Understanding student protests in Kashmir

Understanding student protests in Kashmir

By F.Faheem

For a long time studying crowds and crowd behaviour remained mainstay of the discipline of psychology. Some of the well-known scholars like Gastave Le Bon and McDdougall used the term ‘crowd’ to describe a picture of hostile mass politics. Despite giving a pathological description of crowds, Le Bon established crowd and crowd behaviour as an important area of academic engagement. Over the years, scholars studying an array of phenomena like protests, agitations and ‘dharnas’ attempted to make a distinction between involuntary crowd gathering and crowd involving more deliberate voluntary association.  Thus, scholars like Lefebvre, to demonstrate the social and historical aspect in the crowd phenomena, used ‘crowd’ in a more controlled manner to refer to a particular type of social action.

Over these years, scholars studying phenomena like protests, agitations and movements have been asking certain key questions connected to crowd and crowd behaviour. Why is it that particular communities or societies become involved in collective behaviour? What function or meaning does such collective behaviour has for the community or society? Famous French sociologist Durkheim attempted to understand collective behaviour like protests and agitations from the viewpoint of social solidarity. He believed that such phenomena could be better investigated by understanding the collective moral sentiment, which he argued held together such communities and was its defining characteristics.  Thus, crowd assembled for protests or crowd involved in agitation was believed to be the product of a mass ‘conscience collective’. For him ‘conscience collective’ in crowd was more visible in ‘religious sentiment’ or included broadly everything considered sacred. Such phenomena, scholars argue, have cognitive significance as they are means of interpreting and making the social world intelligible.

Societies feel a need to uphold and affirm the collective sentiments and collective ideas that gives them a sense of unity and character. Such moral remaking is thus achieved through assemblages like protests, agitations or their more sustained forms like social movements. Therefore, people protesting on the street rather than being involved into some mindless pathological disorder are essentially engaged in an activity that involves a social purpose.  If one attempts to expand the key questions raised by scholars studying phenomena of protests and social movements to the incidents of street protests by student community in Kashmir, can one draw certain possible conclusions? Is it possible to engage with the questions: why is it that student community is getting involved in the protests? What possible function or meaning does such collective behaviour have for students?

 Official normalcy and paradoxes

Since 2003, Kashmir has witnessed significant decrease in the incidents of violence officially proclaimed as the ‘return of normalcy’. To replace the militarisation of early 1990s, the Indian State in its public posturing aspires for regular elections, free speech and non-violent protests. However, Kashmir witnessed rekindling of the conventional mass protests and the emergence of newer forms of online discussion groups since 2008. One political scientist Paul Staniland observes: ‘India has not succeeded in overcoming the contradiction between its articulated ideals of “normalcy” and its actual policy’. He observes these contradictions in the context of ‘tensions between “normalcy” and the underlying political status-quo… Key components of Indian strategy end up conflicting with one another, as patronage politics undermines good governance, militarily successful counter-insurgency fuels popular resentment, and the very process associated with normalcy actually propels recurrent challenges to the status quo and lead to the hypocritical repression by the State ’.

Asif Ahmad of Anantnag was blinded in one eye during 2016 agitation at Khanabal Photo Muneeb ul Islam

The rhetoric of ‘peace and development’ and regularity of elections dominates Indian State’s engagement in Kashmir. Such an engagement has not made much of a difference on the ground.  In fact the situation has only gone from bad to worse. After the resignation of Mehbooba Mufti as Member of Indian Parliament on 4 April 2016 and her subsequent joining and heading Jammu and Kashmir government as the Chief Minister, the bye-elections to the south Kashmir Parliamentary seat vacated by her have been regularly deferred. The Election Commission of India (ECI) issued the first notification for the elections on 17 March 2017. However, the ECI, on the basis of the report submitted by the local administration, highlighting the ‘deteriorating law and order situation’ in south Kashmir, postponed the bye-election to 25 May 2017.  The State government continued to express its apprehension regarding the bye-elections and requested the ECI to further postpone the dates.  The ECI once again deferred the bye-elections to October 2017. Quoting government spokesperson, local newspapers reported that ‘the bye-election will not be held now and instead the constituency will go to polls during the next general elections scheduled to be held between April-May next year’. As far as the ‘counter-insurgency’ operations are concerned the civilian deaths during 2017-18 rose by a staggering 167 per cent compared to 2015 figures. In terms of infrastructure and logistics development, Kashmir was placed at the bottom of the list on the Logistics Ease Across Different States (LEADS) index.

Student protests in Kashmir

Young girls and boys dressed up in their uniforms pelting stones on armed soldiers is now a common sight on the streets. A report published in The Hindustan Times in May last year reveals that since 2016 schools and colleges in Kashmir have ‘stayed shut on 60 per cent of working days’. Giving an impression that the State government’s personality development and vocational skill development programmes for youth has so far failed to keep students away from the street protests. The minister for education in the present PDP-BJP alliance threatened the protesting students to ‘return to the classrooms’ failing which they will be treated as ‘rowdies’. As a move to curb student protests, the government also decided to shutdown the tuition centres.

Police detain a young boy from Natipora, Sirnagar during 2010 agitation
Photo: Kashmir Narrator

The State administration often claims that students are being instigated by ‘some outside elements’ and are ‘paid money or lured by other things to disrupt normal activities in the educational institutions’. A closer look at the student’s community in Kashmir may help us understand better the trajectories of the protests as well as the meaning these protests may have for the participants. Scholars studying protests argue that there is a common cognitive framework that unites individuals participating in a protest. This framework is determined by a particular understanding of the prevailing social, political and economic conditions. Youth in Kashmir have been at the receiving end of the State repression. According to a report published by London-based Conciliation Resources in 2011, be it arrests, detention, torture, pellet gun injuries, everyday harassment, rape or death, youth in Kashmir make up the majority. Attempting to understand the impact of violence on students in Kashmir, a study conducted by OXFAM in 2003 highlighted that out of 100 respondents interviewed 90.38 per cent respondents were ‘angry’, and families of 63.46 per cent were directly affected by violence. Another study conducted by a group of doctors in 2006 observes that 58.69 per cent of youth had experienced a traumatic event in their lifetime.

Scholars studying protests highlight that protests emerge out of the macro and micro contexts. The macro contexts include the existing political structures, cultural norms and recent history of upsurges, and the micro contexts comprise of personal or informal networks through which individuals encounter each other face-to-face and define themselves as social actors. In terms of macro contexts, historically, Kashmir region has witnessed cyclic upsurges and suppressive State structures. Youth in Kashmir ‘feel deprived of their basic rights’ and believe that the Indian State ‘has suspended their rights through the use of security apparatus enjoying special powers’ (See Conciliation Resources, 2011, report).

For youth in Kashmir the increased access to education is proving to be an important vehicle for the development of the self. Education is often seen as a process of self-conscious reshaping of the self. Besides education, the places and spaces people occupy within them, shape everyday experience and the sense of self. The confident Kashmiri student’s self is being shaped by his/her everyday experience of violence and suppression. Kashmir region has witnessed radical transformation in terms of micro contexts. As per the recent census 63 per cent of Kashmir’s male residents are under the age of 30 and 70 per cent are below the age of 35. Over the years, the region has witnessed major transformations in higher education.  Compared to just 07 colleges (6 boys, 1 girls) in 1950-‘51, the number of colleges has increased to 33 (26 boys, 7 girls). By 2012-‘13 the number of colleges increased to 95 (83 boys and 12 girls). With the increase in number of colleges in the region the general enrolment in the colleges has also increased from 2669 in 1950-51 to 1.89 lakh in 2013-14. According to the Annual Status of Higher Education (ASHE) 2014 report published by Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India, in terms of average enrolment per college, Jammu and Kashmir with 1,019 students was higher than the Indian National average of 703 students. The region has also witnessed increase in female enrolment in colleges from 267 in 1950-51 to 96,706 in 2010-11. The gross enrolment ratio (GER) of female students in the region (16.3 per cent) is better than the Indian National average (12.7 per cent).

The introduction of mobile internet technology and its penetration gave fresh impetus to the protests. For long, scholars studying protests have emphasized the importance of social networks in protest mobilization and participation. In context of student protests besides traditional social networks the networks established through the online social networking sites emerged as spaces for instant communication and mobilizations. As is evident from the estimates provided by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) as on 31 December 2016 Jammu and Kashmir had 1.13 crore cellular subscribers and the internet penetration in the region (28.62)  is higher than the Indian National average of 25.37 per 100 persons.

Since the 2010 uprising, with the introduction of pellet shot guns as a means of crowd control, hundreds of young people have been injured. The images of youth with eye injuries are circulated across Kashmir through social media. The young boys and girls with eye injuries have been an important marker of cyclic protests in Kashmir specifically after the killing of rebel commander Burhan Wani in July 2016. The adage that a picture is worth thousand words is amply demonstrated by circulation of videos and pictures of injured pellet victims, gunshot wounds and ‘counter-insurgency’ operations in Kashmir.  The circulation of such images makes the crisis personal and emotional. The video of armoured truck entering college premises or a soldier chasing and beating young protesters connects people inspiring action. Such images symbolize injustice resonant with existing collective memory of historical injustices.

Students’ protest in Kashmir may not be a new phenomenon as there have been protests by the students in the past as well. What is new in these protests is the image of a protesting boy or a girl dressed up in her school uniform. Protest and protestors produce and evoke images either as a part of a carefully planned strategy or accidently, in an unintended or undesired manner. The protests and protestors in turn are perceived by external actors and dispersed audience by the images which are produced both by the protestors themselves and others. The participants in a protest are embedded in a particular social milieu, and they understand the socio-political environment through interpersonal exchanges. The present generation of Kashmiri students was born during or soon after the early 1990s uprising and have lived large part of their lives experiencing the status quo. For a young Kashmiri student protestor, the real normalcy whereby politics articulates the will of the people and the existing status quo governed by State’s control and suppression cannot coexist. These contradictions inform the individual Kashmiri student’s sense of self. The images of atrocities, political suppression and oppression are daily circulated through social media. Such images raise a sense of outrage in youth that they become inclined towards some form of political action.

F. Faheem is a Kashmiri researcher who studies protests and social movements

This article was published in Kashmir Narrator’s June edition. To subscribe to print edition of Narrator, please call +91-7298102560 or mail at [email protected]

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