The need of the hour is to bridge the divide between different kinds of students at the National Institute of Technology (NIT) in Srinagar. The way it is being mishandled is likely to increase the divide between those who think of themselves as ranged against each other on Kashmiri versus non-Kashmiri lines.
This could have very negative consequences, not only at this NIT but at educational institutions across the state and the country. Every effort must be made to encourage students to talk to each other and to think of themselves as students of an institution in which they collectively have a stake.
Although there was nothing wrong in principle with a delegation from the Union Human Resources Development ministry going to NIT, the way they conducted themselves is objectionable. They have only deepened the divide.
The team ought to have interacted with all kinds of students, informally at first. Instead, they set themselves up as a sort of appeals board to which non-Kashmiri students could address themselves. According to reports, they expelled Kashmiris from the tent under which they set themselves up on a rostrum. Using security to do the expelling was a particularly distressing way to go about it.
This is as mindless as the various high-spend but counterproductive initiatives of the Home Ministry over the past few years to divide Kashmiri students in various institutions where the government makes arrangements for their admission. At several colleges, Kashmiri Muslims are housed in separate hostels.
The government even proposed a separate hostel at the Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi. That sort of ghettoisation leads to the sort of destructive sloganeering that occurred at JNU on 9 February. Instead, the effort should be to encourage various kinds of students to live and learn together.
In the process, minds could be opened to 'other' cultures, to acceptance and mutual respect, if not to imbibing and so constructing new and more inclusive cultures. That is what Farid, Kabir, Khusro, Lalla Ded, Noorudin Wali, Nanak, Gandhi and Gautam did through this subcontinent’s history.
None of those exemplars would have used the sort of VIP court of appeals manner of the Union ministry’s team to deal with the crisis at NIT. That team was flanked by an inordinate number of security men in battle fatigues, as if they had come to preside over a war.
Divide and rule mindset
This sort of behaviour smacks of the British divide and rule policy, which helped to reconstruct 'Hindus' and 'Muslims' as mutually exclusive and antagonistic categories in the subcontinent during the late 19th century.
In 1931, similar mishandling turned an ego-based rivalry between Pandit and Muslim landlords of Kashmir into a violent rebellion by Muslim Kashmiris against the Dogra regime. In March that year, it was only a rivalry over how prominently Muslim and Pandit landlords would be represented at a reception for the maharaja. By July, it was a rebellion that reverberated in Lahore, Shimla (the Empire’s summer capital). By September, it echoed in Westminster.
One of the key mistakes of that summer, was the invitation from GC Wakefield, who functioned as the maharaja’s prime minister, to the Muslim and Hindu elites of Kashmir to present their grievances to the maharaja, separately. It was a divisive tactic, the price for which is still being paid.
Later that year, the maharaja sacked Wafefield, suspecting him by then of having covertly forced the crisis to suit British interests. Sheikh Abdullah, who was catapulted to leadership by the agitations of that summer, told his biographer many decades later that he too suspected Wakefield’s role.
If Wakefield had meant well, it would have been much better for him or his colleagues to have visited the disgruntled feudal elites of Kashmir and brought them together peaceably.
So also would it be much more conducive to peace and long-term harmony for those in authority – in the NIT administration, the state government, the Union Ministry, and in civil society – to bring together the divided student community at NIT, and to make peace among them.
It is a thoroughly counter-productive strategy that civil society peacemakers who want to do just that are being prevented from even entering the NIT campus. The place has been locked down with an extraordinarily heavy deployment of troops.
Using the police is bound to deepen the divide. Since the police, more so in Kashmir than elsewhere in the country, is used to violent repression, their actions are likely to be seen in them versus us terms by either group of students.