The crisis that unfolded at the National Institute of Technology (NIT) in Srinagar after West Indies defeated India in the T20 world cup semifinal snowballed into a major crisis in no time. It turned out to be the first challenge for the Mehbooba Mufti government, which had taken over only two days ago. When the cricket game ended with India’s defeat, local and non-local students of the university clashed because the Kashmiri pupils celebrated India’s defeat. The reaction to the outcome of the match from both sides was as expected. But no one knew battles lines would be drawn so soon and in such a way.
At the time when the debate on nationalism in India has assumed a new dimension, and the harassment of Kashmiri students in the rest of India has become a routine, local Kashmiri students cheering for a team playing against India should not have come as a surprise. Kashmir has been experiencing a conflict since 1989, and the government of India has been fighting a two-front battle of containing an armed rebellion and dealing with political alienation. The latter has increased in the last few years, with public unrest taking a centre stage in the state’s politics. Venting this sense of political dissatisfaction is not new in Kashmir. When India played against West Indies and Australia in 1983 and 1986, Kashmiris did not cheer for India. Back then, there was no political uprising or militancy in Kashmir. A lot has changed since then. Politically, the distance between Srinagar and New Delhi has become much wider. However, whatever happened on the NIT campus cannot not be condoned. Police could have avoided the alleged brutality against students. Handing over the campus to the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) widened the gulf between the locals and non-locals.
There are more than one versions of what happened at NIT. The non-locals have leveled serious charges against local students, who are only 25 percent of total strength of students in NIT. They have also complained of police brutality. They alleged that they were not allowed to exhibit patriotism on the university campus, and their Indian flags had been confiscated. These charges could be investigated and those found responsible could be booked. But the demand that NIT should be shut down and shifted out of Kashmir has dangerous dimensions.
It is impossible for the Government of India to concede to this demand, and it would mean pushing Kashmir against the wall. Thousands of non-local students have been studying at the college since 2004, when it was rechristened from Regional Engineering College to NIT. As of now, there are over 3,000 students studying at NIT, pursuing Bachelor’s, MTech and doctorate degrees. Of them, only 25 percent are local. A faculty member who spoke to me on condition of anonymity said not one non-local student has been harmed in the last 16 years. “The incident on the day of semifinals was unfortunate, and could have settled down on its own,” he said.
Only 25% of students at the institute are local
Until this incident, one could see the non-locals mixing with the locals not only on campus but also in the markets, in cafés and in the neighboring Kashmir University. But the way government chose to settle the matter, making it a central issue by handing the campus over to CRPF, accepting the allegations of brutality against Jammu and Kashmir Police, and not leaving the issue to the wisdom of the local administration, the future of thousands of students was jeopardized. It will take a long time to restore the situation to what it was before March 31 now, and until then, many students may feel isolated.
The centre should have shown some faith in the local government, of which BJP is a part, and allowed it to negotiate with the students. Ironically, the media was banned from the campus, representatives of seven local trade bodies who wanted to go in and talk to agitating students and assuring them of safety were not allowed inside, and all doors of reconciliation through local representatives were shut down.
In this hour of crisis when efforts should have been made to extinguish the raging fire, a section of the national India media contributed to worsening the situation. This led to the politicization of the issue, and also resulted in harassment and beating of some Kashmiri students in the rest of India. The media gave the impression that someone was at war with non-local students at NIT. And the maturity with which separatist leaders such as Syed Ali Geelani and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq dealt with the situation, assuring the non-local students of complete safety, and asking the local people to ensure their wellbeing, should be appreciated.
Some elements, such as Bollywood actor Anupam Kher, and a group of students patronized by a BJP leader RP Singh in Delhi, tried to further instigate the students by making a bid to reach out to them in “solidarity”. But sense prevailed in the government, which stopped those saboteurs and did not allow them to enter the state. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti called it a non-issue and the Deputy Chief Minister Nirmal Singh spent some time with the students to bring the situation under control. The authorities have taken a step in right direction by allowing the non-local students to go back to their homes and cool off for some time.
As the dust settles down, there are serious lessons for the government to learn. Particularly the central government in Delhi must understand that such situations are best left to the local administration. Handing over the campus to the paramilitary CRPF, sending in a team from the Human Resource Development Ministry, and creating a space for the bashing of Jammu and Kashmir Police, did not help control the situation. The central government must have reposed faith in the state government and not allowed itself to be exploited by emotional blackmail.
Cricket matches will continue to be played and people will continue to cheer for different teams. That has nothing to do with nationalism and anti-nationalism.
The author is a veteran journalist from Srinagar and the editor-in-chief of The Rising Kashmir