There is no elected body of students on the campus to give voice to their aspirations – political or apolitical
On February 14, a video of a student protest in the lawns of Kashmir University’s Allama Iqbal Library against the civilian and militant killings in Kulgam’s Frisal village went viral on Facebook with over 164 thousand views and 4K plus shares. Aaqib, a law student in the university is seen as giving a fierce pro-resistance speech in the video which was broadcasted live on the social networking site. Two days later he was called to the University Proctor’s Office and asked to explain his act of “indiscipline”. The 28-year-old is now scared and worried about the repercussions of his speech, not just in the university but outside too.
Student activism in Kashmir University is officially banned but the postgraduates and scholars now and then in defiance of the official curbs gather to react in response to the political developments taking place in Valley. Aaqib was first to address the student assembly that day and it coincidentally happened to be his first speech in the university. “We were just protesting against the loss of innocent lives. I was called to the Proctor’s office on February 17 and questioned about my speech. They said it is an act of indiscipline but I had just made use of my freedom of expression,” he says, visibly distressed after the summon from university administration.
Kashmir University is the largest and oldest university in Valley and is known as the highest seat of learning but students activists on the campus allege the freedom of expression is limited and often the speakers in student gatherings attract the wrath of administration in the same manner “as stone throwers are dealt by the police.” Officials argue the university is an academic place and students should solely focus on their studies.
There is no elected body of students on the campus to give voice to their aspirations – political or apolitical, but the denial of university approval to have their own body has not stopped the university students from coming together under the banner of a single union named Kashmir University Students Union (KUSU). The name is widely known on the campus and outside but very few know who run it and how the underground union organises protests against killings and holds programmes commemorating the important days of Kashmir’s political history.
“KUSU represents the genuine aspirations of students and that is why despite every attempt from the university to stifle their right to speech and protest, the union has managed to survive for more than a decade and organise regular student meetings in open,” says a founding member and a research scholar in the university. “We just began as a group of likeminded youth who attempted to question the one-sided narrative being propagated in the university programmes. We represent the popular sentiment and that is the source of our strength and support.”
File Photo: Kashmir University Campus
After the turbulent 90s in Valley, the student politics in Kashmir University resurfaced in 2005 when students started raising political questions during the university programmes and demanded their own elected body for representation. The actual revival of union culture, however, began in 2007 when the university approved the formation of groups like KUSU and Kashmir University Research Scholars Association (KURSA). It turned out to be a short-lived realisation of student empowerment as within few months the process, backed by then Vice Chancellor Wahid Qureshi himself, hit a roadblock.
“A body was actually established and students were promised that the ad-hoc arrangement would pave way for elections. A hut was provided as office to the union but the trouble began when the university started dictating to students to seek permission before organising any programme or protest,” says Ahmad (name changed), a university student who was part of the union. “It created a rift within the union also but the same year a huge protest was organised by the body. It was culmination of the conflict between the union and university.”
Though the official recognition of KUSU and its office survived for the next few years, the political activities of students under its banner during the 2008 and 2010 public uprisings became a headache for both university and the government and to counter the influence of KUSU, a body comprising class representatives of each department was formed. The KUSU office was sealed in 2009 and a year later reduced to debris to curb its activities. The university officially announced a ban on student activism after the action and it continues till date.
The student politics, however, has continued undeterred. KUSU regularly calls for student meetings in accordance with the public mood on the streets and political situation in Valley. The gatherings are often spontaneous, where students speak and raise slogans.
But activists say the risks involved in carrying on the campus politics have increased with the administration allegedly coercing students into silence through “arm-twisting measures” like involving police to “harass” the outspoken to force them into submission. Bilal (name changed) was a student of law in the university in 2013 when Vishal Bhardwaj arrived on the campus to shoot a sequence of his movie Haider. A group of students disrupted the shooting and also forced the crew to bring down the tricolour.
“It was my last semester and I think I was not even present that day but since I was known face of various protests, after the Haidar episode my father was summoned by the police and told about my involvement in the protests. I do not know whether to call it harassment but I still cannot understand how the information from my university reached the police,” says Bilal, who now practices at a district court in south Kashmir. “When the family is dragged into this, they obviously become concerned about you and it was not just me who became victim of this collaboration between police and university administration. About six students had to face their families about this.”
KUSU has organised a series of programmes since 2010 and the union leaders say each time they have been issued notices for “disturbing the academic atmosphere of the University” and called by the Chief Proctor office to explain their positions. “It does not stop there. When they cannot control you, you get called by the police of your residential areas. They start troubling you and ask you about the motive behind protests in the university. I was once called by SP Hazratbal and questioned for half a day because we held an event to remember the martyrs of 2010,” says a former MBA student, who was a member of the Union. “How can we escape from our reality. They just want dumb students who know no difference between right and wrong.”
Kashmir University has its own security wing under the Proctoral Organisation and also the regular cops are called in when there are apprehensions of large student protests. According to the university website, the Proctoral office also maintains “liaison with the State administration in matters regarding the law and order on the campus”.
File Photo: Kashmir University Campus
Chief Proctor, Kashmir University, Naseer Iqbal says his job is limited to the university and he cannot be held responsible if the students do anything adverse outside the campus. “If I’ve called anyone to my office, it would be for his welfare. We always advise them not get involved in activities that can affect their academics. There are so many agencies... so that’s why...we counsel them,” says Iqbal.
“If any student does some mischief at Lal Chowk, how come I know that. Someone told me about the video that is running on social media. Now if someone asks them something about it. What do I have to do with it,” he says. “Inside I am a wall for them but outside it’s different. I can say let the students be first good in academics. Let them first achieve what they are here for and later become leaders.”
The student activists, however, understand that while universities in Delhi like Jawahar Lal Nehru University can give birth to leaders like Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid, their reality is different and closely linked to the political situation in the state. “We cannot be open about what we think because there will be consequences. There is a structure against you and many are not ready to bear the consequences. The response here always is harassment. The activism outside is different,” says Mehraj ud Din, a research scholar in the university.
Officials counter the proponents of student freedom by saying the politics inside campus leads to “disruption of academic activities” when most students want to attend classes.
“University is purely an academic place. There are unions in outside universities but not here. The main motive is always to prioritize studies. There is no student union but there is an alternative like a forum of class representatives. Whenever they have an issue, they meet the concerned officials and they are always having meetings with Dean Students Welfare,” says Iqbal. “You’ve to see how much loss we are going through. What do we have to do with the union? The first important thing is academics. The last year is example and then there is 2008, 2009 and 2010. JNU and others are academically well placed because they don’t have unrest issues. We have issues and this is a very sensitive state.”
However, KUSU in past has questioned the different approach of Kashmir University towards the attempts to launch student wings of mainstream parties in the varsity. The student union in 2012 opposed the Congress party Vice President Rahul Gandhi’s visit to the campus and also criticized the university for allowing the National Students Union of India to operate when it had officially disallowed any political activity in the campus.
The irony is not lost on the student leaders.
“Why don’t they go for an elected student body? University is a rough statistical representation of the state. When there is an election, KUSU will obviously win because of its political stand. It will be mini referendum. This will deconstruct the propaganda narrative that wants the world to believe that it is actually illiterate people who want azadi and not those who are from the highest seat of learning,” says a senior KUSU member.
Names have been changed on request to protect the identity of the students