As Protests Engulf India, Kashmiri Students Feel They Have a Target on Their Backs

Having never witnessed protests of such magnitude outside Kashmir, Sana (name changed), a student of Jamia Millia Islamia, says that there is an uncanny resemblance between protests back home and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) demonstrations across India – despite the varying contexts involved. 

Even though Sana has extended her full support to students protesting at Jamia, which is still recovering from the brutal police violence the campus witnessed in December, she says she has to be extra careful due to her identity.

“There is a palpable sense of fear… I do not feel safe anymore. My parents are worried and have strictly advised me to steer clear of any kind of protests. They think that Kashmiris are easy targets and I agree. We cannot risk being identified as protestors as that could mean getting into trouble,” she explains.

Sana was inside the library when the police forcefully entered the campus and lathi-charged protesting students on the evening of December 15. The students of Jamia had been peacefully protesting against the CAA since December 13.

After being denied entry to her hostel that night, Sana stayed at a friend’s place. Fearing for her safety, she flew home the next day. 

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Just 20 days after the violence at Jamia, hostels inside Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) were attacked by masked goons armed with sticks, clubs and other weapons. Dozens of students and several teachers were injured.

As the Delhi police grappled with investigation only to turn the glare on the students who were attacked, and India Today sting operation identified some of the masked attackers and their Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) affiliations.

Among them was Akshat Awasthi, the alleged mastermind of the attack, who confessed to attacking a student with a beard because he thought he looked like a Kashmiri. “There was a man with a flowing beard. He looked like a Kashmiri. I beat him up and then broke the gate with my kicks,” Awasthi said.

“What happened in JNU has left us all shaken. It was evident that the attack was well planned and the attackers knew whom to target. This clearly shows that we are not safe anywhere in the country,” says Nabeel (name changed), a JNU student.

The tendency Kashmiris have of constantly looking over their shoulders is not without reason. In the aftermath of the attack in Pulwama, several Kashmiri students were threatened, thrashed and even forced to shout ‘Vande Mataram’ and ‘Hindustan Zindabad’. Many Kashmiris, afraid for their lives, were forced to return home. 

“As a Kashmiri, I can say that the Kashmiri community outside is very vulnerable. This has been proven over and over again these past few years – during the fallout of the Pulwama attack and also the cricket controversy where a Kashmiri student at Sharda University was beaten,” says Suhail (name changed), a PhD scholar from JMI.

The large-scale protests in India, the police action, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and the slogans of ‘Azaadi’ reverberating from loudspeakers may remind Kashmiris of their homeland, but for some, the resemblance starts and ends there.

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According to Suhail, to understand the history of the conflict of Kashmir, one first has to understand the nature of protests and how they evolved over the decades in the face of cycles of violence. “You have to understand its long, tragic trajectory – from the political betrayal, to the confiscation of rights and the geopolitical context. In Delhi, people are protesting against a particular Act that they consider unconstitutional,” he says.

According to a 2015 survey conducted by Medecins Sans Frontieres, 45% of the Valley’s population showed symptoms of mental distress and 93% had experienced conflict-related trauma. Apprehension about an uncertain future for Muslims in India, added to years of trauma from back home, and the ongoing lockdown of the former state has created an environment of fear and insecurity among Kashmiri students. 

Khalid (name changed), who is studying at JMI, has undergone bouts of anxiety attacks since the start of the protests at his university. “The situation here today is a constant reminder of the conflict back home. I suffer from anxiety and was hospitalised because of the panic attacks,” he says.

Though Kashmiris have extended their full support to these protests, there are many who feel betrayed that the pan-India response being seen against the CAA was nowhere in sight when the rights of Kashmiris were violated and the lockdown, which is now five months in, began.

Farhan (name changed), a Kashmiri freelance journalist based in Delhi, says that Kashmiris are standing with the protestors even though not many had much to say over the Narendra Modi government’s actions in Jammu and Kashmir.

“I am in support and solidarity of all those who are speaking against the unjust CAA. It’s good that they are raising their voices and taking a stand. The secular nature of the constitution is being threatened and they have a right to protest against it. Ultimately, it is the voices of the governed that matter,” he says.

Asma Hafiz and Ifreen Raveen are MA Convergent Journalism students at Jamia Millia Islamia. 

Featured image credit: Reuters/Edited by LiveWire