After forces stormed a college campus in Pulwama, student protests became a new norm in conflict ridden Kashmir. Umar Mukhtar tries to find out why stones replaced pens across Kashmir
On April 12, 2017, a Casper – a mine protected vehicle used by army in Kashmir – crossed the main-gate of Government Degree College in Pulwama, it caught everybody’s attention.
Before students could have made sense of their presence inside the college campus, around two dozen army-men got down from the vehicle and started asking around. “They were looking for stone-pelters,” said Aabid, who was present inside the campus that day.
Within no time students started gathering around them. “We were puzzled how come army enter a college campus when our classes were on,” said Aabid.
Once students started questioning their presence inside the campus, army-men reacted by manhandling a few students.
“This enraged students and it led to protests inside the campus,” said Aabid.
As protests intensified army-men left the scene in a hurry.
But three days later, headed by a police jeep, two armoured vehicles entered the campus. “This time they were in a different mood,” recalls Suhail, a first year student. “Without warning they resorted to ransacking and tear-gas shelling.”
Within no time the campus turned into a mini-battleground with students engaging police in stone-pelting. “They fired pellets, bullets and what not,” said Suhail.
As images and video of panicked students, especially girls, found their way on social-media sites, campus across Kashmir started to feel uneasy. The fuel to the fire was added when a video clip, showing two army men thrashing a youth brutally went viral. “It (video) broke everyone’s heart across Kashmir,” said a Srinagar based journalist who wants to remain anonymous.
Even more than a month has passed but nobody is sure what triggered the crisis. “They (police) was hunting for students who apparently were involved in stone-pelting in their respective areas,” said Suhail. “They came to make arrests inside the campus.”
A college official, who wished not to be named, however blamed a senior police official for the mess inside the Pulwama College. “He was known for such misadventures, but this time he has crossed all limits by entering a college,” blamed the official.
The day ended with over two dozen students injured, some of them with pellets. “Entire campus looked like a war zone,” said Asif, a first year student.
Next day students from almost every educational institution, both private and government, were on streets, protesting against “brutality” on their fellow students in Pulwama.
The most intense protests were reported from Srinagar’s Shri Pratap (SP) College and Government’s College for Women. Within no time protests spiraled out of college campuses to the busy Lal Chowk area. Over next few days, pictures of female students, with stones in their hands dominated newspaper front-pages. Soon more colleges joined in. What started in Pulwama, was now a pan Kashmir phenomenon.
“For first few days government exercised maximum restrain, but then they resorted to their usual tactics: use force to crush,” said a Srinagar based journalist. “Injuries and arrests once again started a chain reaction that Kashmir has lately witnessed.”
A senior academician who was keenly watching the events that unfolded after Pulwama incident feels, “students are part of the same society that has seen brutality first hand. How can they stay immune to happenings around them? They just needed a trigger to vent their emotions.”
Over next fortnight protests continued across Kashmir with more areas getting involved. “We had never seen students coming out like this,” said the journalist. “This was pan Kashmir involving almost entire student fraternity.”
However, instead of trying to pacify the angry students, and punishing those who entered Pulwama campus, a witch-hunt was started. Ariz, a student from Pulwama, was dragged out of Sumo vehicle and arrested while he was returning home after college. “I was taken to the police station where I was stripped, abused and thrashed,” he alleges. “They knew I was not involved in stone-pelting but they wanted me to name those who are.”
Ariz was let go after three days of captivity after his parents managed his release.
Ariz’s friends said they would wear a Pheran over their uniforms to enter college premises as police is constantly hunting them. “A number of students were arrested while they were on their way to college. Our uniforms had become our enemies,” said Ariz. “They treat us like we are criminals. For godsake we are just students.”
However, in a bid to pacify student’s tempers, government shifted SHO and SP Pulwama. “It was too little and too late,” said Haya, a student from Pulwama. “They are now chocking our space as students as well. We will not stay quite. We will be back on streets.”
In between crisis government started rolling heads in campuses. The first one to roll was of Principal Pulwama College’s, where it all started.
“Blaming teachers for something they had no control over is insane. Why don’t they sack the officer who entered the Pulwama College,” asks a senior teacher. “They have chosen soft targets to cover their failures.”
Waseem Parvez, 24, who is doing Master’s in Computer Application from Kashmir University, equates government response to student’s protests with ‘shooting of an arrow into a bee hive.”
He blames government for provoking the students by storming a college campus during class hours. “Our government seems to live in another time-zone and planet,” said Parvez. “How can they not know the ground situation in Kashmir? Everybody knows what these youngsters went through since July 2016, except those who claim to represent us.”
Parvez has a piece of advice for government to deal with the angry students, “Instead of using pellets, tear-smoke shells and bullets, they should throw flowers back at them. I am sure students will respond likewise. They are our future; please don’t hunt them like criminals.”
Ghulam Mohiddin, who heads Boys Higher Secondary School, Pulwama, feels the onus of normalising the situation lies on police. “They (police) should adopt parental approach while dealing with students. I am sure they don’t respond with force when their kids act like this at home. Then why to use force against these kids?”
Ghulam Mohiddin thinks “by restoring to tear-gas shelling and pellets, police is giving reason to miscreants to exploit the situation.”
Questioning the government’s method of dealing with the crisis former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah termed the situation as worrying in a set of tweets.
“Why could all colleges/universities not have been closed for a few days after the Pulwama clashes? Is @MehboobaMufti not alert to situation?”