Students protest against Rahul Gandhi's visit to Kashmir University. Photo: Usman Bin Haider
Ahead of the visit of Rahul Gandhi, India’s future prime-ministerial candidate, to Kashmir University, where he, along with corporate czars, was due to ‘connect’ with young people, covert rehearsals were taking place. The University was busy scripting the role it wanted the audience to play. Suitable students were ‘handpicked’ and intelligence sleuths checked their backgrounds. The authorities held meetings with these ‘neutral’ students and handed them pre-written questions to pose, in a specific sequence, to their venerable guests. It was, the students were told, mandatory to use the term ‘our India’ while asking questions. With the script in place, the stage was set for Gandhi to ‘build bridges’ inside the fortified venue.
On the day of the visit, Gandhi played a familiar emotional card – one he uses with Indian Muslims and Dalits in an attempt to boost the dwindling votes for his party. He ‘wished to understand’ the pain of youth, he said – but was silent on the question of Kashmir and the delivery of justice.
Despite the theatre of deceit set up by the university, the bridge which Gandhi tried to build still looked likely to crumble. Scores of students, deemed ‘dangerous’, were locked inside classrooms by a posse of police and the ‘Proctoral Wing’ when they tried to move towards the venue. Another students’ group protested while proctor staff photographed them.
This was Gandhi’s second attempt to push his Congress Party’s agenda at Kashmir University – although he claims his visits are ‘apolitical’. Although both he and the university denied it, the Congress Party’s student union also made a foray onto campus, holding a pre-event meeting and asserting its influence in the management of Gandhi’s visit. Back in 2010, the university authorities claimed that no politics would be allowed on campus and conducted night-time raids, levelled offices, and banned the Kashmir University Students Union (KUSU). Since then, Indian political parties have established their unions, while the ban on KUSU continues. The university continues to maintain its ‘no politics here’ rhetoric.
The state sees the emergence of ‘independent thoughtful units’ as a ‘potential threat’. At Kashmir University, thought control is a covertly pursued tactic of the authorities. As witnessed in the handling of Gandhi’s visit, tactics are used to stifle dissent and individual freedom of expression. Those with ‘thinking brains’ are branded troublemakers, creating a climate of fear. In many ways, the university can be seen as a microcosm of Kashmir.
The university is also being used as a launch-pad for the Indian state to nurture its ‘neoliberal’ dream for Kashmir, aimed at maintaining a status quo on the territorial dispute between Pakistan, India and Kashmiri separatists.
Corporate honchos play the supporting cast in this particular theatre of deceit. In recent years, Indian policymakers have focused on ‘development’, encouraging corporations to help make ‘Kashmiris a part of growing India’. Although the state has been portraying the image of Kashmir that it desires, few of its corporate-backed initiatives have yielded results. A major job scheme piloted this year in response to civil uprisings, and involving some of the major private companies, has so far failed to provide a single placement.
The Indian government has been pushing forward its policies under the guise of ‘confidence-building measures’; in reality, these policies buy it time to push forward its own agenda.
Back at the university, hundreds of protesters succeeded in congregating outside the venue. Gandhi and his troupe cut short their performance, finding it difficult to hold the stage for long. Gandhi fled through the backdoor while the ‘we want freedom’ chants of dissenting voices reverberated around him. A few days later, scores of students – many of whom had been photographed while they were demonstrating – received a written directive from the university asking them to explain their actions.