Hundreds of students in Kashmir protested today against the treatment of 67 Kashmiri students studying in India who were suspended and faced sedition charges after they cheered for the Pakistan cricket team in a televised match against India.
“Go India, go back. Down with Indian democracy. We want freedom,” the protestors wrote on placards and shouted on the streets of the largest city in India-held Kashmir.
Although the sedition charges were withdrawn last night, the issue has snowballed into a larger controversy, exposing what critics say is a shrinking space for freedom of expression within the Indian democracy and the deep fault lines that run between India and Kashmir.
Cricket is a passionately followed sport in Kashmir, as it is in the entire south Asian subcontinent. An overwhelming majority of the Kashmiri population supports the Pakistan cricket team – reflecting the feelings of many in the state who are unhappy with the Delhi-appointed administration. Kashmir is currently divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both in full. Two wars have been fought by the neighbors over the Muslim-majority state high in the Himalayans.
The Kashmiri students were studying at Swami Vivekananda Subharti University (SVSU), a private university in northern India's Uttar Pradesh state, about 500 miles from Srinagar. Bused home by the university on Monday, they are now unsure of their future. Charges of mischief and attempt to cause communal disharmony, which carry a maximum prison time of three years, still stand against them.
“We cannot go back to the university now. We will be attacked there again and we fear for our lives now,” says Muteeb Majeed, one of the suspended students who was pursuing a bachelors degree in business administration. He watched the match in the college's common hall on Sunday night and says there were about 100 students there, 15 of whom were Kashmiri.
“We were cheering for good cricket all through the match but we support Pakistani cricket team. And when Pakistan won the match, we did cheer and celebrate but that was it," he says.
The suspensions rose to many more than 15 students because the other Kashmiri students in the dorm would not tell university authorities who was cheering, so the university also suspended all those who wouldn't share information about the night. Around 40 of the suspended students said at a press conference in Srinagar today that they were beaten up and abused the night of the game by Indian students for supporting the Pakistani cricket team.
'You cannot do these things'
The vice chancellor of the university, Manzoor Ahmad, says the students are suspended indefinitely. He says that there was no fighting from the side of Kashmiri students, but that university authorities found it unacceptable that the Kashmiri students shouted pro-Pakistan slogans and celebrated the defeat of India.
“They shouted pro-Pakistan slogans and some took off their shirts in celebration, but in a charged city like Meerut, you cannot do those things,” Ahmad said.
In Meerut, there have reportedly been protests by Hindu groups who have burned effigies of the Kashmiri students. The Kashmiri women who are still at the school say they are living in hostels and have been asked by the administration not to go off campus due to security concerns. "[We] have been told that security would be given to us if things get more tense," says Abida Mushtaq, one of 15 Kashmiri women enrolled at the school.
Reaction in India has varied. According to Indian media reports, members of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party supported the sedition charges, while a group of Indian legal experts questioned their legal basis. The incident raises free speech issues for some Indian observers who were upset last month when a book by an American academic on Hinduism was pulled out of India.
Pakistan invites students abroad
More than 100 Kashmiri students study at SVSU, according to vice chancellor Ahmad, who says that all of them were selected on a special Prime Minister’s scholarship program for Jammu and Kashmir. It is meant to encourage Kashmiri youth to pursue higher studies outside of their state and address the sense of alienation some youth feel with India.
Pakistani government, meanwhile, has made statements in support of the Kashmiri students saying that if India allows, they would love to invite the Kashmiri students to their universities and colleges.
“Our hearts and educational institutions are open for Kashmir students” Pakistan foreign office spokesperson Tasnim Aslam told media yesterday.
Many Kashmiris, particularly Muslims in the Kashmir Valley, want the right to self-determination to join with India or Pakistan or to be independent. India responded to a mass armed uprising during the 1990s, that was supported by militants from Pakistan, by maintaining more than half a million forces in the region, and who operate with immunity from local law.
India and Pakistan have fought three wars – in 1948, 1965, and 1971 – since they were partitioned in 1947. Troops also faced off in Kashmir in a 1999 border skirmish.
More than 70,000 Kashmiri people, mostly civilians, have reportedly been killed in the conflict since partition.