On a sunny morning in mid May, about a hundred 11th and 12th standard students stepped inside a higher secondary school in the Baghat area, in the outskirts of Srinagar to attend their routine class work. Meanwhile, the school principal got an odd message from one of the teachers who’d noticed something unusual that morning. Students had come prepared with homemade protest placards hidden inside their bags, some of them piled up on the back benches of their classrooms– the school teacher quietly informed the principal. “They’re going to protest later today outside the school gate.”
The principal, who asked not to be named, was worried since the school is adjacent to a Central Reserve Police Force camp. A single stone hurled in the direction of the CRPF camp could worsen the already tense situation in the valley. The CRPF personnel, faced with stones, could also reach for their weapons or pellet guns. The consequences could be disastrous; the injuries to the protesting students, fatal.
This was the first time students of this school were going to take out a protest march, joining similar student protests in schools and colleges across the valley following the clash between students of Pulwama Degree College and security forces on April 15, 2017, in which several students were injured. That incident triggered off student protests in schools and colleges across Kashmir.
Although during the day the principal tried in vain to persuade his students to go home after school, they had decided to go ahead with their protest, starting from the school gate.
Later that day, the students gathered outside the school, holding protest placards in their hands. They shouted ‘anti government’ and ‘pro freedom’ slogans and held signs that said ‘stop killing innocents’, ‘stop harassing students’, ‘go India go back’, ‘we want freedom’. As soon as the police got a whiff of the protest, they rushed to the school to quell the situation. The CRPF personnel from the nearby camp also came out, asking the students to stay away and not pelt stones.
Fortunately, and thankfully for the principal, there was no fatal injury that day to any of the protesting students from his school. The students soon dispersed, after the police chased them away, firing a few teargas shells in their direction.
The SHO of the local police station, flustered by the sudden and unprecedented student protests in the area, later laid the blame on the door of the school principal. He asked the principal to ‘counsel’ and ‘control’ the students so that they don’t protest again near the school lest they are forced to use more force next time. According to the principal, he claimed that he was told by the SHO, “We will think twice before opening fire on students but we can’t guarantee that CRPF personnel will not open fire if students keep protesting or throw stones near their camp”.
The principal, on his part, expressed helplessness. Beyond some advice and counseling inside the school premises, he could do little once the students ventured out of school. “Our students are very young and they naturally get affected by what’s happening around them,” the principal said, arguing that the students no longer depend entirely on the judgment of their teachers and parents. Instead, he said, they take their own decisions. “There is conflict on their mind and they’re disturbed since last year,” he said, pointing out that last year’s civilian killings are still weighing heavy on their minds. “They also get to know everything from social media about what’s happening in Kashmir and the horrible pellet injuries inflicted on teenagers like them since last year.”
The principal said when the students see their fellow students elsewhere ill treated and injured in clashes with the government forces, they’re naturally affected. And they get angry. They want to protest against the ill treatment meted out to their community, he argued. And by hitting the streets, they seek a release for their pent up anger and dissatisfaction towards what’s happening around them and how students like them are treated on the streets.
“The civilian killings and long curfews last year has also taken a toll on them,” he said, adding that he has also noticed some behavioural change especially among teenage students since last year. “They are yet to come out of that sense of siege and trauma they went through last year.”
The next day the principal did counsel the students against protesting again outside the school, lest they’re injured in clashes with the police and CRPF personnel. But it had little impact.
Student protests can erupt anytime, the principal is quick to caution. “We can control them somewhat inside the school, but once they step out of school they are on their own and they can again protest,” he said. “They’re not animals who can be kept inside a cage.”
The state government sought to undermine the widespread student protests, seeing an outside hand in these protests, asking the students to return to their classes and focus on their studies. Several government run high schools and colleges which witnessed protests were closed by the authorities for days together to prevent more student protests. Chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, in a recent interview to a local daily, called the student protests as “a more organised thing, not something spontaneous.”
“If something happens at one place and you control it there, then it happens at some other place. There is someone behind it. It is not something that students want to do on their own,” she said. “There are people who want to create unrest. For them creating unrest has become a money-minting machine.”
Earlier, the education minister of the state, Altaf Bukhari, while recognizing the student protests as being legitimate if held peacefully, also laid the blame on some outside elements for instigating students. “Students have every right to seek redress of their grievances through peaceful protest,” he said. “But by coming out on the roads and pelting stones, the students are doing no good either to themselves or to the society,” he added. “Some outsiders try to exploit the students and try to create law and order problems under the garb of student protests.”
Student politics disallowed
Student politics, and the resultant student protests, is not new to Kashmir. It dates back to the pre-partition era. In fact, one of the prominent Kashmiri student leaders from that period, Khursheed Hussain Khursheed, rose to become private secretary of Mohammad Ali Jinnah and subsequently, the president of Pakistan Administered Kashmir. “Students again came to the forefront after 1964 in the backdrop of Moi-Muqaddas (Holy Relic of Prophet Muhammad SAW) movement. Ever since, the student community in Kashmir has remained sensitive to both domestic events as well as international issues,” says Umar Sultan who heads Islami Jamiat-e-Talàba J&K, the oldest state-wide students’ organisation.
He says the students in the State have been responding to the situations in their own way. For example, in 1973, he points out, the attempt to rename Srinagar’s Women’s College as Kamla Nehru College was thwarted by students by resorting to massive protests.
Post 2005, student activism gained momentum in Kashmir University even as independent student politics inside the campus remains banned.
In 2006, following Afzal Guru’s death sentence, some post-graduate students had come together to unofficially establish a student body which was named Kashmir University Students Union (KUSU). In 2009, after some KUSU leaders called for a boycott of the then President Pratibha Patel visit to the campus for the university’s annual convocation, the varsity authorities distanced themselves from the student body, saying that it didn’t recognize it. The authorities went on to populate the campus with policemen and cleared the campus of students, even evicting some male and female students from their hostels, who could potentially disrupt the program ahead of the president’s visit.
In 2010, before the summer unrest, the then VC of Kashmir University ordered raizing of the KUSU’s small office in the campus which was subsequently bulldozed. This was yet another blow to crush student activism in the campus. The banned student body has since been operating underground, its members afraid to come out in the open, not revealing their identities for the fear of being tracked down by the police and intelligence agencies.
The recent mobilization was unprecedented and had many aspects, added Sultan. “It was not only the biggest mobilization so far in terms of number of participants, but also widespread, representing almost every nook and corner of Kashmir valley and parts of Chenab Valley in Jammu division,” he points out. “It was also different for being in response to the event that was solely related to students – the recent thrashing of students at Pulwama Degree College by government forces.”
Sultan says the most important aspect of the latest student mobilization was the way it was started on the call of banned students’ organization KUSU. The students’ body later also dared to call upon the protesting students to go back to the campuses after a few days of protests. “Sporadic protests may have continued after that call but most of the students heeded to the call and went back to the classrooms,” he says.
Against the status quo
Analysts say the participation of large number of students in student protests across the valley reflects the pent up anger among the local youth. “The Pulwama College incident was an act of aggression where in the sanctity of an educational institution was outraged when forces forced their entry into the campus, and dozens of students, including some female students, were also beaten up by the forces that day,” said Sultan. “That acted as a trigger for larger participation of students in the protests because they were outraged by attempts to vitiate the atmosphere of educational institutes.”
Unfortunately the state in Kashmir has only one face and that is batons and guns, he said. “Whether you are an anguished student, an employee of the same State who wants to put across his grievances, a teacher who demonstrates for his rights, a doctor demanding better facilities, a victim of human rights violations who wants justice or any aggrieved family member who wants justice for his relative, or a political activist, the response of the State is baton charge, pellet firing and in worst cases, firing bullets which causes fatalities,” said Sultan.
He believes that instead of sending policemen to baton charge the protesting students, the state government could have handled the protests more sensitively by designating some higher officials from education department to meet and hear out the students. “After all students are future of this nation and any measure to hear from them and safeguard their interests without further harming them would always be worth taking,” he said. “You cannot brush off students as misguided youth and then expect the protests to die down on their own.”
Professor Noor Ahmad Baba, who teaches political science at Kashmir University, sees the latest student protests in Kashmir as part of the larger protests that has been going on since the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani last summer. “It is not completely silenced and the recent manhandling of Pulwama college students further instigated the students,” he said.
“These protests are a chain reaction,” he added, “people protest and the forces mishandle it, use force, and that leads to more vigorous protests.”
While dealing with students, he argued that the government, rather than using force and pellet guns, should have handled the students with empathy instead of seeing the protests as a law and order problem. “When the government is not interested in handling it with empathy, they want to use violence which creates more problems,” said Baba.
Will counseling by teachers and advice of parents help calm the students who keep coming out on the streets to register their protest? “You can be counseled only when you trust someone, but students here have lost trust in everyone, including the media,” he said. “So it is not easy to counsel the students.”
Meanwhile, back in his school, the principal has to be extra cautious now. The police has been keeping a close watch on his students since that day. He’s had to keep his students away from any violent confrontations on the streets. As much as he can, he wants to prevent his rebellious students from clashing with the police and CRPF personnel near his school. Himself a parent, he doesn’t want any trouble for his students. He cares for his students, he says, like his own children. He worries about them, too. He doesn’t want his students to risk their lives on the streets.
“There can be no respite for all of us and for our students who are also our kids till the larger political issue of Kashmir is resolved for good,” he said at the end, exasperated at the worsening situation since last year which also has a direct bearing on his students. “The more the political resolution is delayed, the more we will all suffer.”
The author can be contacted on Twitter @MaqboolMajid