Removing Shahid: India’s war on academia and intellectual spaces in Kashmir

Sitting on a bench, against the backdrop of the magnificent Zabarwan mountain range, and the vast Dal Lake, Saima Zahoor turns the page of the book she is reading. Saima, who is a research scholar at the University of Kashmir, has had her work published in the leading journals of the world, but the University heads think that her work is ‘below par.’

“I take it as a badge of honor that they do not like my work. It is because my work is too political, and the departments are headed by boot-lickers of the occupation, who will not allow any critical work to be published by the university,” Saima says as she goes on to read a passage from the book by famed Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali:
I beg for haven: Prisons, let open your gates— A refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight.
God’s vintage loneliness has turned to vinegar— All the archangels—their wings frozen—fell tonight.

This week, Institutions in Kashmir abruptly removed two highly regarded Kashmiri authors’ works from their courses. University of Kashmir, the top university in the Valley, removed three poems by the Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali, Basharat Peer’s memoir from the post-graduate English program’s course requirements. The two-year masters program’s curriculum has also been taken off the university’s website. According to sources, the new curriculum will be available “once it has been updated.”

Cluster University Srinagar (CUS) too has decided to drop Shahid’s two poems, “I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight” and “Call me Ishmael Tonight.” According to a source at the institution, “These works will no longer be part of the curriculum from this year on,” adding that the Vice-Chancellor’s office “orally” informed the “relevant authorities” of the decision “after consultations.”

These drastic steps that curb freedom of expression at the highest seat of learning in Kashmir, only point towards a larger trend of censorship and purge of the curriculum.

With the places for politics, protest, and resistance already shrinking since Article 370 abrogation, the restriction on the right to free expression has significantly seen a drastic rise. The Indian government, however, has now identified a new space to crack down upon, and descended to a new low by declaring war upon the values of educational institutions.

The fundamental goal of the Indian occupation in Kashmir has been to restrict thought, free speech and civic rights. Recently, the paragraph that read about the ‘condition of autonomy’ on the basis of which Jammu and Kashmir had acceded to the Union of India was deleted from the textbooks, after a verbal order from the government.

Experts warn that the trend is not only dangerous, but points towards very troubling times ahead. A professor who has been part of curriculum design at the University of Kashmir says, “the Indian state is in the process of creating an intellectually challenged youth and subsequently an Orwellian state in Kashmir. Any narrative that does not serve them or is critical of the occupation even remotely, is branded as ‘narrative terrorism’. Under the disguise of ‘welfare for society’, they are curbing all intellectual thought in Kashmir.”

The professor, who does not want to be identified, says that every sane and thinking faculty at the university is exploring other options of employment, because the institutions have become a space that can only be occupied by “yes-men and slaves”.

Against this backdrop, the office of the vice chancellor of the University of Kashmir verbally ordered that any PhD Scholars’ research that has anything to do with the Indian occupation of Kashmir or the current regime is considered ‘null and void’.

In a meeting held with the HoDs of various departments at the VC’s office a few months back, the mention of key terms like, ‘Kashmir Dispute, Kashmir Conflict, Human Rights in Kashmir, Kashmir Issue, UN Resolutions on Kashmir, censorship, media gag, etc’, was specified to be taken out of any and every research assignment at the respective departments.

“I have spent three years of my life preparing this document, an academic body of work. My sweat and blood has gone into producing this work. Now all of a sudden, when I am about to submit my work, they tell me that the topic is dropped,” said a student who is currently pursuing her PhD at the University of Kashmir. “I have no resources left to start again with a new topic. They are not only playing with our careers, but damaging the entire field of research in Kashmir.”
Scholars in the academic arena of Kashmir say they had already been working under enormous pressure and censorship by the Indian State. But now, this order will serve as a final nail in the coffin. Researchers say that the recent order of canceling all critical research came as a backlash against the courage of Kashmiri scholars picking research ideas that challenge authority and serve as a draft of history.

Notably, all the researches that the new VC scrapped were already approved by the Departmental Research Committee (DRC), leaving the scholars with no other option than dumping their two to three years of work straight into the bin.

“Rejecting or scrapping a research topic is nothing new, but specifically targeting key-words and scrapping a research after being approved is outrageous. It will kill research culture. They are now shrinking our field scope. We are forced to work on already exhausted topics,” said a scholar wishing to be anonymous due to the fear of reprisal.
As the order regarding the research topic is being circulated orally with no concrete guidelines as to what is allowed and what is not, there is no limitation on what basis the research can be scrapped. Leaving the scholars in a state of uncertainty and constant pressure of completing the new research from scratch in a very short period.
“The topic on which I was working was something I was passionate about and I have worked with dedication for the last two years. But things have changed now. The new topic that is assigned to me is something I don’t feel for and have no interest in doing. This lack of interest can clearly be seen in my work, I can’t concentrate.”

The University administration’s blatant censorship has left Kashmiri scholars with many lingering difficulties. Ironically, not a single person is allowed to question this decision, which is a well- executed effort to restrain free speech, not just in educational institutions but also in regulating people’s ability to think.

A PhD researcher, whose work was also dropped after two years, claims that “if the governing powers are successful in continuing their barbaric policies for a few more years, then nothing will be able to stop them from changing public perceptions of Kashmir in particular and the barbaric practises of the Modi-led Government in general. Without a doubt, this is a step towards erasing our history and, consequently, our battle for independence.”

“One of my fellow researchers had a research topic related to the BJP regime, it was nothing negative but a mere mention of BJP was enough to create hindrance in his research. They don’t want anything to be written about Kashmir in research by a Kashmiri. This is the beginning of the erasure of our history and history is very important in a conflict zone.”

These actions are being taken in a covert and subtle manner that not a single news outlet has covered such a severe blow to academic careers. Due to the culture of fear that has developed over time, especially since Article 370 was rendered ineffective, no academic scholar objected to the order out of fear.

A state-backed information vacuum is erasing the history and knowledge in the disputed territory because India has placed limitations on the freedom of expression in Kashmir across the board, from journalism to academics to ordinary people.

Sitting on the bench in the University of Kashmir, which scholars say has become a prison, Saima turns the page to read Agha Shahid Ali’s poem, the words that seem prophetic, and bleeding through his pen.

He’s freed some fire from ice in pity for Heaven. He’s left open—for God—the doors of Hell tonight.

In the heart’s veined temple, all statues have been smashed. No priest in saffron’s left to toll its knell tonight.

Saima stops and gazes across the horizon, with the book in her hand. “I don’t think they will be able to kill all thoughts. They might not let us write what we want, but how can they not let us think what we feel? We win the battle of the heart,” she says.

(Names in the report have been changed to protect privacy.)