Academic dissent stifled in Kashmir

Posted: April 10, 2012 in Human Rights, Right to Dissent, State Violence
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Haroon Mirani, UWN

Kashmir University, one of the largest universities in Indian-administered Kashmir, is also one of the most watched universities in India to ensure not a whimper of academic dissent emerges. But there are signs that the political climate may be changing.

Some Kashmiri academics say now is the time to speak out because the Indian government does not want to be embarrassed internationally as it emerges as a potential superpower.

Some 43,000 people have lost their lives in the last two decades of insurgency in Kashmir, according to government figures, and this is regarded by human rights organisations as a conservative estimate.

Yet Kashmir University (KU) in Srinagar rarely allows research to be published on these burning issues.

The state suppression of academics is intended to prevent the emergence of authentic literature on Kashmir’s contemporary history, where India often appears in a negative light, experts say.

And although violence in Kashmir is at the lowest level since its eruption in 1990, fear of reprisals still rules. Even seminars and workshops at KU are on strictly a-political themes and research students are encouraged to pursue ‘safe’ topics.

“We have books depicting Pakistan’s point of view and the Indian point of view but our academics don’t produce research papers, theses and books from the Kashmiri point of view, even though Kashmiris have suffered the most,” said Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a law professor at Kashmir University.

New university departments have been created such as the Kashmir Institute. Prior to its establishment at KU in 2008, the institute was an independent body that produced commendable work often critical of the establishment. “It was a brilliant institute and had produced at least three dozen academically-acclaimed papers,” lamented Showkat. Now it is entirely pro-government.

In 2010 the government banned a postgraduate course in human rights in KU without giving concrete reasons. Insiders say the government was embarrassed by research papers that emerged from the department, which squarely blamed the Indian army for gross human rights violations in Kashmir.

After much public outcry the department was allowed to resume work this year, albeit under scrutiny by the university authorities – those who express critical views of the government forego promotions or are thrown out.

Mohammed Yousuf Ganai, a history lecturer and president of the Kashmir University Teachers’ Association, said: “If anybody talks openly, even if it is based on research, knives are out to harm him either professionally or personally.

“Such is the situation that even victims refuse to mention their ordeal as they fear it will invite more wrath,” Ganai said.

The problem is widespread in all universities in Kashmir. “They are all same, with KU being the leading example of big [academic] resources rendered wasted by state control,” said Parvez Imroz, a human rights activist and president of the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Societies.

Despite burning issues related to the conflict like mass graves or the high prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder and other conflict-induced phenomenon that need analysis and investigation, “no research dealing directly with the Kashmir conflict is coming out of KU”.

Imroz pointed out that his coalition receives students from major universities like Harvard and Yale who want to research the Kashmir conflict, often on the very issues Kashmiri academics will not or cannot touch.

Instead, Kashmiri academics “choose neutral and safe topics like orphanages, culture, roads, architecture and climate change,” Imroz told University World News, adding:

Academics don’t want to come out of their safe zone and assert their position. The fear of even remotely displeasing the state and the possible repercussions scares them. Nobody in academia is ready to fight and take on the state head-on over these visible and invisible curbs.”

But not absolutely everyone is content to remain within their personal safety zone.

Hamida Nayeem, a professor in KU’s English department, has had her passport impounded by the government for the past three years, for her outspoken criticism of government policies. She continues to speak out.

Nayeem said academic dissent was necessary. “It is they [academics] who can show dissent using proof and historical evidence, and reach to the bottom of truth with free and fair investigation of things.”

But it is not easy. During the last 20 years the government has managed to handpick professors and lecturers in KU, according to Showkat, the law professor. “These people are not worthy of the position and to continue their prime position, they become easy collaborators.”

According to many academics, the government has cultivated a wide network of sources to keep an eye on them. And action can be swift.

Last December Noor Muhammad Bhat, an English lecturer at a KU, was arrested on charges of sedition after he had set an examination paper in which one translation question included a passage related to youths stone-pelting Indian forces in Kashmir.

The police accused Baht of setting an ‘anti-national’ and ‘anti-establishment’ exam paper. Bhat was later granted interim bail by the high court after 23 days of detention, causing a huge outcry in Kashmir. Many academics came out in his support.

“The police have no role in matters of academia. It is for the university to see whether a passage is controversial or otherwise,” Bhat told local reporters on his release.

Also in December, the police registered a case of obscenity against KU professor Shad Ramzaan of the department of Kashmiri studies, although they did not arrest him. Ramzaan had taken a passage from a book about the evolution of mammary glands of females for a translation examination paper.

Shad called the charges against him “academic terrorism”.

“I took this paragraph from a text book of Unani (traditional) medicine. The police should first book the author [of that book] and then they should book the people who prescribed it. They should also ban medical colleges and MBBS course because it is all being taught there,” he told a news agency.

Ramzaan was stripped of his post as head of KU’s Kashmiri department and blacklisted from setting exam papers for 10 years.

But some academics feel now is the time to speak out. English professor Nayeem felt things had changed in the last five years in Kashmir, primarily due to the decline in the armed insurgency.

Previously at the height of the violence the government was quick to brand academics ‘anti-national’ if they spoke out, claiming it was curbing militancy. But now if academics speak with one voice, the authorities might not dare to act against them. “They can punish us singly but not entire academic community,” said Nayeem.

Many academics are optimistic, citing the decline in violence, India’s rising superpower status and, most crucially, the country’s democratic image as the biggest deterrents to persecutions similar to those that took place during the worst times, particularly the early 1990s.

“India won’t like to be internationally embarrassed in this era of mass media by persecuting intellectuals,” said Showkat. “There is hope that if academics rise to command authority and freedom of expression at this juncture, we will see a big change in Kashmir University.”

But Nayeem pointed to the continued timidity of the academic community after years of repression: “Unfortunately academics are not coming forward,” she said.

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