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Kashmiri Students in India Face Discrimination

Rama Lakshmi

Tuesday 17 June 2003, by LAKSHMI*Rama

MUZAFFARNAGAR, India — Three months ago, Ejaz Husain Jaan was just another Kashmiri student living away from home, nervously studying for his finals and taking short breaks to catch the World Cup cricket scores on television.

Now, he is in jail, facing terrorism charges for allegedly aiding a plan to blow up important government buildings, an accusation he vehemently denies.

"I came out of Kashmir to study, not to be a terrorist," said Jaan, 23, looking tired and bewildered as he stepped out of a crowded courtroom in Uttar Pradesh state recently. "In Kashmir, there is always a threat of the gun — the army’s or the militants’. I wanted to escape the climate of fear and violence.

"But now all my career hopes are destroyed. I could not even finish my tests," he said, starting to cry.

According to human rights groups in New Delhi, scores of Muslim students, traders and professionals who quit violence-wracked Kashmir for other parts of India in search of education and job opportunities have faced increased harassment and discrimination in the past three years.

A report by the People’s Union for Democratic Rights said Kashmiri Muslims in New Delhi suffer from "a deep sense of insecurity and vulnerability" and are victims of police harassment, humiliating searches, intimidation, arbitrary detentions and demands for bribes by local policemen under the pretext of fighting terrorism.

The climate of suspicion, many said, has sharpened since December 2001, when gunmen suspected of being Islamic rebels fighting for Kashmir’s secession from India attacked the Parliament complex in New Delhi. Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, has been ravaged since 1989 by a separatist revolt that has claimed more than 35,000 lives, according to official estimates.

"The last 14 years have been a dark period for the people of Kashmir. Many people have tried to escape the violence and come out to study and work, but they face suspicion wherever they go," said Mehbooba Mufti, the chief of Kashmir’s ruling People’s Democratic Party. "The stereotype is that every Kashmiri holds a gun. Do Kashmiris have to rip open their hearts each time to prove they are not militants?"

Indian officials said there is no campaign to harass Kashmiris because of their religion or their roots.

"We have to be vigilant," said a senior police officer who asked not to be named. "We don’t pick up Kashmiris at random, we follow our intelligence inputs and phone tapping. We cannot always wait for the attack to take place; we have to prevent it also."

But human rights activists argued that the police often act on the basis of flimsy evidence and that the process lacks accountability.

"We are not saying India should be soft on terrorism, but the state’s coercive powers must act like a surgeon’s scalpel rather than come down like a hammer," said Ravi Nair, who heads the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Center. "With every case of harassment of an innocent, the gulf between Kashmiris and the rest of India widens."

Discrimination and harassment are a simple fact of daily life for many Kashmiris living outside their home state, said Afshan Gul, 23, a film student in New Delhi, who complained of innumerable searches and questioning by police.

"The searches and questions do not stop when you show your identity card," she said. "For a Kashmiri Muslim, it usually begins after you show it. They don’t just search you, they rip off your dignity, too."

More than a decade of violence by Islamic militants has hardened perceptions about Kashmiri Muslims among some Indians as well as the police. The bias, Kashmiris said, permeates everyday activities from finding an apartment to finding a job.

"The moment the landlords got to know I was a Kashmiri Muslim, they would make excuses to say no," said Khursheed Ahmed Qazi, 38, a businessman who spent several months looking for an apartment in the capital last year. "The bias against us was clear."

Abrar Ahmad Dewani, 24, a computer student from Kashmir, said that when he interviewed two years ago for a job as a Web site designer for a New Delhi company that makes bathroom fixtures, the questions had nothing to do with his skills.

"The man looked at my [r?sum?] and said, ’Are you a Kashmiri? Kashmiris are terrorists,’ " recalled Dewani. "I said . . . ’I don’t want to work for you.’ I felt humiliated."

At another job interview, a prospective employer told him he was "very scared of Kashmiris."

The circumstances surrounding the arrest of Jaan and three other students in March shook the small group of Kashmiri undergraduates studying in Uttar Pradesh, who said they came under increased surveillance from the police and became the target of public suspicion and scorn.

"The police searched all the rooms of the students. My professor told me not to call him or visit him. Everybody in college looked at us with suspicion," said Abdul Rashid, 26, a graduate student who lived in the room next to Jaan’s. "The neighbors would look at us and say, ’Look, the terrorists are coming’ or ’What are you bombing next?’ "

Jaan said he was interrogated in dark rooms for nine days without a lawyer. He said the police forced him to sign several blank pages that he feared could be used as confessions.

Police said they found maps of India’s "vital installations" in Jaan’s possession and that phone records show he received calls from a leader of the banned militant group Jaish-i-Muhammad.

Despite the perils, young Kashmiris say they will continue to leave home because of the lack of jobs in their state.

"I have no choice but to leave Kashmir," said Tanweer Sadiq, 25, a recent computer science graduate who is applying for jobs in New Delhi. "There are no jobs in Kashmir. I knew I would have to battle a stereotype when I [went] there, but it is still worth taking a chance. It’s a question of my career."


in Washington Post, Tuesday, June 17, 2003; p.A12.

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