, one of the many side-effects of a movement of self-assertion, has affected the teacher-student relationship as well. “I had many Pandit friends, but I can’t talk of them being driven out. That’s a position I can never take in class,” says a social science teacher.
Students, on the other hand, feel “betrayed” by teachers who have allowed themselves to be censored. “We have to be careful. We are concerned with teaching and we don’t know who’s who,” says a Mass Com teacher. The absence of a progressive, revolutionary politics and particularly the failure of moderates in parties like the Hurriyat, has led to hardening of positions and the rise of separatist sentiments on campus.
Why don’t mainstream parties like the PDP and National Conference step in and engage the students? “In the 1960s,” says Rashid, a student, “during a performance by British satirists, one memorable line was ‘to help you understand the next song: in UK we have two political parties. On the one hand we have the Labour party or, as you would say, socialist. On the other, we have the Conservative party, or as you would say socialist.’ The point: PDP and NC, students say, are dependent on New Delhi for their existence. There’s no difference between the two. They are ‘mainstream’ only in the assemblies.
“The alternatives are very sharp. There is no middle ground left,” says a student leader. A partisan media, students feel, has also led to a clampdown of freedoms. “We took out a peaceful march campaigning for Afzal Guru (one of the seven political protests allowed this year on the campus) so a national daily announced that the university is a markaz (centre) of Lashkar.”
“I’m a student. I’m not a leader, I represent Babar Qadri,” says Babar at Naseem Bagh, a clearing where the new army guesthouse is getting ready to be built. “If we are not allowed to speak — it’s a colony.” It’s an old charge. But what are we going to do about it?