NEW DELHI: Azhar Mushtaq sits despondently in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, 370 miles from his university in Haryana. The 22-year-old student of operation theater technology is two weeks away from completing training that will help him find a job as an assistant to surgeons in hospitals. But at the moment, he’s among thousands of Kashmiri students forced to return home — leaving behind their education and career dreams — from different parts of India in the wake of the Feb. 14 suicide attack that brought the subcontinent to the edge of war.
The militant strike in Kashmir’s Pulwama that killed more than 40 Indian soldiers was carried out by a local teenager affiliated with Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Muhammad, and it sparked reprisal attacks by right-wing nationalists against young Kashmiris across the country. At least 3,500 students returned home just from one city, Dehradun in Uttarakhand. These were only the latest among growing attacks Kashmiri students have faced since 2016 in other parts of India, ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. For more and more Kashmiris, a rare window of hope that had emerged amid a three-decade-old conflict is shutting: the prospect of studying outside the state. That, in turn, could hobble India’s efforts to integrate alienated Kashmiri youth into the national mainstream.
Between 2010 and 2016, the number of students enrolled in an average Kashmir college dropped by more than 50 percent, from 1,392 to 646 — for many, the daily violence in the state made it just too dangerous. But thousands of middle-class Kashmiri families found an alternative route to educate their children, instead sending them in increasing numbers to colleges in other Indian states. The number of Kashmiri students enrolled under the Prime Minister’s Special Scholarship Scheme (PMSSS), a top scholarship program to support students from the state in other parts of India, went up by 27 percent in four years, from 2,053 in 2012–13 to 2,653 in 2016–17.
That’s changing following the wave of attacks against Kashmiri students in the past two years. The number of Kashmiri students enrolled under the PMSSS has gone down for the first time since the program’s launch, from 2,653 to 2,515 students in 2017–18, according to the All India Council for Technical Education, the country’s apex regulator of technical education. The total number of Kashmiri students studying in other states has dropped from an estimated 15,000 in 2016–17 to 11,500 in 2017–18, according to the Private Schools Association of Jammu and Kashmir. It’s the latest hit to the dreams of a state that’s the world’s most militarized region.
“As a Kashmiri student, I feel my future is destroyed,” says Mushtaq.
Studying in Kashmir — which has lost more than 70,000 civilians in the conflict since the late 1980s — poses challenges beyond security. The total number of colleges in the state has gone up from 216 to 296 in the past eight years. But in 2016, following protests over the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani by Indian security forces, streets were deserted for five months, and colleges were closed for a full semester. Many students lost an academic year. And that was no isolated instance — higher education institutions have often needed to tweak semesters to fit a shortened time frame.
Despite the conflict, successive Indian governments in New Delhi have in recent years tried to reach out to Kashmiris through scholarships like the PMSSS that made studying outside the state attractive. But the recent spate of attacks on Kashmiri students in other states is changing that equation. “These days, parents are only looking for safe universities, and consulting parents is the toughest part of our job these days,” says Srinagar-based Muddasir Ahmad, grievance cell manager of the Association of Educational Consultants.
In 2016, Umar Rashid, a research scholar at Bhopal University, was attacked by a mob. Eight Kashmiri students were attacked by a mob at Rajasthan’s Mewar University in 2017. In 2018, four Kashmiri students were beaten up in Chittorgarh, Rajasthan, over rumors that they were cooking beef. Separately, a group of Kashmiri students was attacked at a private dental college in Jodhpur. Ahtisham Bilal, an 18-year-old studying radiology at a private university in New Delhi, got into a verbal altercation on campus and was left bloodied by his attackers, in October 2018. In this vengeful spree, not only students but others are also under attack. On May 12, 2018, five members of a Kashmiri family, including four women, were beaten up in public in New Delhi.
But the scale of targeted attacks following the Pulwama strike was unprecedented, as anger and outrage across India spilled out in the form of mob violence captured by the social media trend #IndiaWantsRevenge. Rallies were held, where announcements were made threatening Kashmiri residents to vacate and go back to the valley within 24 hours, or face the consequences. Mobs surrounded universities, forcing institutions to bar Kashmiris from education. Multiple incidents of violence were reported from major cities like Pune, Bengaluru, and Kolkata. With these attacks, the option of studying in other parts of India has vanished for many Kashmiris, says Sadiq Mir, who is studying cardiology at a private university in Haryana. “If you have money, then send them abroad — if you’re poor, sit here and die,” he says. “It is a continuous cycle.” There’s no evidence of an uptick in Kashmiri students traveling abroad for education.
The recent attacks against Kashmiris will also further fuel existing anti-India sentiments among Kashmiris, says Suhail Ahmad, a journalism professor at the Government College for Women, Srinagar, adding that high school students had seen photos and social media posts of Kashmiris being beaten across India. “The message was clear: It is us versus them,” he says.
Some Kashmiri students — especially those already in the middle of academic programs — are planning to return to their colleges in other states. “They don’t want me to go back, but it is about my career — I need to go,” says Mushtaq. After the initial violence, the federal government asked all state governments to ensure the safety of Kashmiris. India’s education regulators also stepped in. On Feb. 22, the country’s Supreme Court directed the central and state governments to ensure the security of Kashmiris. A day later, Modi condemned the attacks. And state police authorities have promised security.
Students who are returning to their colleges outside the state, like Uzair Ahmad, have to repeat exams they missed.
But the drop in Kashmiri students going to other states for higher education suggests a growing lack of trust in these assurances, many of which were made after previous attacks too. Even among those students who are returning to their colleges outside the state, some, like Uzair Ahmad, who is pursuing postgraduate studies in Dehradun, have to repeat exams they missed. “It is an academic loss for us as institutions are moving on with their classes,” says Ahmad. He worries about living with a “stain” at college. “We are Kashmiris, and everyone labels us and see us as ‘terrorists,’” he says.
What Mushtaq went through still haunts him at night, he says. He remembers the announcements made through hand-held speakers after the Pulwama attack: “Go back, anti-nationals. Shoot these bastards!”
Earlier, Mushtaq was planning to go to Pune, Maharashtra, for postgraduate studies, but he’s rethinking his plans. For Kashmiris, he says, it’s more than fear now. “Fear is an immediate reaction, but phobia is the settling down of fear,” he says. “We live through it.”