“Students long seething in rage were awaiting a moment for a collective outburst”
He turned up at a park in the city centre to talk about his banned student body’s role in the recent mobilisation on campuses across Kashmir. But he was constantly looking over his shoulder as if he was being followed.
Maybe a fresh summon is coming his way? He smiled and talked about those “restive revolutionaries” who would sit under the towering Chinars on the Kashmir University campus to discuss the need for a student body.
It was 2006, the declaration of Afzal Guru’s death sentence and the unearthing of a sex scandal involving the powerful had Kashmir rocking. At the university, this bunch of post-graduate students of both genders, was working on a plan to end the political void on the campus created by the insurgency. After intense deliberations, Kashmir University Students Union, or KUSU, was founded, albeit unofficially.
Until mid-2007, KUSU had no official recognition. The varsity’s hard-nosed stance on student activism on the campus was clear. Allowing space for politics was akin to creating a political battleground in the varsity. This official posturing, however, ended with a Freudian slip by the then vice chancellor.
“Prof Wahid told a local journalist that the varsity wasn’t against any student body when asked why there wasn’t any on the campus,” said a founding member of KUSU who asked not to be named. “We capitalised on it and went to seek KUSU’s recognition.”
Days later, KUSU had an official stamp, much to the joy of its founders. Soon, though, there was a reality check: they were told to toe the official line or “wind up”. Then came the summer of 2008 and the campus witnessed massive protests.
A year later, in 2009, KUSU’s leaders addressed a huge student gathering on KU’s sprawling lawns, calling for boycott of the visit of President Pratibha Patil for the university’s annual convocation and raising the demand for right to self determination. (It was during this that the former president held a Kalashnikov in her aged hands, posed for cameras and made it to the front pages.)
But before the students could implement the boycott of the commander-in-chief of Indian army, whom they held directly responsible for the 2009 Shopian double rape and murder, the witch-hunt began. The Delhi media raised its usual menacing pitch: “Who are these guys and how dare they boycott the President of India.”
Then came a call about KUSU’s boycott statement from Srinagar’s Press Enclave that apparently sealed its fate. The varsity top official had a curt reply: “We don’t recognise any such body here.”
By then, the authorities had already cleared the campus, sending students to their homes. “The girls too were asked to leave the hostels at 8:30 pm in the evening,” the senior member said.
For the next four days, the students cooled their heels away from the militarised campus.
KUSU was now put under a blanket ban but the students kept registering protests until the arrival of a JNU professor of Kashmiri origin as the vice chancellor. Before the valley erupted again in 2010, Prof Riyaz Punjabi had bulldozers raze the small hut housing KUSU’s office. The move decimated the last surviving signpost of student activism in Kashmir University.
Since then, the banned student body has been operating underground. Most of its executive members stay nameless, faceless to avoid the state backlash.
One of these underground leaders agreed to speak with Free Press Kashmir about the student body, its recent role in campuses mobilisation, the state of education and politics.
How is it being an underground bandmaster of the banned student body?
Obviously, it’s difficult. I mean, running the only banned student body of the world is a pressure-cooker situation and a great responsibility. But being the official student organisation of Kashmir University where every student is its official member, our activities are open. It is just that the structure is under a blanket ban. Otherwise, there is a full record of everything we do on the ground.
Like mobilising students on campuses across Kashmir recently?
See, as a student body, KUSU is very responsible. We have a position on every issue pertaining to the people of Jammu and Kashmir. Our activities are quite overt. KUSU represents the collective narrative of the people of Jammu and Kashmir at the very highest seat of learning. Therefore, any of our programmes has a shape and a context, which makes it important.
After the recent attack on a Pulwama college campus by Indian forces, KUSU asked the students of the valley and Pir Panjal region to protest against it. It was a one-day protest. We didn’t want to make it an agitation as KUSU is mindful of how education and academics are the backbone of our resistance movement.
But still, KUSU doesn’t believe in ritualistic “enter to learn and leave to serve” doctrine. We believe in encouraging critical thinking. The body means to give direction to students living under a military occupation. And for that, protests and academics do go along.
But then, state has a popular counter to that argument: “protests do no good to academics”.
Look, when that bunch of revolutionary students founded KUSU in 2006, one of the aims was to inculcate a sense of responsiveness in the student community. We always believe that students must respond to the societal happenings, like the recent brazen attack on their brethren. So, we don’t see how a peaceful protest can do any harm to the academics as is being claimed by certain people.
But when a single call from KUSU mobilises entire campuses, doesn’t it speak of the banned body’s immense influence on the student community?
KUSU’s influence on the student community comes from its stand and position on the Kashmir issue. The body believes that the demand for self determination is genuine. We believe J&K is a disputed region and we stand with our people on that. It is this position that the student community endorses. So in a way, the students didn’t follow KUSU’s call, but the call of the larger stand we represent.
Don’t such protests unwittingly reaffirm that the current movement is entirely driven and controlled by the youth?
All movements go through phases. Resistance always existed in Kashmir in one form or the other, and what we have been seeing in the last few decades is the success of that resistance and the unravelling of the Indian state’s lies.
But how does KUSU, which keeps asking students to make “resistance against the Indian occupation a way of life”, see the entire Kashmir situation?
Exactly as our statement states: This is a state of not just occupation but brutal repression against Kashmiris. So, resistance becomes paramount in that situation.
As a student leader, which direction you think the Kashmir struggle must head in?
Obviously towards the exercise of the right to self determination for Kashmiris. That is the point of resistance and that is the only viable and peaceful solution to the occupation of Kashmir.
Doesn’t that make you an outright adversary on the campus, where the chancellor happens to be the Delhi-appointed governor?
It does. But does it discourage us? Not at all. You see, KUSU has always been responding to the happenings outside the Kashmir University campus. And whatever happens outside was, is and will be political in nature, and obviously against India. We know how KUSU’s existence has always been perceived as threatening by the varsity’s authorities. That’s why, they always responded with witch-hunting.
Even when you proposed an open election for KUSU?
Yes. The thing is, we always demanded an elected than a selected body. And that’s possible only through an open election for KUSU. To make things happen, we even said that pro-India student groups can also contest, or, maybe, who knows, they might win and run the show.
But we know they won’t allow an open election in KU, which is a mini-model of Jammu and Kashmir. They know pro-freedom people can rise to the helm through such elections and will create a pro-freedom body. This mini-referendum will be the reflection of the aspirations of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, which will be problematic for the state.
That’s why through compartmentalisation, they want to control the campus. When, in 2008, some 3,000 students protested on Syed Ali Geelani’s call against the trigger-happy trooper’s killing of civilians at Nowhatta, the authorities started encouraging many politically-affiliated student bodies in the varsity. They knew that KUSU was the elephant on the campus whose protest had become the flashpoint for the 2008 agitation. Hence the ban.
How do you see this ban now after the PDP came to power promising “political space” to any shade of opinion?
Sajjad Lone was in the resistance camp until 2008. The moment he switched sides, he was allowed to float the Peoples Conference student body in the varsity. Because its patron had now changed position, the body was allowed to carry out membership drives on the campus. It tells us that your rights in an occupation are subject to your political position. But despite that, KUSU wields greater influence among students than all these politically-affiliated bodies put together.
So, how do you run the show?
We keep updating our social media pages, distribute pamphlets, and run a blog. But mostly, we issue statements to the media as our presence is limited to the KU campus. We organise meetings on weekly and monthly basis.
But contrary, is the ban making KUSU more popular among students?
Ban or no ban, KUSU’s stand is enough for its popularity and relevance.
Is it this “relevance” that some people say gives KUSU an edge over the resistance camp when it comes to wooing ‘the young and the restless’?
KUSU believes in the resistance leadership as it represents the collective sentiment of the people of J&K. Until 2016, there was no defiance from the youth of any call from the resistance leadership. This perception is being created to malign their image. Wasn’t it on the call of the resistance leadership that Kashmiris boycotted the recent byelections?
True, but what do you make of the handling of the Kashmir issue by the resistance leaders who often draw flak for resorting to a general strike as the first response to everything?
Like I said, we stand with the resistance leadership. The strategy of strikes is just one aspect of the resistance in Kashmir. Criticism may come, but isn’t it a fact that strikes are being observed and they bother the state? It means something, even if only symbolically.
Still, it just takes one call from KUSU to get students to resume their routine after the recent protests?
KUSU’s call was addressed to a small community of students…
But isn’t this same “small community” at the forefront of the protests now?
Yes. But we need to understand that it was just a symbolic protest against the campus assault. Actually, KUSU’s call was just a trigger. Students witnessing and facing oppression were long seething in rage. They were awaiting a moment for a collective outburst. When that moment came, we only gave them direction as we believe the student community must also respond to atrocities while excelling in academics.
Some say the recent protests are the sign of growing alienation in the valley?
“Alienation” comes from the colonial vocabulary. We see it as the evolution of a clear understanding and growing political consciousness in the student community.
After the recent protests, many believe that KUSU has now a big say within the student community.
I don’t see it that way. Being a student body, KUSU may take pride in helping bring clarity to the politics of students. That is the only credit that we love to take. Rest we are no parallel to any resistance leadership.
But running the banned show from last one decade must have some costs and consequences?
KUSU’s 10-year journey is a story of bearing enormous costs and consequences. Our members were hounded; some became regulars at police stations. Many had to take break from academics and some bright students failed. Some rebel researchers were sidelined. Even girl students were intimidated. Scores faced detention. A few were booked in bogus cases. In fact, from last one decade, Home Department didn’t need any pretext to go after the campus dissenters.