Student vs army clashes paralyse Kashmir campuses

It was a typical day in April at Government Degree College Pulwama in Kashmir. Students were in class or were outside enjoying the sunshine when an Indian army vehicle drove into the college, provoking spontaneous protests against the military’s unprecedented presence.

Stones rained down on the vehicle and students shouting slogans for a free Kashmir forced it to pull out.

Barely three days later, on 15 April, police and the armed Central Reserve Police Force – a paramilitary force – barged onto the college campus, situated some 40 kilometres from the Kashmiri capital Srinagar.

Students protested again but this time the police responded with tear gas, pava shells and the firing of pellet guns. Around 70 people were injured, including women. 

After the day-long protests on 15 April the authorities shut down the college.

However, videos of brutality showing women students being carried on stretchers and male students being beaten and the firing of tear gas into a hospital went viral on social media. The banned Kashmir University Students Union condemned the incident and called for protests.

A volatile situation

In volatile Kashmir, where anti-India sentiment runs high, security forces raiding a major college in the middle of classes is unprecedented. Lecturers noted that the reaction of students could have been expected.

The second incident on 15 April sparked clashes between students and police that spread to other campuses in Kashmir, including women’s colleges, and continued for more than a month. According to some estimates more than 500 students were injured in April and May.

During that period students in colleges and universities in the Kashmir valley boycotted classes. Some universities tried to organise rallies but were stopped by police, leading to clashes, police officials said.

On 17 April, the government of the state of Jammu and Kashmir ordered higher secondary schools and colleges in the Kashmir valley to be closed for just over a week, and the main examinations to be postponed.

But many institutions closed for longer, with up to a month of teaching lost – particularly as schools and universities were closed again on 28 and 29 May due to a tense security situation after the killing of Sabzar Bhat, commander of the Kashmiri militant group Hizbul Mujahideen.

Universities and colleges were closed for almost four months because of the killing of a previous Hizbul Mujahideen commander last July.

‘Revenge attack’

An Indian army spokesman later claimed that the original 12 April clash occurred when the military had gone to talk to the college principal about organising a painting competition. But the principal denied having any such appointment.

The vehicle that entered the college premises was a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle known as a Casspir.

To lecturers at the college the subsequent raid on 15 April was seen as ‘revenge’ for the 12 April incident.

“It was a pure revenge attack. They [the police] wanted to show who is powerful by arresting and beating the students into submission inside the safety of their colleges. They had come prepared,” said a Pulwama college staff member, pleading anonymity. 

Jammu and Kashmir’s Education Minister Syed Altaf Bukhari blamed government forces for the entire episode. “When police and other security forces barge into colleges, like in Pulwama, students will react,” he told local media. 

Clashes spread

Speaking of the police raid on Pulwama college on 15 April, Abdul Hamid Sheikh, the college principal at the time, said: “I stood in front of the [police] vehicles and pleaded with hands folded to the policemen not to enter into the premises.

“However, the policemen did not listen and went ahead into the college.

“Suddenly, angry students shouted slogans and the policemen fired tear gas shells onto them. Mayhem and chaos erupted in the college. Many girl students fainted, and a number of boys were injured due to tear gas shells and also pellet guns.

“As more policemen rushed into the college, nobody was spared,” said Sheikh, who was removed by the authorities from his post as principal shortly afterwards and attached to the higher education ministry in Kashmir.

On 29 April a government probe absolved the principal of any wrongdoing and blamed the police for an unauthorised raid on the college. The investigation has led to the transfer of senior police from their posts.

Policy deny, but social media images spread

The police denied ever raiding the college and blamed students for starting the clashes by pelting a police group with stones some 200 metres away from the college.

But social media images of the clashes spread – dozens of people were thrashed with canes and gun butts and military personnel even chased injured students to a local hospital.

On 17 April, when students at Sri Pratap College in Srinagar came out to protest against the Pulwama incident, police responded.

Images of hijab-clad students at Women's College MA Road and Kothibagh Girls Higher Secondary School kicking police vehicles and pelting stones were splashed all over local media. 

The videos uploaded on social media catalysed simultaneous mass agitation that included students from dozens of colleges and universities in almost all the valley’s 10 districts.

Protests continued into May and also included many high school students.

Security grip tightened

As the intensity of the protests waned in the latter half of May, the Jammu and Kashmir government strengthened its security grip by installing CCTVs in colleges and universities, banning mobile phones and issuing orders that no student with an attendance rate below 90% may participate in examinations, in a bid to prevent boycotts and unauthorised protests.

Dozens of students and their parents have been regularly summoned to police stations.

On 26 April the authorities announced that some two dozen popular social media services – such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, WeChat, Skype, YouTube and other sites – would be suspended in Jammu and Kashmir for a month.

The authorities have managed to suppress the wave of protests – for now. But anger is simmering and another blunder by government will lead to another round of protests, according to academics.