Good Samaritans

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The crisis that engulfed India’s emotional sphere after a car bomb rammed into a CRPF convoy created a frightening situation for Kashmiri students in the mainland. Amid gangs chasing the ethnic Kashmiris to their classes and the campuses, various groups and individuals decided to go against the current and prove humanity is delinked from politics, reports Saima Bhat

Kashmir watched in disbelief and anger the Lethpora fallout pushing their boys and girl student being singled out across India. A day later, there was a bit of solace when individuals and groups decided against going the current and help the harried youth and manage their safe passage.

These known and mostly unknown faces are currently topping the popularity chart in Kashmir virtual space. For the frightened students who had gone to make their careers, and to “realize our dreams”, as one student said, these men and women emerged as the messiahs in an overwhelming situation.

These situations have been emerging off and on. At one point of time, it was the cricket match between India and Pakistan when serious campus unrest was reported from these educational institutions. During the 2016 unrest, this became a new norm for the students. When they would protest against the civilian killings in Kashmir, people with specific political ideology would chase them. The Jammu and Kashmir Chief Ministers have been routinely writing letters to their counterparts for making the environment secure for the Kashmiri students. Later, the government appointed liaison officers in various states to take care of the issues that students were facing.

But the crisis post-Lethpora attack was the grave one.

The first cry for help came from Dehradun where students allegedly were threatened to leave the state or face dire consequences. Reportedly, at least 12 students were attacked of which two were driven to a local hospital.

Rashid Phelwam

But as soon as the news reached a local district board member Rashid Phelwam, 34, a resident of Bade Rampur Selaqui, Dehradun, he asked his paying guest-turned-Secretary, Jameel Ahmad, to get in touch with the Kashmiri students. Jameel is himself a resident of Poonch area in Jammu and is in Dehradun for his studies from last seven years.

Naqib Alvi

It was on February 15, when Phelwam contacted the local police station and the district administrators and sought their help. By 2 pm, Jameel formed a WhatsApp group of Jammu and Kashmir Organisation (JKO) that already had state police and other district administrators of Dehradun and Uttarakhand as its members and Kashmiri students studying in entire Dehradun area were added in the group. By 6 pm, they had received 150 SOS messages for help.

“We have a mixed population of Hindus and Muslims in our locality but we had never faced any problem in our area,” Phelwam said. “When we came to know about the students it was all chaos as the students were asked to leave Dehradun and some more places. There was hue and cry everywhere that Kashmiris should be thrown out, and getting them out of their colleges and hostels was very challenging.”

Basant Rath

On Friday when the WhatsApp group received unending messages for rescue, Phelwam panicked and used his own private vehicles to get the students to his home from hostels. In the first vehicle, he drove to Bhawala and got at least 10 students. But he was not alone. He was accompanied by another Kashmiri student, Shah Majaz, studying radiology, who volunteered to help him in finding the locations where Kashmiri students where putting up. “I accompanied him and his team to many locations. In one instance a group of students were crying for help, no one came forward to help them evacuate amidst a protest rally. I accompanied with a driver rescued five Kashmiri students to Rampur that time,” says Majaz.

He says he used the social app WhatsApp effectively in helping the students. “I also travelled in an auto 30 kilometres to city centre alone and evacuated two students to Rampur. They were eager to travel home but were afraid to leave their room due to the tensions, I contacted them on WhatsApp and reached their apartment.”

Shah Majaz

The next destinations, Phelwam said was Sudwala, Nanda Chowki, Rajpora Road from where he got more than 50 students including boys and a few girls. Mostly the girl students had already left for their homes after finishing their papers, he said.

“As my house started filling up, I kept some students in my neighbouring houses which belong to Hindus Ajay and Prem Naigi, who are my friends as well,” Phelwam said. Roughly, he said he rescued more than 300 students in his private vehicles and the escort was provided by the local police.

Amarpreet Singh

As Phelwam house became a new home for Kashmiri students for three days, many locals became volunteers who got food for these students. “Trust me I just provided the vehicles and police gave safe passage to these students but rest of the things were managed by volunteers themselves. I did not cook. People got all the food themselves,” he said. “It continued for three days when at least 500 students left from his places either for Jammu via bus and a few had air tickets so they were escorted to the airport.”

On February 20, Phelwam was happy and satisfied when many of the Kashmiri students rang him up and informed that they have reached their homes safely. Some turned to their Facebook and thanked him for his intervention that saved lives.

But when the public bus services to Jammu were suspended, Khalsa Aid Asia Pacific chipped in. Their intervention was in response to a series of tweets seeking help and support. The group got in touch with pan India Jammu and Kashmir Student Organisation (JKSO). The group was founded by a north Kashmir mechanical engineer, Khawaja Itrat in 2017. At the peak of the crisis, the JKSO helpline number was getting 300 calls a day.

Khawaja Itrat

“First of all, we got our team mobilised in the areas where students were threatened and then kept their phone numbers online and mobilised all Gurdwaras in north India for the accommodation of these students. Most of the calls our helpline members received were from Dehradun, Jamna Nagar, Ambala and Moulana,” says Amarpreet Singh, director of Khalsa Aid, Asia Pacific. The group works in disasters.

“Our Gurdwaras have big halls so accommodating any number of students was not a problem for us and neither the arrangement for their food was an issue because all Gurdwaras have 24×7 langars (community kitchens),” said Singh. “We focused on a safe passage to Chandigarh first and then to Jammu.”

As most of the students were rescued by Khalsa Aid volunteers, many pictures of Sikh members were shared widely on social networking sites showing them guarding hostels and Gurdwaras that won them accolades from across the globe.

Khalsa Aid provided free and safe transport services to 250 students that included 13 girls as well. “Four of these girls were too frightened to travel in the bus so we managed to get air tickets for them,” Singh said. Getting air ticket was almost impossible as each cost almost Rs 35000 on Chandigarh-Srinagar circuit.

As Singh was speaking to Kashmir Life on Wednesday, his team was busy in the rescue of 35 more students. They transported the students to Bathindi Jammu, where their members received them. “Some were received by their family or relatives in Bathindi, and the ones who had none of their members in Jammu were helped by our members there in collaboration with the local administration, who was also running a camp, escorted them to the highway, from where they reached safely to Kashmir,” Singh added.

Another Khalsa Aid group member Gurpreet said they used 12 vehicles for transporting students and they had to accompany them along for their security as well. “Punjab police provided us security while transporting these students from Dehradun, Ambala, Haryana first to Chandigarh and then to Jammu,” said Gurpreet.

In Jaipur, it was Naqib Alvi, a government employee with Accounts General office, who came to the rescue of 41 youths from the south and north Kashmir, who go to Jaipur every year during winters, as part of their seasonal migration.

Khalsa Aid groups volunteering for help of Kashmiri students.

“They are students back in Kashmir but during winters they come here for work; the boys from north Kashmir work with an event management company; the boys from south sell shawls and sweaters here,” Alvi said.

Alvi is familiar with places in Kashmir. He said he has long relation with Kashmir since September 2014 floods when he volunteered and established a camp in Islamia College in the old city. There, he got connected to various politicians including Farooq Abdullah, Umar Farooq.

“Since 2014 many Kashmiris know me and we are still in touch on social networking sites. When this crisis started in Jaipur those in need were provided with my contact.” Alvi said. “It all started after a few Kashmiri students ‘exchanged’ some texts over social networking sites hurting the sentiments of locals in the aftermath of Lethpora attack. These students were frightened and then apart from threats there was a lot of rumour mongering around.”

When Alvi received the first call on Sunday for help, he said, he was in Mumbai and without wasting his time he booked his air ticket to Jaipur. “I got in touch with the local police and managed to rescue 41 boys to my area, which is a Muslim dominated area. Their employer was himself frightened to employee Kashmiris so he couldn’t do anything. He did not want to take the risk.”

On Tuesday, Alvi says, around 29 boys reached Jammu safely via train and up to the stations they were given full escort by the local police. “It would not have been possible without the help of the police commissioner.” As he was speaking to Kashmir Life he confirmed that more 12 youth reached Jammu safely.

Before he hung up the phone, Alvi revealed that the “four girls” had reached safely to Delhi. “They were studying in a local college and it was they who had “exchanged” the texts. It was a secret mission to rescue them and we, I and police, had to get in touch with a human rights organisation that helped in their rescue,” said Alvi.

But on Thursday, a Congress youth leader tweeted that the four Kashmiri girl students who were booked under sedition have got the clean chit. “The charges have been dropped due to the lack of evidence. The girls have fully corporated with the police and cleared their stand. I thank CM Ashok Ji, Sachin Ji, SSP Jaipur, Kavita Ji, for their support and help,” Salman Nizami wrote on his twitter.

Though most of these students were rescued to Jammu, the city of temples was itself charged. There were clashes since Friday; a number of cars belonging to Kashmir and Chenab Valley were put on fire. Authorities eventually imposed a curfew to control the situation.

The bus carrying Kashmiri students heading towards home.

So the authorities and the volunteers straightway directed all the buses carrying rescued students to a relief camp in Muslim dominated Bathindi, which police calls ‘safe passage, safest zone’.

One of the volunteers who wish to remain anonymous said it was Friday evening when they started getting these students. “After reaching the bus stand, we got them to Bathindi where we had identified two Dar ul Alooms, one each for males and females, where we kept these stranded passengers,” he said. “Travelling during the day was not possible. It was after Fajar prayers that locals came to know that we had escorted Kashmiri people, who were very frightened, in the area. Then every person be it Shia from Kargil, Sunnis, Gujjars or Bakerwals or poor or rich, everybody chipped in and contributed hugely for the food.”

It was this relief camp that displayed a rare bonhomie where “sectarian fault lines” ceased to exist. “It was a huge message that came out of this crisis that Muslims are always together. It was not you or me; it was one Kalima,” said the volunteer.

After Muslims, the volunteer said, it was a Sikh community who donated blankets for these passengers, and during the night, when these students had to be shifted to Kashmir, the entire Sikh community living in Jammu got their vehicles, be it their private or buses, and transported them out to safety. These convoys of distressed people were escorted by the local SP and ex-traffic IGP, Basant Rath. And it started from Friday and is continuing as on date.

Rath actually had got in touch with his counterparts in Uttarakhand and managed adequate protection to a number of students who were at the wrong place at a wrong time. Some political workers had also gone to the area.

There were some officers from police and civil administration – mostly non-Muslim and also a few security units – who contributed to the community mess in Jammu, insiders said, insisting they have been advised not to disclose their names. Meanwhile, reports said that Kashmiri Pandits had also put up a stall to feed the people in Jagti.

Besides, the helpline by CRPF Madadgaar says they received 73 calls for help. This was despite the fact that the paramilitary forces lost 49 of its personnel in the attack which triggered the crisis. They also put their message on social networking sites asking students to call them if their help was needed.

“The calls were mostly from the families of secretariat employees who said they are running dry with their essentials,” Gul Junaid Khan, in-charge of the helpline, said.

“During the present crisis we did not receive direct calls from the students who were threatened but when we came across some incidents, we got in touch with the local police and administration and sought their intervention. They responded positively.” Khan said, “Once the Kashmiri students reached Jammu they called us as well and we managed to get 250 students back to the valley and 90 students are in the list as the highway is closed. We have provided them with accommodation and food. Besides, our members are available in the community kitchen in Bathindi Jammu as well.”

This helpline was started in June 2017, and since then Khan says they have received 3.5 lakh calls from across the Kashmir and a few from Jammu division. Normally, he says they receive a maximum of 350 calls a day that is mostly information related. “Besides, we have received 3700 calls whom we have helped in surgeries, blood donations, medicines and dialysis. We also bear the costs of education of some students as well besides giving them livelihood means like sewing machines. We have helped four girls in their marriage and around 35 people were helped with prosthetic implants,” Khan said.

One important thing that is key to the entire crisis is that the internet helped in a great deal to all sides. While the people who wanted to create the crisis used social media to spread the message. The people who intervened in the crisis successfully used the same medium to undo it. WhatsApp helped get groups to link up, talk and manage a rescue. Facebook showed the two sides of the picture and the twitter was the space that saw statements, reactions and finally a few police cases as well.

A number of journalists had invited the Kashmiris in distress to get in touch with them. They said they have opened their homes for them. In response, most of them were trolled and abused.

Since the civil society response took over the crisis and dominated the social media, the fact is that the state government’s liaison officers were not sitting either.

“I would start getting a call at 5 am and would continue till 2 am,” Dr Inderjot Singh, the Chandigarh based Jammu and Kashmir government liaison officer said. “These calls were not distressing calls but I call them anxious calls.” He also added that they have to send a report every day to the union home minister.

Dr Singh said the Union Territory houses the twin capitals was not impacted until the Dehradun students started moving towards the city. “This created a sort of scare,” he admitted. “We had problems in two colleges the Maharishi University in Ambala and the Universal Group of Institutions at Mohali. As many as 71 and 91 students from these two institutions left home and it created insecurity for those who stayed out. I believe they left by their own choice.” Students who were living as paying guests or in private accommodations were feeling insecure so he says, he ensured they get accommodated in their college hostels.

“The entire district administration got communities involved to the extent that three Sarpanchs in Ambala district used public address system to seek apologies for any misbehaviour with the students,” Dr Singh said. “This reassured them of the security. We moved students to the college premises for two days till the tensions ebbed away,” he said, insisting that the parents of the students were against the idea of “mass exodus” of the students. He specially mentioned the local Sub Divisional Magistrate, a lady officer, who volunteered to spend a night with the girl students to reassure them about the safety. “The colleges have resumed and Kashmiris who have not left home were in the classes on Monday,” Dr Singh added. The examinations are slated for June and July.

In Delhi, it was Dr Singh’s counterpart, Ms Veedushi Kapoor, who tackled Delhi, Noida and Meerut. She did not provide any statistics as she said it may take them a few more days to compile the data.

Through our seven liaison officers, Kapoor says, they received more than 600 calls from the students. “I personally received 300 calls but none of the calls received included a student who was directly threatened or beaten. They called just because they were feeling unsafe.” She added, “In Dehradun, the problem was reported from five colleges including Alpine, Dolphin and Baba Fareed. We got in touch with the local police and administration who assured us all help.”

However, the other aspect of the crisis was that most of the states did not acknowledge that Kashmiris were being targeted. “West Bengal Chief Minister admitted there were incidents,” Omar Abdullah told in a news conference. “She did not hide the facts and the police investigating.”

Kashmiri students who had fled from various colleges of India having a night stay at Gurdwara in Chandigarh.

Apparently, it was in this backdrop that a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed in the Supreme Court by petitioners Tariq Adeeba and Olivia Bang who alleged in their plea that Kashmiri students were attacked at different educational institutions across the country after the Lethpora attack.

The plea was heard on Friday by a division bench comprising Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justices LN Rao and Sanjiv Khanna, who have reportedly directed the chief secretaries and Directors General of Police (DGPs) in states and union territories to take prompt action to prevent threat, assault, intimidation and boycott targeted at Kashmiris, especially students. They have directed that these issues can be brought to the notice of nodal officers and necessary steps must be taken.

They have also issued a notice to the Centre and 11 states that urged attention to the incidents, including a call for a boycott of Kashmiris by the Meghalaya Governor Tathagata Roy.

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