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‘I have never felt so insecure’: Kashmiris face backlash after unprecedented attack

Indian demonstrators shout slogans against Pakistan during a protest in New Delhi on Feb. 17 after an attack on a paramilitary police convoy in Kashmir.
Indian demonstrators shout slogans against Pakistan during a protest in New Delhi on Feb. 17 after an attack on a paramilitary police convoy in Kashmir. (Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images)
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NEW DELHI — Hours after a suicide bomber rammed an Indian security convoy in Kashmir last week, the threats began.

In the northern Indian city of Dehradun, students shared posts on social media calling for their Kashmiri classmates to be kicked out of their universities. Groups marched through the streets, shouting that Kashmiris were traitors and should be shot. Landlords renting rooms to Kashmiri students were threatened.

“I have never felt so insecure in all my life,” said Aqib Rashid, 22, a physiotherapy student. Joining hundreds of other Kashmiri students, he left Dehradun for the city of Chandigarh, a four-hour drive away in the state of Punjab.

In the wake of Thursday’s attack — the deadliest in three decades of insurgency in Indian-controlled Kashmir — the mood in India is tense and angry. In a search for scapegoats, some have lashed out at Kashmiri students and shopkeepers in other parts of India. 

In the wake of a suicide bombing in the Indian-controlled Kashmir that left at least 40 officers dead, anti-Pakistan protests broke out across India on Feb. 15. (Video: Associated Press)

On Tuesday, the governor of a small state in northeastern India expressed support for a total boycott of Kashmir in response to the Feb. 14 attack, which killed 40 paramilitary police personnel. The assault was carried out by a local teenager who had joined Jaish-e-Muhammad, a Pakistan-based militant group.

India blames Pakistan — its neighbor and rival — for the attack, but Pakistan rejects such claims. India will hold national elections this spring, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised that “every teardrop” shed by the families of the attack victims will be avenged. 

With nationalist sentiment running high, social media posts interpreted as criticism of the Indian security forces — or as possible support for the attack — have been met with backlash. Several students in Uttar Pradesh state in northern India are facing criminal complaints over social media posts critical of the Indian army. A professor in the northeastern state of Assam was reportedly suspended for her Facebook posts on the attack.

Khawaja Itrat, 21, heads the Jammu and Kashmir Students Organization in Chandigarh, the capital of Punjab. In the hours after last week’s attack, he began receiving reports of trouble elsewhere in India, especially in Dehradun: people gathering in the streets shouting anti-Kashmiri slogans, or telling landlords that they had 24 hours to make Kashmiri students leave.

The mob was not targeting only students. Aabid Majeed Kuchay, a Kashmiri who is dean of academic affairs at a management institute in Dehradun, said an angry group of 500 people came to his college two days in a row. They demanded that Kashmiri students no longer be admitted and that Kuchay be suspended. To prevent violence, he told the administration to succumb to their demand. With the help of the college and local police, Kuchay fled to the city of Jammu.

Meanwhile, Itrat’s student organization worked with local authorities to evacuate Kashmiri students, many of whom were hiding in their apartments. Itrat said his group arranged for more than 500 students to leave Dehradun.

In Chandigarh and the neighboring city of Mohali, there were also unexpected kindnesses. A local gurudwara — a Sikh temple — said that it, too, wanted to help. After receiving a request to shelter the students, “we immediately agreed,” said Sant Singh, a member of the committee that oversees the Gurudwara Singh Shaheedan shrine. “Everyone is welcome, regardless of religion.”

A Sikh social service organization offered help with food and transportation for the students. “We wanted to be there for them as a community, as human beings first of all,” said Nazia Kamboj, education coordinator for Khalsa Aid. “They shouldn’t feel alienated in their own land and amongst their own people.”

On Monday, over 50 students were staying in the outer complex of the gurudwara in rooms normally reserved for visitors. Mattresses and blankets were laid out on floors, and suitcases were piled to one side. The next major task: finding taxis and buses to start the students on their journey home to Kashmir. 

But the students were unlikely to forget their ordeal, and it remained unclear whether they would return to their colleges. 

“I would prefer to complete my studies and go back if the situation improves, but my parents are against it,” said Junaid, a 21-year-old civil engineering student who asked to be identified by one name for safety reasons. He was the first person in his family to study outside Kashmir, he said. “Now I think I will be the last.”

Niha Masih and Farheen Fatima contributed to this report.

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