New Internationalist

Kashmir University: a campus with a difference

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Students are determined to revive their banned union, despite random raids and intimidation, reports Dilnaz Boga.

Dilnaz Boga
Armed campus police attempt to control unarmed students during a protest. Dilnaz Boga

English philosopher, writer and mathematician Bertrand Russell could not have had Srinagar’s Kashmir University in mind when he described education as one of the chief obstacles to intelligence and freedom of thought. But this line pretty much sums up the state of affairs at this academic institution which is supposed to inculcate values of freedom of ideas, speech and expression in young minds.

Instead, its actions are counter-productive for its student population, as it busies itself oppressing freedom of choice and intimidating students who wish to voice their opinion and refuse to be manipulated or bow down to authoritarian pressures. All this because the authorities imposed a ban on the students’ union in 2009, and some students are working towards reviving it.

A nocturnal raid was carried out by 150 police officers from Hazratbal police station on two student hostels last Saturday. The Chief Proctor was present, along with the concerned Station House Officer of the police station and two wardens.

The raids lasted from around 7 pm to 9 pm. All the entrances to the campus were sealed, while police cordoned off the hostels and searched every room.

‘We have a right to protest against human rights violations in any part of the world. Why do they not want to encourage us to stand up for what’s right and condemn what’s wrong in this world?’

When the students asked the warden why they were being searched, especially given that he had known them for several years, the warden replied that he didn’t know who they were and that they should let police do their work.

A police officer confirmed that they received a call from the University authorities about the presence of militants in the hostel. They found nothing suspicious though.

This is not the first raid this month on campus. And this is not the first time the authorities have found nothing. Students say 10 raids have been conducted since January 2010. Students claim that authorities want to crush the movement to revive the previously banned Kashmir University Students’ Union (KUSU), and are using these pressure tactics to intimidate them.

Standing up for our rights

KUSU was banned after it protested against the rape and murder of two women in Shopian in May 2009. ‘We have a right to protest against human rights violations in any part of the world. Why do they not want to encourage us to stand up for what’s right and condemn what’s wrong in this world?’ asked a member of KUSU.

Authorities say that the banned organization will not be allowed to function as it had political links in the past. But students insist that the body is apolitical and will be used to address the problems that plague students.

‘The authorities cannot crush our voices like this. We will hold elections and choose our own representatives instead of letting the authorities choose them for us’

Two weeks ago the authorities – in an effort to ‘beautify’ the campus – conveniently demolished the sealed KUSU office, and refused to give its members an alternative building to accommodate their books.

When asked if the ban on the KUSU would be revoked, Chief Proctor Dr Afzal Zargar said he had not heard about the students’ outfit at all but that the University was planning to float its own students’ representative body, to be headed by class representatives chosen by the students.

This, the students claim, is a move by the administration to tighten their control on their activities. At the same time, the Registrar issued a circular to all the departments, preventing the formation of any new student body.

After the demolition, a handful of students assembled for a peaceful protest but University authorities snatched the placards that the students were carrying and the identity cards of those who protested. Some students reciprocated by handing bouquets of flowers to the officials who confiscated their cards.

Dilnaz Boga
Students of the banned Kashmir University Students’ Union (KUSU) protest against the demolition of their office that had been sealed since 2009. Dilnaz Boga

When the media tried to take photographs of the scuffle, the authorities held the press accountable for the mayhem and ordered them off campus.

Armed police officers are often seen patrolling the campus. An official explained that it was ‘for the safety of the students’. During last Thursday’s protest, armed police confronted unarmed male and female students who were raising slogans against the administration’s high-handedness. KUSU had declared that they would hold demonstrations in all the major colleges in the Valley if the ban on the union was not revoked.

Speaking up against the authorities is never easy, especially if you don’t have support in numbers. A senior member of KUSU has an insight into this issue. ‘When a senior batch of students graduate, they take their experiences about how to deal with the pressures exerted by the authorities on them. At times, there’s a gap. But we have to pass on what we have learnt to the juniors so that they adapt to the hostile environment quickly and don’t give up,’ he explained.

Dilnaz Boga
Deputy Chief Proctor Naseer Iqbal snatches a poster from a student during the protest. Dilnaz Boga

He added that sometimes students are hesitant to participate in protests because of where they come from. ‘Students from rural areas have done enough of this in their villages and in their colleges. When they come to the University they want to enjoy the different environment and don’t want to get back into the same old thing that they did back home.’

Another student, speaking anonymously for fear of being targeted by the authorities, revealed: ‘The officials sent police to my house and threatened me with the Public Safety Act if I don’t refrain from union activities. They can even rusticate me. The authorities cannot crush our voices like this. We will hold elections and choose our own representatives instead of letting the authorities choose them for us.’

Media manipulation

Other factors – such as being followed around the campus by civilian security guards with walky-talkies and constant pressure of being dismissed or flunked in exams – also play a part, said another student.

Meanwhile, the authorities maintain that a bunch of students were creating havoc and attempting to disrupt the environment on campus. ‘We will take action against those who disturb peace on campus. We will not allow student bodies to get politicized,’ said Deputy Chief Proctor Dr Naseer Iqbal.

In order to keep the issue away from the public glare, and to stifle the dissenting voices, the authorities have made it difficult for the press to access the campus.

The authorities have asked the press to seek permission from the Public Relations Officer before entering the University premises, and have verbally prohibited them from interacting with students

Since the protest last Thursday, the authorities have asked the press to seek permission from the Public Relations Officer before entering the University premises, and have verbally prohibited them from interacting with students.

The students are also disillusioned with the mainstream press in the Valley. ‘Dailies get advertisements from the University, and most journalists are close to the administration so they never run stories affecting our issues. The subjugation we face remains confined to this campus,’ said a KUSU member.

Psychiatrists say that it’s detrimental to stifle these young voices at this age for several reasons. ‘The students should be given a vent to protest. Preventing them could radicalize them and make them prone to misuse by subversive elements,’ said one psychiatrist. ‘These students need some kind of autonomy or control over the things around them, and having a union might be just one of the ways to have that. Considering the kind of atmosphere they live in – where everything seems out of your control and you resort to violent means to have some control – providing a vent prevents them from involvement in more disruptive activities.’

Student unions provide all students with a whole range of activities, events and facilities, from trained counselling to financial assistance. Every single student is automatically a member of the student union and involved in running the business.

Student unions can be the best way to reach out to students and can prove to be a brilliant mechanism to groom them under law and order as the university deems fit on its campus. But unfortunately communication with the authorities on these matters is an impossible task. Deeper introspection is required by the authorities to understand what could serve the best interest of students and teachers at the University of Kashmir.

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