Meet Mirza Saaib Beg, the First Kashmiri to Get the Kofi Annan and the WHT Scholarships to Study at Oxford

For the first time in history, a Kashmiri has received the Kofi Annan scholarship and the Weidenfeld-Hoffmann scholarship to study public policy at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford.

Mirza Saaib Beg is a lawyer who studied at National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR), Hyderabad. He is currently at Oxford, physically attending classes in public policy at the Blavatnik School.

“The university is nearly a thousand years old. When I look around the campus here, I think of all the illustrious people who have walked these same corridors before me. It is yet to sink in that I’m here and have this amazing opportunity,” he says.

Mirza Saaib Beg at the University of Oxford. Photo: Special arrangement

Beg hails from Anantnag district, which is one of the many conflict-ridden zones located in South Kashmir.”Unlike other students in India, we have grown up with a different understanding of the relationship between a state and its citizens” he said. “During school, I would actively take part in debates and talk about these things.”

After school, he wanted to do something that helps in bringing a policy change and decided to pursue law. “I had a fruitful experience at NALSAR with my mentors and guides. Just like school, there too, I continued talking and writing about Kashmir and the region’s politics because the mainstream narrative is divorced from the ground reality and a lot of people don’t know about it,” he said.

The revocation of Article 370

Even while working as a legal consultant at a government organisation, he didn’t stop writing about the subject and delivered lectures in Oxford, Cambridge, SOAS and other international universities after the government of India scrapped Article 370. However, it didn’t go down well with the organisation he was working at.

“I spoke about the government’s unconstitutional decision in Kashmir on media portals and social media platforms. However my comments were considered ‘inflammatory’ and I was asked to refrain from criticism of the central government’s decisions,” he said.

However, an individual’s political opinions, he says, are their own and it is their democratic right to express dissent against violation of human rights and fundamental right on any public platform unless they are violating confidentiality or are directly involved in the policy making process.

“I didn’t make any inflammatory statement. As a lawyer, a student of constitutional and international law and someone who has lived in the region, I was just sharing my understanding of the law and my experience in a decent language to educate the people around me,” he said.

His family, he adds, was directly affected by the decision.

“Since there was a communication blackout in the region (which continues to remain in most parts), there was no way to even know whether my loved ones were dead or alive at that time or whether they had access to the medicines they take everyday. How could I not talk about it?” he asked.

In protest, he resigned from the post and started preparing to apply for his second masters. “Since the tuition fee of the course I was looking for is quite high, I had to apply for a scholarship, but wasn’t aware of the one well suited for my choice of course and college. It was then that one of my college seniors told me about the Kofi Annan scholarship and the Weidenfeld-Hoffmann scholarship,” he says.

The scholarship ,valued over Rs 75 lakh, covers all costs of education at the University of Oxford, including living expenses and a monthly stipend. The application process, Beg says, is very easy and for this batch, the application deadline is till the end of this month. “Since a lot of people aren’t aware of the scholarship, I have been in touch with some students who are looking for someone to help them with the application process,” he said.

Cycling campaign

Even during college, he says, he would hear a lot of students talk about facing difficulties with paying the fee.

A picture from Beg’s weekly training ride at Matheran. Photo: Special arrangement

Hence, in 2015, being an avid cyclist, he started a ultra-cycling campaign and raised funds to secure the education of hundreds of financially restrained meritorious students in Kashmir and law universities in India. He was able to raise lakhs of rupees to set up scholarships in Kashmir as well as in a few law universities in India.

As for what the future may hold, Beg says he wants to do something to decriminalise the growing culture of dissent. Additionally, he believes more and more students and young scholars should be able to study what they want and become leaders.

“Leadership doesn’t necessarily mean entering politics and becoming a political leader, you can lead a social change on issues which you feel strongly about, just like I did and continue to do,” he said.

Mirza Saaib Beg can be reached on Twitter @M_S_Beg

All images provided by Beg