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Kashmiri students joining militancy: Who is responsible?

One more university was in news recently, albeit for wrong reasons and for no fault of it. An undergraduate student of Sharda University, Ehtisham Bilal Soofi, disappeared on October 28 only to be featured in a video on November 2 declaring that he has joined the ranks of militants. This was the second incident in four weeks that a university student from Kashmir made headlines. In the first week of October Mannan Bashir Wani, a Ph.D scholar of AMU, was killed in an encounter with security forces in Kashmir. Wani had deserted his campus in January and joined one of several militant groups fighting in the valley.

Nineteen-year-old Ehtisham is a native of Khanyar in downtown Srinagar. He had joined Sharda in UP’s Greater Noida, which is also part of Delhi NCR, three months ago. He was living in the varsity’s hostel. On October 4, he was roughed up by a group of students who mistook him for an Afghan during a clash between Indian and Afghan students on the campus. Greater Noida Police had lodged a first information report against 350 students for rioting. Sharda also took stern action against those involved in the clashes. It dealt separately with those who assaulted Ehtisham by identifying them through video clippings.

At the time Ehtisham had shown no reaction. His father Bilal Soofi, who saw him soon after the incident, is quoted in the press as saying that he did not notice any change in his son’s behaviour. But four weeks later he showed this extreme reaction. His family is stunned. A “sober boy who loved cricket” has been transformed into a guerrilla fighter threatening to “spill the blood of infidels from Delhi to Kerala”.

Ehtisham’s is not the first case. His is not going to be the last. He is among the growing list of students who are joining the ranks of militants. It may be just a news for the world, but think of the families who are losing their sons to an uncertain future. It’s not just about one person. It shatters the entire family. In a video message shared widely on social media, Ehtisham’s family has appealed to militant groups to help their son return home. “For God’s sake, please return my Ehtisham to me. We don’t have any other son in our family,” says his mother Irfana.

It is a fact that Kashmiri students studying in Indian universities get a raw deal at every level. In February this year, two Kashmiris studying at a university in Haryana’s Mahendergarh were allegedly beaten up by a group of around 10-15 men. The assault occurred when Aftab and Amjad were returning after Friday prayers. According to CNN-News 18, students of the university said that the attack was completely unprovoked and the two were targeted only for their Kashmiri identity. The victims suffered several bruises on the faces, arms and legs. Similarly, in May 2014, more than 100 college students from Kashmir were relocated from a hostel in Noida after three of them were allegedly assaulted when they refused to shout anti-Pakistan slogans.

Kashmiri students are enrolled in a number of universities outside their home state, specially in Punjab, Haryana, UP and Delhi. One reason is their desire for higher studies. But a great many of them are sent by their parents to avoid the prevailing tension which has crippled Kashmir for the last three decades. But we may call it bad luck of these parents that their wards are denied a conducive atmosphere even outside the conflict zone. Just four weeks before Ehtisham’s disappearance, the news of Mannan Bashir Wani’s death in an encounter with security agencies made headlines. Mannan was a Ph.D scholar at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). Like Ehtisham, he had also disappeared from his university in January this year and later joined the ranks of militants.

The news of Mannan’s death in the first week of October sent a shock wave at AMU. Kashmiri students of the university became anxious and gathered to express their grief. It was a natural reaction which could have been dealt with carefully. Instead, the university administration took disciplinary action against some of them. Although the action was withdrawn after protests by students, yet it gave the unkind local police to file sedition charges against the Kashmiri students. This type of enthusiasm shown by police and security forces within and outside Kashmir is proving counter-productive.

According to a PTI report published in New Indian Express dated May 3, 2018, there has been a steady rise in the number of youths taking up arms in the Kashmir valley since 2014 onwards as compared to 2011, 2012, and 2013. Quoting officials, the report says that at least 45 youths from the valley including an MBA and a Ph.D scholar joined militancy this year till mid-April. In 2017, a total of 126 youths had picked up guns. It was the highest number since 2010, according to a data presented in Jammu & Kasmir Assembly and Indian Parliament.

The latest desertion has put Sharda University under tremendous pressure. Sharda is a private university established in 2009. It has 20,000 students which includes a sizeable number of Muslims who come from various Indian states. Kashmir has a strong representation. Besides, students coming from African countries and Afghanistan are mainly Muslims. That’s why the university has marked separate prayer hall for Muslims who offer daily prayers including Taraweeh in Ramzan. I have taught in this university for six years. Based on my personal experience I can say that Muslim students are given representation at all levels. In 2015-16, the student coordinator, which is the highest representative post, was a Kashmiri. Moreover, Kashmiri and Muslim boys and girls hold various representative positions, a fact which is rarely seen except in AMU or Jamia Millia.

We must ask ourselves who is responsible for yet another Kashmiri student’s decision to take up arms: Ehtisham himself? The students who assaulted him? The university where he was enrolled? Or the people in general or the government or non-governmental agencies including our media who have created a situation that people of an “inseparable” part of India today find themselves alienated. My answer is: The real culprits are our government, our political parties and our media. Their irresponsible behaviour guided by electoral politics has created a gulf between communities. The students who assaulted Ehtisham are less responsible than the atmosphere that we are giving them.

The attitude of the Centre viz a viz Kashmir, no matter whichever party has been in power, has never been friendly to Kashmiris. The behaviour of military and paramilitary forces deployed in Kashmir with the local population too has been cruel. No doubt Kashmir is a Muslim majority state but their fight is purely political. By giving it a religious colour the Kashmir conflict has been complicated. It has also vitiated the atmosphere at national level. The ruling BJP has contributed to this conflict in its own way by turning it into a Hindu-Muslim issue. This has benefited the party in raising communal passions nationally and winning elections in Jammu but in the process people of Kashmir valley are drifting away from India.

Media is playing its own role in complicating the matter. With the advent of private television channels during the last 20 years, Kashmir has become a punching bag for journalists and commentators. Last two decades have also seen unprecedented rise in the circulation of Hindi newspapers. Times of India which used to be No. 1 in the past is today pushed to 11th position. According to the index of Indian Readership Survey, one to four positions are occupied by Hindi newspapers whose combined daily readership is close 200 million.

Both the developments are bad omen for Kashmir. Barring some exceptions, Hindi journalists are generally semi-literate and untrained. Their range of knowledge and interest rarely go beyond Hindi region. To them Islam, Muslim, Pakistan, Aligarh, Urdu, Arabic, and of late Kashmir are one and the same. They view Kashmir problem only from nationalistic angle and present Kashmiris as aliens from another planet. Hindi is the language of the masses in North India. Whatever is said in this language makes an impact on our youth. We can feel this within the boundaries of our universities. Therefore, we cannot view Ehtisham’s desertion in isolation. There is no point in making sensational statements and giving provocative headlines. It’s high time the government reviews its Kashmir policy and stop at once the injustices being done to Kashmiris.

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