The Coercion Class

   

In the absence of higher institutions for learning, thousands of Kashmir students spread across the country to pursue education. One of the major shares of the students is taken by neighbouring Punjab. But the happenings at Desh Bhagat University pose a huge question mark over the students’ ‘Punjab preference’, reports Raashid Andrabi

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Kashmiri students in a Punjab private university, Desh Bhagat University (DBU) said they are being consistently wronged by the system and the campus managers are part of the mess. It is located in Fatehgarh and Kashmiri students prefer the campus because it is closer to home.

The varsity turned into a battleground when a “peaceful protest” took an unexpectedly violent turn, leading to more than a dozen female students being hospitalised, and several more nursing injuries. This uproar at DBU came out from a decision of 2020 that shook the student body: the unilateral transfer of roughly 70 students, who were pursuing paramedical courses, to Sardar Lal Singh College, all without their consent.

“The situation has become unbearable for us. We were thrown into chaos without any say in the matter,” a Kashmiri student impacted by the transfer said. He pleaded anonymity fearing more trouble from the university.

Students of Desh Bhagat University hold a protest in Fatehgarh Sahib on September 15, 2023

Fraud with Students

These students had enrolled at DBU in 2020, sailing smoothly through the first year. However, as the first-year final examination neared, they were shocked to discover a change in the registration numbers on their roll slips. Seeking answers, they approached the campus, only to be told it was a technical glitch that would be swiftly fixed. The dust settled, but not for long.

Soon after, the classes were split, with a management decision separating boys and girls. Then, one section was all of a sudden shifted to a different building, a different college altogether. “We were not even informed or consulted about this move. They forged our signatures, even our parents’ names. We were literally ‘expelled’ from the college we originally joined,” cried a student who now finds herself at Sardar Lal Singh College; a college not recognised by the Indian Nursing Council, raising serious concerns about the quality of education and future job prospects.

Seeking clarification, the students approached the administration in 2021, which promised eventual recognition from the Indian Nursing Council. “It has been more than two years now, and all we have seen are empty promises and no accreditation,” said another student. “This is nothing short of a dictatorial regime. We enrolled in one college and now find ourselves in one that barely exists.”

The Boiling Point

A crisis that had been simmering since early 2021 reached a boiling point last week. Students gathered to meet with the university’s high-ranking officials, hoping for a final verdict on their recognition by the INC.

“When the administration told us they had no solutions, it felt like the ground had crumbled beneath us. In response, we took to the streets, our protest echoing with the silent pain of injustice,” a student said.

Dubbed as DBU Admission Scandal by the affected student group, their claim is that the university had admitted around 140 students, a number far exceeding the approved intake capacity, which typically ranges from 40 to 60 students. Promises were made by the university administration to resolve the issue, but those promises remained empty. Now, students in their third year of studies face a situation in which abandoning the degree seems a viable option.

The Evening

The situation took a bad turn on the evening of September 14. As the sun dipped, clashes erupted between protesting students and a formidable force of university authorities and police.

“Police arrested Kashmiri students on campus, their voices silenced in denial. We faced the brutal force of baton charges, some suffering anxiety attacks that led to hospitalisation,” one student alleged, recounting the horrors of the day. “Our dignity was stripped away; Hijabs forcibly torn from our heads, and some endured savage beatings that left them battered and broken, in hospital beds.”

Many videos from the September 14 protest flooded social media. They depicted a nightmarish scene of police dragging helpless female students through the streets and assaulting their male counterparts.

“The University has been plunged into darkness, closed until further notice. Beyond this, our lips are sealed as we hand this tragic tale over to the hands of the police and administration, hoping for a resolution that will heal these wounded souls,” an official of the university said while speaking to the media.

Cries for Justice

DBU’s actions did not escape notice. Kashmir’s political leaders took to social media to express their anger and sympathy.

“Lathi charging Kashmiri students & misbehaving with girls for protesting against a university that’s wrecked their future is completely uncalled for,” Mehbooba Mufti tweeted on X, formerly Twitter. “Request Bhagwant Mann ji to kindly look into this matter. Such actions alienate Kashmiris even further.”

Apni Party President, Altaf Bukhari, said he had been informed by affected students, including girls from Jammu and Kashmir, that they were subjected to police assault during their peaceful protest against the college administration’s decision to transfer their admissions to another nursing college that lacks recognition from the Indian Nursing Council (INC). These students have been protesting this apparently unjust decision for the past few weeks.

“It is strange that the students are being transferred to another college when they have already completed three years of study at DBU, with their fourth year about to commence. What is even more surprising is that the college management allegedly gave these students an ultimatum: either comply with the transfer order or be refunded and sent back home. Such conduct by a college administration is unquestionably unjustified,” he remarked.

Congress Working Committee (CWC) Member Ghulam Ahmad Mir asserted that institutions are meant to shape students’ careers irrespective of their colour, region or religion while expressing grave concern over the assault on students in DBU.

Mir said that universities should not be used to intimidate students on a colour, region or religion basis, these are meant to build students’ careers and impart the best education. Mir strongly condemned the assault and arrest of students and urged the Punjab Govt to take strict action against the Management of Desh Bhagat University for intimidating students.

“This unilateral move by the university has long been a concern, affecting Kashmiri students pursuing paramedical courses at DBU,” Nasir Khuehami, the national convenor of the JK Students Association, said. “They are now caught in a situation beyond their control.”

“University administration is duty-bound to address the concerns of their students. They should not have allowed the Punjab police to intervene in this administrative issue who thrashed the innocent students. They need to act and stop such incidents from taking place. Also the university administration is duty bound to address the concerns raised by students,” NC spokesperson, Imran Nabi Dar said. ““Girl students were thrashed brutally for no fault of theirs. This is unacceptable and should be condemned by all.”

The university is currently closed until further notice.

An Enforced Deficit

While the Jammu and Kashmir politicians are talking in a high pitch about the happening with the Kashmiri students, they are not taking responsibility for what is happening. During their rule, neither of them has actually worked towards creating institutions of higher learning in Jammu and Kashmir even when the private sector was willing.

“A halwai in Punjab owns a huge university and almost half of its earnings are coming from the students enrolled from Jammu and Kashmir,” one businessman said. “In Kashmir, when the private sector was desperate to invest in the colleges and specialised institutions, the government’s always discouraged.”

At one point in time when a group of like-minded men started a medical college in the private sector, the entire political class ganged up and ensured it was bulldozed. “They converted the initiative into a racket,” the businessman asserted.

This deficit that was by and large enforced by the successive governments created a deficit and that is what the students from Jammu and Kashmir are facing right now.

The crisis magnifies itself as the colleges in Jammu and Kashmir are unable to deliver the way they are supposed to. Some colleges have infrastructure issues and some have human resource issues. In established colleges, where, by and large, both the issues are managed, most of the time goes to extra-curricular activities. Scores of students lost their admissions in 2023 to AMU and other universities because the colleges failed to give them the results of one key semester.

Kashmir sends nearly ten thousand students for education in professional courses to institutions outside Jammu and Kashmir. While it is resulting in huge capital flight, on a year-by-year basis, it has protected the education sector from any competition and it retains the sluggish pace.

“The private school set-up is working at around one-tenth of the costs that the Jammu and Kashmir government spends on education,” one insider from the school education set-up said. “Entire government is monitoring it and growth is a real challenge.” In such a situation, he said, people deist from investing in institutions of higher learning.

Post Script

In response to mounting public pressure, the Punjab Police took action on Saturday by filing a case against the chancellor and owner of Desh Bhagat University in Fatehgarh Sahib.

According to the First Information Report (FIR), the police have named several individuals in the case, including Chancellor Zora Singh, his relative Tejinder Kaur, university vice-president Harshdeep Singh, HK Sidhu, security in-charge Darshan Singh, and seven others. Additionally, a few unnamed individuals have also been included in the FIR. The charges listed against them include criminal breach of trust, cheating, assault on a woman with the intent to disrobe, causing voluntary harm, wrongful restraint, causing mischief, criminal intimidation, rioting, and unlawful assembly, as per the Indian Penal Code.

Previously, during a visit by the NAAC team, the students had staged protests, but the university responded by bringing in bouncers who were alleged to have mistreated them. The police have confirmed that an FIR has been filed, and those responsible for the assault on the students will be apprehended soon.

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