On 7 January 2017, the Constitution Club of India, in Delhi, played host to the Kashmiri Students’ Conference. The press kit for the event described it as “a dialogue on students’ role in nation building.” It was organised by the Muslim Rashtriya Manch (MRM), the Muslim wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The MRM was formed in 2002, and identifies itself as “an Indian nationalist Muslim organisation.” In the past, the organisation has campaigned to scrap Article 370 from the constitution—which grants autonomous status to Jammu and Kashmir—impose a uniform civil code, and to organise Muslims to join the fight against cow slaughter.
A brochure included in the kit said that through the conference, the MRM intended to highlight the issues facing students and young people in Jammu and Kashmir. Among these, it listed poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, and slow economic growth and social development in Jammu and Kashmir. An important step in the direction of tackling these issues, it added, was to create opportunities for the young to be educated, employed, and “free from drug abuse, frustration, parochialism, sectarianism, and other numerous evils which have weakened the foundations of the Kashmiri society.” The brochure also said that attacks on Kashmiri students studying outside the state were preventing Kashmiri parents from sending their children outside the valley, resulting in “a negative impact on the mental development of the students regarding their nation.” “We are excited about the event that has been convened today because the conversation will be about bringing Kashmiri students into the fold so that they can avail of the opportunities being offered to students across the country,” said Hafeez Mohammed Sabreen, the president of the Muslim group Jamat Haffaz Ikraam and the co-convener of the MRM.
The MRM is headed by Indresh Kumar, a senior RSS leader who has long overseen the Sangh’s efforts in Jammu and Kashmir. Kumar was also the chief speaker at the event. His history with the Muslim community is troubled—according to Swami Aseemanand, the Hindu fundamentalist accused of plotting several terror attacks on Muslims including the Samjhauta Express blasts in 2007 and the Malegaon blasts in 2008, Kumar was one of the senior RSS leaders who encouraged and aided him in the execution of the attacks. This conflicted record notwithstanding, the MRM’s website states that its formation encouraged Muslim intellectuals and leaders to accept the RSS as their “true friend,” and Kumar as “their messiah.” Other guests at the conference included Jitendra Singh, a minister of state in the Prime Minister’s Office; and Engineer Aijaz Husain, the head of a non-governmental organisation named Develop Kashmir, which had helped organise the event. (Home Minister Rajnath Singh was slated to be the chief guest, but he did not make an appearance.)
Sabreen told me that part of the reason the MRM wanted to host the event was to change the perception that those in the rest of India held of the Kashmiri people. “A few separatists have led people to believe that all Kashmiris don’t want to stay in India. Lekin aaj aapko pata chalega ki bahut sare Kashmiri yuvak sirf insaniyat, Kashmiriyat aur hindustaniyat mein maante hai. (But today you will realise that many young Kashmiris only believe in the ideas of humanity, Kashmiriyat, and Indian-ness).” Many attendees I spoke to did not appear to appear to be aware of Sabreen’s view of the event. Several students said they attended because they were told the event would focus on the scholarships that Kashmiri students could avail. Others told me that they were not familiar with the MRM. “I was told that this event would address security issues that we face when we come to work in other places, but they are only promoting their schemes,” said Nazharul Islam, a Kashmiri in his mid-twenties who works with the multinational firm Accenture, in Noida, before adding, “I had no idea that the event was an RSS event.”
Kashmiri students at the conference—the number of which appeared to be no more than 500, a quarter of the 2,000 that were expected to attend—primarily comprised those from Mewar University, in Chittogarh, Rajasthan, and students invited by NGOs such as Develop Kashmir and Youth Power J&K. Members from these groups, including the university, also made up the organising committee of the event. The press-kit brochure described these groups as “nationalist organisations” that were working “peaceably in the valley to lime light the true voice natives [sic].” A few students from Mewar University said that the university’s administration had told them that the event was mandatory. Nafisa, a second-year student of the university and one of the very few women students present in the room, said, “We were told to come, so I am here to listen.” She told me that she had availed financial assistance from Mewar University for her education. A teacher from the university who was accompanying the students and asked not to be named, said that the institution had many students belonging to Kashmir. “We encouraged them to come and hear about the scholarships that they can avail of to improve their opportunities,” the teacher said.
Attendees were presented with pamphlets that contained details about the government’s schemes for Kashmiri students, such as Himayat, a skill-development scheme offered by the rural development ministry, and Udaan, a corporate-led skilling initiative funded by the home ministry and promoted by the National Skill Development Corporation. Another scheme the speakers at the event discussed was a special scholarship for Kashmiri students wishing to pursue higher education, which was recently launched by the ministry of human-resource development, and was to be implemented by the All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE). One of the criterions listed on the pamphlet for the scheme was that students must be “willing to study outside the State of J&K.” The brochure said that students could apply for these scholarships only through the AICTE online portal.
During his address, Jitendra Singh, the minister of state, called for the normalisation of the situation in Kashmir and blamed the current state of affairs on “separatist elements” that he said had led the youth in Kashmir astray. “Peace and development share a reciprocal relationship,” he said. Singh added that the government at the centre had come “to give and not to take” from the youth of Kashmir. “I recently met a Kashmiri student—a young girl—who has been studying in Delhi. She told me that it is amazing and, ‘we never knew that the world outside Kashmir was so amazing,’” he said. Confusingly, Singh also referred to the centre’s Startup India initiative, although he did not elaborate on how the scheme would benefit Kashmiri students. “Constructing a building and creating institution are different things. We will provide initial venture fund if someone wants to begin start-ups in Jammu and Kashmir,” he said.
Indresh Kumar said in his address that organisations such as the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed and the LET had corrupted Islam in Kashmir, and had destroyed a spirit of brotherhood and tolerance that the religion actually promotes. He also added that the smooth proceedings of the event were a testament to the RSS’s ability to inspire trust in Kashmiri youth. “If a secular party tried to organise this event, they would have had at least 20 armed officials,” he said.
Shahid Tantray, the photo coordinator at The Caravan, had accompanied me to the event. Tantray and I spoke to Kumar after his address. “This conference has been organised because international forces and forces within the country are not dealing with Kashmir well. Slowly and progressively, these forces within Kashmir and from Pakistan have told a great lie to Kashmiri people,” he told us. He added that this had moved some in Kashmir towards bandook and patthar—the gun and the stone. “The schemes that the Indian government has given the state have not been properly implemented by the state governments in J&K and the Kashmiri politicians have moved forward only in corruption.” I asked Kumar why the MRM had not conducted such programmes within Kashmir or promoted the scholarships within the state. “Yeh sawal shaitan wala sawal hai”—this is a mischievous question, he said. “When we conduct events in Kashmir, we are asked, why don’t you conduct them elsewhere, and vice versa.” Tantray asked Kumar about similar conferences that had been conducted by governments in power after the uprisings in Kashmir, in 2008 and 2010. Kumar smilingly grabbed Tantray’s head. “To cure your shaitani, I request that you go and rest for a while,” he said, adding that he would be happy to answer any further questions in one-on-one conversations.
Many students I spoke to during and after the event remained sceptical of the schemes. Umaid Shah, a former student of Kashmir University who is currently looking for a job in Delhi, said, “They are promoting schemes that aim to take Kashmiris out of their home, but not talking about improving education there.” He continued: “In Kashmir, we are dependent on pre-paid Internet connections, but they get suspended at the slightest conflict in the state. How can we apply or find out about these schemes when our access to the net is always getting suspended?”
Kedar Nagarajan is a web reporter at The Caravan.