“Engineering institute turns CRPF bunker” for months; education suffers

Students stage a protest against CRPF's presence inside the campus. Photograph by Kaisar Andrabi for The Kashmir Walla

On 3 August 2019, in Kashmir valley, traffic was moving on roads and rumors on social media. In the morning, Rabiya Fayaz, 21, had left her home in Botshah bridge neighbourhood, Srinagar, boarded a local bus and reached Kite Government Polytechnic College (KGPC), where she studies civil engineering, in Gogji Bagh, Srinagar.

A day earlier, in a press briefing at 15 Corps headquarters in Srinagar, GoC KJS Dhillon, alongside other senior forces’ officers, claimed that M-24 American sniper and a mine has been recovered en route Amarnath Shrine. All tourists, including pilgrims, were asked to “return as soon as possible”; additional companies of forces were flown in to the Valley.

Ms. Fayaz would discuss the rumors with her friends in the college’s courtyard and giggle over the jokes. A friend – sitting next to her – nudged her, asking to look at the gate. A short caravan of Central Reserve Police Forces’ (CRPF) vehicles was entering the campus; soon, they jumped off their vehicles, took their luggage and quickly walked inside the building.

Students were puzzled over the scene – a few scared while others wondered the reason. Ms. Fayaz, along with her friends, cautiously preferred to leave the campus. Later, other students were asked to go home quietly by the faculty, “leaving no options to ask the reason.”

“Due to existing panic and uncertainty around [because of the rumors], we thought there is going to be war in Kashmir,” recalled Ms. Fayaz.“The forces’ personnel were acting in the same way. We skipped college in fear.” After two days, on 5 August, the central government stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomy and downgraded the region to a federally governed territory; all lines of communications were snapped and Valley was locked down.

In the following months, restrictions were eased out in a phased manner, trailed by partial shutdown; majority of the educational institutes remained shut.

The government’s spokesperson, Rohit Kansal, reiterated concurrently that education is coming back on track – but, couldn’t quantify it.

After about hundred days, the life in Valley had found itself limping back on track. On 3 November, students of the KGP college went to the college following an informal notification from the college authorities.

Several students, including Ms. Fayaz, couldn’t dare to step inside the campus before huddling up and gaining courage. On the first visit, the scene was no different – “with forces in place, the college was in the same situation.” “Barricades were on the entry gate, and classrooms turned into living rooms and kitchen,” recalled a group of students. “The scene hit us psychologically, we also wondered about when our classes would restart?”

“They (CRPF personnel) emptied our bags and checked it thoroughly – even the rubber bands,” said Syed Mehak, classmate of Ms. Fayaz. “[It was] like we were carrying ammunition.”

Grievances and promises

Since 5 August, students at the college haven’t been able to attend classes. Failing to get support from faculty, the students – following a meeting and calling out volunteers – approached the college’s principle. “He contacted a few senior officials regarding the issue but the position is standstill,” said Firdous Ahmad, a student pursuing mechanical engineering at the college. “On 12 November – in frustration and worry – we went to the office of Divisional Commissioner [Baseer Ahmad Khan, Kashmir] office to seek help.”

Other students joined Mr. Ahmad and went to the official’s office near Old Secretariat, about three kilometres away, on foot.  With anxiousness at the back of their head, they put forward their grievances to Mr. Khan. “He assured to resolve the issue within an hour.”

After no development over their pleas, on 25 November, students reached out to the District Development Commissioner, Srinagar, Shahid Choudhary. It has been more than a month, as per students, and the situation is the same.

When contacted by The Kashmir Walla on Wednesday, Mr. Khan said, “We have asked them [forces’ personnel] to move. It will happen today only.” By Thursday morning, forces’ personnel had started withdrawing in pockets.

Finding government forces inside the campus is only triggering anger and simmering rage – with the regular frisking adding fuel to the fire.

Inside the campus, Ms. Mehak explained, the forces’ personnel have installed bunkers on the main road and have lay down concertina wire over the length and breadth of the college. “The college building, including boys’ hostel, is under their use,” she said. “It feels like a CRPF bunker and not any engineering college.”

Another student, Shahid Nabi, a resident of Sopore, north Kashmir, has all his belongings – including books – in the hostel. “Sometimes, I thought of dragging them [CRPF personnel] out of the campus when they follow us if we visit inside,” he said. “Their actions and treatment is forcing us to take negative steps.”

“Free our college!”

On 16 December, the students of the college gathered outside the college gate, holding placards: “Free our college,” “Shame on administration,” “Development comes with education” and shouted rhymes: “Khali Karo Kali Karo, college humara khali Karo (vacate our college).”

But, as things spooled in the past days, students faced another problem. They allege that a few faculty members have asked them to either join any other college or the tuition centres run by them.

“The faculty is not showing any concern to restore our class work,” claimed a group of students. “Their business is going well and students like us are suffering.” However, the principle of the college, Altaf Hussain refused to have “any such information.”

“I was working on it since day one and I approached all officials to solve the issue. Officials were working on it and today they [CRPF] are likely to leave the campus,” Mr. Hussain said on Wednesday.

“How can we learn from tuitions when our course needs practical work which is only possible in college labs?” the group questioned.

Ms. Mehak further added that their third semester examination is near and the students are yet to cover even ten per cent of the syllabus. “Later, students from private colleges and Jammu region will secure highest grades. Our future is being destroyed by the authorities.”

While presenting the reorganisation of J-K, Union Home Minister, Amit Shah, had claimed that the move will bring prosperity in the region but the students like Ms. Mehak can’t see that happening. “Modi is saying Vikas layenge (we will bring development here),” said Ms. Mehak. “Pehle college hi kholte, fir hum dekhte vikas (At least open our college, then we will see the development).”

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