When 21-year-old Rifat Wani (name changed) arrived in Bengaluru from Srinagar in July to study management at a private university, she expected to have a regular college life. Instead, she was greeted by classmates who sometimes called her an ‘anti-national’, sometimes a ‘Pakistani’. But the worst was yet to come. On August 5, when the BJP government scrapped Article 370 of the Constitution, Rifat knew that doomsday was here.
It’s suffocating to be a Kashmiri outside Kashmir, but inside India, says Rifat. Kashmiris do not have the right to protest and express their views, especially after the article that granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir was scrapped. Even a cosmopolitan city like Bengaluru started to feel stifling.
“Fellow students try to console us by saying that it is for our benefit and things will be fine with time. But do these people realise and understand what we want?” she asks in frustration.
A month has passed since with curfews, lockdowns and a communication shutdown forced on the state. Kashmiris have lost their voice in the Valley and outside the state. Wani thought that the initial communication shutdown in the first week of August was temporary and would last only a day or two. In happier times, she used to speak to her parents several times a day since it was her first time away from home. But she hasn’t been able to reach them for a month now.
On September 4, the BJP officially released a 10 minute-long video about the abrogation of Article 370, calling it a ‘historical blunder corrected’. But do Kashmiris agree with this view? With little news trickling in from the Valley, do Kashmiris living in other parts of the country feel safe and secure?
Bengaluru, home to a number of engineering and management institutions, has many Kashmiris residing in its folds. The Federal spoke to Kashmiri students and working professionals living in the city. Distraught at not being able to reach out to their loved ones, they share their experiences of harassment, mental agony and financial distress, aside from not having the freedom to voice their opinion.
Social isolation and financial strain
The air is rife with hatred and intolerance, which makes it harder for Kashmiris to express themselves. This social isolation has put people in a tough spot. When Rifat reached out to her teacher for guidance, she was met with the same treatment her classmates give her. The teacher attempted to peddle the majoritarian view on Kashmir without attempting to understand her concerns.
“We do not want to discuss anything with anyone anymore. People will not understand and people will not listen to us,” she says.
There is also a financial strain on Kashmiri students living away from home. “If I want money right now, whom do I ask? Thankfully, I have cousins living outside India who sent money. But what about other students?” asks Rifat.
An engineering student, who did not want to be named, studying in central Bengaluru, recalls a recent case where a senior student lost a job opportunity as she felt intimidated by the questions posed by the potential employer.
During the document verification process, when the employer noticed that the candidate is from Jammu and Kashmir, he asked her why such things are happening in Kashmir. The employer added that it is the people, and not government policies, who are the problem. When the candidate tried to explain that Kashmir was a disputed territory and, hence, the unrest, the employer questioned as to what is the guarantee that this will not happen here as well.
“The candidate was already under tremendous mental stress due to unrest in the Valley and she had no emotional support here. To add to that, she felt intimidated by such questioning and did not sit for further rounds,” the student says.
The candidate did not raise the issue with the college management as the person fears she will be targeted. “There was no need for this. It is not ethical and morally right to trouble someone like this at such a critical juncture. If we cannot even sit for an interview; what should we do?” asks the student.
The candidate’s friend, who returned to Bengaluru after witnessing police brutality, firing and stone-pelting incidents in the Valley after the abrogation of Article 370, says her parents did not want her to go back.
“I did not want to leave my place or my people but, at the same time, I am in the midst of my engineering course. I cannot afford to discontinue. I had a tough time convincing my parents to let me leave,” she says.
Rifat too wants to go back but cannot. “I want to go and meet my family but I can’t. I am left with no choice as it will affect my career. So, I have decided to stay put in Bengaluru,” she says. “There’s a sense of alienation that persists.”
Aside from hateful comments, people tend to make ignorant and uneducated remarks as well. A student, who wished to remain anonymous, says her peers, who lack knowledge about Article 370 and Kashmir, make insensitive comments about marrying a Kashmiri girl.
“They tease us, asking us about the land price, and how ‘Kashmiri girls now have the right to marry a non-Kashmiri,’” she says. In college, she adds, people barely spoke of Kashmir before the Pulwama attack.
“Now, everyone has an opinion about it, but they do not want to listen to us.”
Branded as Pakistanis, anti-nationals and terrorists
In another instance of bigotry, college authorities called on Kashmiris students and issued a warning, saying they will be rusticated if found engaging in any sort of debate, discussion or altercation with fellow students. They even asked us not to post anything on social media, says Farhan Latief (name changed), a 22-year-old engineering college student.
The student says, if they happen to engage in a peaceful talk, fellow students, especially from north India studying in Bengaluru, brand them as either Pakistanis or anti-nationals and ask them to leave the college. “Who are they to command what we do?” he asks.
“We understand the college’s intentions. But when they say that anything we say will make non-Kashmiris angry, why not warn and educate them about respecting our views instead of shutting us down?” Farhan asks.
Farhan, who left Kashmir for Bengaluru in the wee hours of August 22, says his father made him promise that he wouldn’t post anything on social media or get into trouble as the sentiments were running high against Kashmiris.
Many Kashmiris living in Bengaluru feel the same. If anyone starts a conversation, either it is to instigate them, or pressurise Kashmiris into accepting the majoritarian viewpoint. And if they don’t, they tend to get branded as anti-nationals and abused.
The freedom to express their opinion, they feel, is curtailed even outside Kashmir and they fear for their safety. But it’s the propaganda messages and fake news have hurt the feelings of Kashmiris even more.
A peaceful protest held at Town Hall in Bengaluru by Kashmiris against the abrogation of Article 370 was portrayed in such a way that Kashmiri pandits in the US held a rally applauding the Indian government’s decision to revoke the article.
“Despite getting permission from the police for a peaceful protest, there were people who were waiting to disrupt the event. The indoctrination is such that people do not want to listen to the other side at all,” says Nazish Masudi, a 36-year-old entrepreneur and an alumnus of an engineering college in Bengaluru.
‘It’s time to come together’
Nazish, who recently got into a heated debate about the topic on his college alumni WhatsApp group, says that he was removed from the group for standing by his views on Kashmir. “A majority of people feel that the injustice meted to us is right and their argument is that Kashmiri pandits were treated badly so we should be treated the same.”
However, he adds, that does not justify the human rights violations currently happening.
According to Nazish, his close relative, who once served in the intelligence and is now retired, sometimes thinks of resorting to stone-pelting as they are left with no other choice. “Today, people are silent. But protests will erupt across the Valley sooner or later.”
Nazish, who moved to Bengaluru in 2003, did not feel the need for a Kashmiri association or a society in the city to protect the interest of his people. But almost 16 years later, with the panic button pressed by the Centre, he now feels the need for community support and has gathered about 250 people in the past two weeks.
After all, Bengaluru it not new to shutting down the voices of Kashmiris. In August 2016, the Bengaluru Police had filed a sedition case against Amnesty International for an event it conducted as part of a campaign to seek justice for human rights violations in Kashmir. Stifling freedom of expression, the police had registered a case based on a complaint filed by a representative of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). In January this year, a court asked to close the case as the police found no evidence that an offence had been committed.
Offence or not, Nazish and many other Kashmiris like him feel there is little that they can do to defend their rights. Yet, the heart never stops hoping.