J&K students across campuses are India’s strength

The Prime Minister has spoken about the attacks on Kashmiris, and he has done so not a day too soon. This is good but not good enough. Some shocking snatches of videos have emerged showing Kashmiris being targeted after the Feb. 14 suicide bombing that killed 49 CRPF personnel in Pulwama. Speaking in Rajasthan, Narendra Modi made the all-important distinction between the fight against terrorists in Kashmir and ordinary Kashmiris, the majority of the people in J & K, who have nothing to do with terrorism. This distinction is a no brainer. But in the charged atmosphere in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack, this has been allowed to be forgotten as violence was unleashed on innocent Kashmiris living, studying and doing business across India.

The enormity of this crime cannot be overstated because it sends out the clear message that Kashmiris cannot find safety in the rest of India. It gives fillip to the anti-India arguments of divisive forces and of course plays right into the hands of those who want a clear dividing line between Kashmir and the rest of India. What better way to sell the idea that Kashmir is not an integral part of India?

When more students from J & K visit other States and study there, they take important first steps in integrating with the rest of the country. Nothing helps grow minds, drive learning and build life-long friendships like years spent together in college. The more this is encouraged, the better it helps students – all students – learn and grow together.

Pulwama created a sense of insecurity and wrought havoc. It was gruesome. Body bags highlight the enormity of the crime. The attacks on Kashmiris also wrought havoc save that we miss the damage because it is not so obviously visible. The end-result of the two actions is the same – to weaken India. There have also been cases of immense warmth and pride and humanity, when ordinary citizens across India, notably in large metros, have opened their doors and announced that they would welcome any Kashmiri seeking shelter. Sikh volunteers did exemplary work in looking after Kashmiris who faced attacks in Dehradun. Individual stories of courage and outreach are inspiring but they cannot undo the damage done by intimidation and violence.

Arrest the culprits

The Prime Minister has quite correctly said that any incident, big or small, should not occur. But now that these incidents have occurred, what should the government do? Not acting against the perpetrators while speaking against them sends the wrong signal. The respective State police forces should be asked to look into every case of violence, investigate and prosecute the guilty. Further, those who have been forced to leave at the height of terror must be welcomed back into the community with a clear message to everyone, particularly students, that they would be protected and allowed to live their lives in the cities of their choice and run with institutions and businesses of their choice.

J&K is not the only State to have suffered in this manner. There have been incidents of attacks on people from the North-East. There was a time when several people from the North-East were attacked in New Delhi. Similarly, this is not the only time that people from J & K have seen violence. This has been a long running story over the years. When more students from J & K visit other States and study there, they take important first steps in integrating with the rest of the country. Nothing helps grow minds, drive learning and build life-long friendships like years spent together in college. The more this is encouraged, the better it helps students – all students – learn and grow together.

This is also a part of the thinking that has powered the programme of the Human Resources ministry to promote exchange visits of students from J & K to other States and vice versa. For example, on Republic Day last year, the ministry of Human Resources Development concluded its Jammu & Kashmir Student Exchange programme called ‘Maitreyi Yatra’. It was a direct exposure for the youth of J&K to be acquainted with the culture, language and development story of different parts of the country. Nearly 500 students of Jammu & Kashmir from Class IX to Class XII along with 50 supervisors visited Delhi in January 2018. This was to be followed by students from Delhi visiting J & K in the summer months, and more exchange programmes of a similar kind. In fact, the ministry worked on a plan to use education as a tool to bring normalcy back to J & K. Similarly, the army’s Northern Command has quietly and efficiently conducted “Operation Sadbhavana” over the last few years. Under this, the army organises trips for students and youth from Jammu and Kashmir to the rest of the country. More than 7,000 students have travelled under this scheme. Rogue attacks on innocent Kashmiris have ruined all these efforts in one sweep.

India and Indians should know more about what is going on at the grassroots in J & K, the suffering of the ordinary people who often are victims on both sides – police actions hurts them as much as terrorist activity. We know about the people when more come in and tell their stories. So, the J&K students should be welcomed with open arms. We must listen to their voices and their pain. That’s the swiftest way to realise and understand that ordinary Kashmiris are our friends, people whose stories have been kept away from us.

Student travel

Students travelling to study is not uncommon. More from J & K should be studying in the various colleges of India, given the disruptions and difficulties seen in the Valley.  As with every such student, the attempt is to find a connection, and often ride piggyback on a friend who has moved out and tried it out. Indian workers often went to the Middle East this way. Students studying internationally latch on to friends or seniors who have done the same. IT workers seek the comfort of friends similarly, and at least initially. Then they break out and branch out. But the initial settling-in is a vital first challenge that is broken by walking on the path of a friend, a cousin, a neighbour. It works at all levels. In Mumbai, many years ago, the Shiv Sena grew in strength while the Bombay Regional Congress Committee (BRCC) under the late Murli Deora never thrived or attracted the youth because local Maharashtrian youth found a sympathetic ear in the culture, language and interaction of workers at Shiv Sena Bhavan in Dadar whereas the BRCC seemed alien.

In all of this, word of mouth is very important. Students who feel welcomed will bring in many others. If they feel intimidated, the story that will spread will be quite another. Unnecessary suspicion, police supervision or constant fear of being asked to prove their loyalty will ensure that no one from J & K comes to study.

J&K schools gutted

The J & K Economic Survey for 2016 tells us what students undergo within the State. The document says, “The impact of strikes has been deep and profound on the educational atmosphere in the Valley. The academic calendar got altered and was adjusted in order to meet up with the current situation. Technical education institutions/students in the valley were not able to complete their academic/practical work fully within the prescribed period.” Further, it reports, thirty-one school buildings were gutted (17 fully and14 partially) during the turmoil period in 2016. Fifteen school buildings were saved by the ‘chowkidars’ or employees of the Education department or people of the local community. The situation cries out for deeper ties with institutions across India.

India and Indians should know more about what is going on at the grassroots in J & K, the suffering of the ordinary people who often are victims on both sides – police actions hurts them as much as terrorist activity. We know about the people when more come in and tell their stories. So, the J&K students should be welcomed with open arms. We must listen to their voices and their pain. That’s the swiftest way to realise and understand that ordinary Kashmiris are our friends, people whose stories have been kept away from us. Let these conversations flow. That is a powerful way to defeat divisive forces and promote integration.

(The author is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal)