A three-member team of central government officials visited the volatile campus of a Kashmir college on Wednesday after days of bitter tension between local and non-local students there presented the first major challenge for the newly-installed coalition government in the state headed by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti.
The three-member team, headed by Sanjeev Sharma, a director in the union Human Resources Development ministry, met officials of Srinagar’s National Institute of Technology (NIT) and the protesting non-local students who have been boycotting classes for two days.
The team’s visit to the campus, where central paramilitary troopers were deployed on Tuesday night, comes after hundreds of non-Kashmiri students accused Jammu and Kashmir Police of kicking and punching them when they wanted to march out on roads shouting pro-India slogans.
The protesting students told the visiting team that they would continue boycotting their classes and demanded that the college be shifted from Srinagar to some “safer place outside the valley”.
The trouble in the college, situated near the famous Hazratbal shrine of Kashmir, started after India’s loss to the West Indies in the T20 cricket World Cup semi-final played last week in Mumbai. Traditionally, it has always been sporting clashes between India and Pakistan that have stoked tension in the valley.
According to witnesses in the campus, local students had been cheering for the West Indies while the non-locals were supporting Team India. As Andre Russel of the West Indies hit the winning runs, crackers were burst in the vicinity, if not within the campus, to celebrate the victory of the Caribbeans.
This pitched non-locals students, whose number is around 1,500, against locals in the college. A day after the cricket match, non-Kashmiri students held demonstrations shouting slogans like “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”, “Hindustan zindabad” and “Pakistan murdabad”. Local students also gathered and raised pro-freedom and anti-India slogans.
Sensing trouble, the campus management suspended classes till April 4. But on Tuesday, a group of 500 non-local students took out a procession inside the campus, carrying the tricolour and shouting “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”.
Police at the campus gates prevented the students from marching out. The protesting students alleged they were beaten up and police personnel even entered the campus and thrashed some of their handicapped colleagues. Police accused the protestors of indulging in stone pelting, an allegation they denied.
“We have given a list of some faculty members of the college who stoke communal and anti-national passions in the campus and asked the (central) team that these members of the teaching staff should be asked to resign,” said Sanjeev Sharma, a representative of the non-local students.
Amid apprehensions of the students that there will be an “unfair treatment” with them during their exams beginning April 11, union HRD Minister Smriti Irani said in Surat that the team will stay in the campus till the exams get over.
Irani said the government has also made arrangements after “some students said they want to go home”. “We have also talked to parents so that students can sit for exams in a secure atmosphere.”
Senior police officers are in the campus to ensure peace and normalcy.
Shiv Sena leaders lashed out at the state government for “its inability to protect those who display the national flag and chant slogans in praise of the country”, a view shared by the Jammu Bar Association.
The challenge to restore the peaceful academic atmosphere in the college is a first for Mehbooba, who on Monday took over as the first woman chief minister of the state. The issue has larger consequences for the ruling combine as the BJP has strongly come out in support of those shouting pro-India slogans.
For the PDP, which has been expressing concern over the safety of Kashmiri students in colleges and universities outside the state, the situation is precarious.
Officials said the first step for the government is to ensure safety of non-local students in the state. However, there is a view that some students are using the situation to “manage” their migration to colleges outside the state. “That also needs to be discouraged,” the officials said.