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#NIT is becoming the latest 'nationalist' flashpoint. How did it happen?

Gowhar Geelani | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:51 IST

All it took to throw the National Institute of Technology, Srinagar, into turmoil was a cricket match.

It started when some students from outside J&K - who vastly outnumber local students 1,800 to about 150 -- objected to their Kashmiri colleagues celebrating West Indies' victory over India in T20 World Cup on 31 March, claiming it hurt their "patriotic feelings". An argument turned into a scuffle and eventually snowballed into a crisis for the newly-installed PDP-BJP government.

Also read - Srinagar: Police lathicharge students at NIT, CRPF deployed

Historically, when it comes to cricket, Kashmiris have been antagonistic towards the Indian team. In 1983, Sunil Gavaskar records in Runs n Ruins, the crowd booed the Indians and cheered for the West Indians when they played at Srinagar's Sher-i-Kashmir Stadium.

Chaos on campus

The non-local students staged demonstrations outside the director's office, raising pro-India slogans and demanding stern action against the Kashmiri students. They also tried to hoist the Indian flag on the campus. A group of Kashmiri students reacted by raising pro-freedom slogans.

Some non-local students alleged they were beaten by the J&K policemen who had been called in after the scuffle. The police has denied the claim. A senior officer told Catch that non-local students were making "a mountain out of a molehill". "This is a small issue. Such scuffles are normal on any campus. You don't raise temperatures and patriotic fervour by playing the victim card," the officer added.

The Kashmiri students, on the other hand, claimed that they had been "ruthlessly" beaten up by non-local students after India lost the match.

As the institute was closed to outsiders, including the media, the non-local students took to the social media to provide updates about the "situation on the campus", and started an online campaign "Save the students of NIT in Srinagar".

They made frantic calls to their families and friends, who urged the HRD ministry to intervene. On Tuesday, a group of third year students met NIT Director Rajat Gupta and they too sought direct intervention of the HRD ministry.

The NIT's registrar Fayaz Mir confirmed to Catch that the HRD ministry had sent a team which "is listening to grievances of the students". "The non-local students have put forward certain demands. Once the meeting gets over, there will be more clarity on the issue," he said.

What are the demands? While the non-locals want the NIT to hoist the Indian flag on the campus, the locals are asking for freedom to voice their political aspirations.

Sparking a controversy

After the non-local students voiced concerns about their safety, the central government deployed two companies of the paramilitary CRPF at the NIT, replacing the J&K police. The decision triggered a controversy.

"Rushing in a team from HRD ministry coupled with the CRPF replacing J&K police speaks volumes about Delhi's confidence in Mehbooba Mufti," former chief minister Omar Abdullah tweeted.

Such scuffles are normal on a campus. You don't raise patriotic fervour by playing victim: J&K cop

A senior political analyst who did not want to be named described the decision as "an insult to the local police." "Those who have broken the backbone of the militancy in Kashmir, who killed hundreds of teenage protesters in 2009 and 2010 and blinded scores of boys during anti-India demonstrations with pellet guns are not trusted by the Indian government to even handle a small issue at the NIT?" he said. "This is a slap on the face of the J&K police. This is insulting. Even the sepoys under the British enjoyed more respect than this."

Limping back to normalcy

Sajad Bukhari, Sub Divisional Police Officer, Hazratbal, said the situation was "under control". "It is absolutely normal right now. The HRD team has met the non-local guys. They have put forward their list of demands. I can assure you there is no law and order issue," Bukhari told Catch.

Rejecting the claim of the non-local students to the contrary, the Kashmiri students said "normal class" work had resumed Monday after the NIT was closed last Friday. "There seems to be a deliberate attempt to create a divide between the locals and non-locals, which is a shame," said a local student.

J&K Education Minister Naeem Akhtar has assured the students and their families they have "nothing to worry". "I assure parents of the students of NIT that their wards are safe and the state government is taking all measures to normalise the situation on the campus," Akhtar said. He also insisted that the "ongoing tension at NIT is an administrative issue, not a security issue". It isn't a "local versus non-local issue" either, he added.

Political fallout

Senior separatist leader Yasin Malik of the JKLF questioned the "role of the Indian media", alleging they were "blowing things out of proportion through their prejudiced campaign" against the Kashmiris.

"The Indian media is creating hysteria. No Kashmiri has protested against the non-local students. Rationality demands that this small issue be resolved with maturity, but the motive of Indian media to blow things of proportion remains unclear," Malik told Catch.

#NIT student: there's a deliberate attempt to divide local and non-local students, which is a shame

Syed Ali Geelani, the chief of the Hurriyat's hardline faction, had earlier warned that "NIT-like incidents are bound to have serious consequences". "While harassment of Kashmiri students outside Kashmir has become a routine, similar incident happening at home is shocking. This (the alleged beating up of Kashmiri students) is not possible without the backing of the state machinery. We smell a rat in the whole episode," Geelani had said.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the RSS, staged a protest at Jammu's Central University Wednesday. "Strict action must be taken against the offenders under the law who have indulged in anti-national activities. We demand protection for NIT students," ABVP leader Rajinder Kumar, who led the protest, said.

More in Catch - Srinagar NIT: 4 injured in police lathicharge, HRD ministry team to arrive at campus

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No food, water, electricity, but massive police brutality: 48 hours in the life of Hyderabad University

First published: 6 April 2016, 11:29 IST
Gowhar Geelani

Gowhar Geelani is a journalist, commentator and political analyst from Srinagar. He was formerly with Deutsche Welle, Germany.