The crisis at the National Institute of Technology, Srinagar — a college of national important — is the first major challenge for the new chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti. Although, the controversy refuses to die down, how she will deal with it in the present situation — politically, as well as administratively — will not just set the tone for her tenure, but will also define her relationship with her alliance partner, the BJP.
The non-local students of this premier institute of state are now demanding the relocation of the college to a safer place, most of them want it to be shifted to Jammu. Sure enough, when a team from the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD) met the agitated students on Wednesday afternoon, a student on the stage demanded the relocation of the NIT Campus to a “safer location”. Surprisingly enough, many in the crowd shouted that it should be relocated to the Hindu majority region of the state, Jammu.
The team that interacted with the students included Sanjeev Sharma, director (technical education) in the HRD ministry, deputy director (finance) Fazal Mehmood and chairman of the board of governors of NIT, MJ Zarabi. They gave the students a patient hearing and tried to persuade them that their genuine demands would be looked into. The team is staying back in Srinagar, according to sources, till 11 April.
Zarabi, told reporters that the NIT administration was ready to fulfil all genuine demands from outstation students.
“There was no serious or unnecessary demand by the students and we are trying to look at them (the demands) with an open mind so that their academics won’t suffer. The action taken by the police was necessary as they had to stop students from becoming violent. If the police had allowed the students to move outside the campus, the situation would have taken an ugly turn,” he said.
“Whatever happened was unfortunate and shouldn’t have happened as it affects the academic atmosphere. We will raise the issue of excesses by police, if any, with the state government,” Zarabi told reporters.
But after the meeting, the voices demanding the relocation of the institute have begun to grow louder. With the agitated students emphasising that they would like to be “escorted outside the state, and when they come back, they would like to go to another campus in a safer place.”
“If Kashmiri students don’t want to celebrate the Indian team's victory and choose instead to celebrate the Indian defeat, then we don’t want to remain here. We are demanding the National Flag be hoisted at the main gate,” a student, who wished to remain anonymous, told Firstpost on Wednesday.
“For the moment, we want to leave the institution and come join back only when the campus is shifted to a safer location preferably in Jammu,” he added.
Normal classes continued on Wednesday and Thursday morning, but the attendance of the students remained abysmal. The unfortunate part is the NIT has been turned into a garrison now.
If the students remain adamant on the relocation of the campus, can the state government give in to the demands and what would be the political impact on Mehbooba's core constituency? This will be a decision that could split wide open the politics of regionalism in the already fragile state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Already, the Opposition National Conference has started taking jibes at Mehbooba. Omar Abdullah, the tech-savvy former chief minister of the state, tweeted on Wednesday:
Rushing in a team from HRD ministry coupled with the CRPF replacing J&K police speaks volumes about Delhi's confidence in Mehbooba Mufti.
— Omar Abdullah (@abdullah_omar) April 6, 2016
Omar added that the wrong precedent had been set by making the events at the NIT a massive story. Campus skirmishes are not unheard of and “as with JNU, the matter should have been left to the institute authorities to resolve,” he said.
“By bringing in extraneous elements, both security and administrative, we have created a situation with its own dynamics where politicians and wannabe politicians are now getting in.” he told The Indian Express.
The National Conference working president further said that the NIT issue makes him worry about Kashmiri students in other parts of India.
“Will we see calls to governors and chief ministers from the Union home minister, with the PMO getting involved, the HRD ministry sending special teams and CRPF being deployed when Kashmiri students are harassed elsewhere?” he said.
While Kashmiri students studying at the institute maintain the issue is not local versus the non-locals, but about the “freedom of speech” and respecting each others viewpoint. Nevertheless, they blame non-local students for blowing things out of proportion and under the “garb of nationalism, hatching a conspiracy to relocate the institute.”
“It started with a cricket match, there has been a difference of opinion but why take it so far? It is not Kashmir versus India. There are some elements in the protesting crowd who are not allowing the protests to die down because they want to get moved from this institution to one in their home states. Someone is instigating them,” Tariq Ahmad, a student told Firstpost outside the campus.
“But the reservation that is on paper should be implemented, which for sure, will lead to a balance in the institution,” he added.
On its part, the state government says action against will be taken against the errant police officers if found guilty of misconduct while dispensing their duties.
“A team is already there. They have listened to the students. Their genuine concerns will be addressed. We want to assure them they are safe like in any other part of the country and should live like they used to live,” Priya Sethi, minister of state for technical education, said.
If the relocation demand starts picking up it will be a litmus test for Mehbooba's leadership and how she deals with it. But in Kashmir, anger is slowly growing against the Centre for intervening into a matter that could have been handled by the state government. "16 Kashmiri students were suspended till 25 April in Rajasthan. Nine students and a hostel warden from Kashmir were arrested over the Indian cricket team's loss against West Indies. They were released on bail, but did any one talk about that? Did the Centre send a team to that university to find out what happened?” asked Suhail Ahmad Kar, whose son studies in NIT Srinagar.
“But even then, every non-local Kashmiri is welcome to Kashmir to study. No one touched the five lakh pilgrims in the 2008 Kashmir unrest. My son, along with his friends, risked his life to save his classmates in the floods. So how come these saviours have become terrorists so suddenly? There is sheer politics behind this controversy,” he added.
The seeds of the current controversy were perhaps laid in August 2009 when the NIT transferred 26 additional seats of the state quota to the Central quota. The institute had 26 seats for the Bachelors of Technology course left vacant in its home state quota that year. It allotted these seats to the Central quota leaving students from the state deprived. These 26 seats had fallen vacant from the state’s 50 percent quota.
At that time, the students from the state had urged the Central Counseling Board to allot the 26 seats to local students as per the 50 percent reserved quota to state subjects. These 26 seats were later merged by the Central Counseling Board to the Central quota, according to a source at the institution.
The controversy escalated on the very first day when Mehbooba was sworn in as the chief minister. While the Jammu-based politicians — including ministers in the PDP-BJP government — are demanding action against the police and university administration, the Peoples Democratic Party had to defend the state police by saying that if the police had allowed students to venture out of the college, there would have been chaos on the streets.
“Those people who are questioning the ability and patriotism of our police force should think thousands of time before making any ridiculous comments and stop politicising the NIT issue. The Jammu and Kashmir government is capable enough of dealing with the situation, and we assure students from outside and within the state in NIT, that we will do everything to save your career and make sure your concerns are addressed,” Waheed-ur-Rehman Para, the PDP spokesperson, wrote on his Facebook page.
Minister for Education Naeem Akhtar said the issue was an administrative one and not a security issue, “I assure parents of the students of NIT that their wards are safe and the state government is taking all the measures to normalise the situation on campus. It is not a local versus non-local issue as is being projected by some sections of the media, but just an administrative issue which is being sorted out,” he assured.