Srinagar: Ansar Ahad, 24, is still terrified by memories of the chanting mob outside his Dehradun college screaming for the expulsion of Kashmiris.
Uttarakhand, of which Dehradun is the capital, was once a second home to Ahad, a final-year postgraduate student of medical lab technology at the Uttarakhand Medical College of Biomedical Sciences.
His classes are underway, but Ahad is reluctant to go back.
‘A second home’
Ahad is one of around 1,500 Kashmiri students who left different parts of India for home in the wake of the 14 February Pulwama terror attack, as media reports identifying the perpetrator as a Kashmiri triggered a hateful hysteria directed at Valley natives.
“Dehradun was like a second home,” Ahad, a resident of north Kashmir’s Sopore, told ThePrint in Srinagar.
“I lived there for four years. But on 15 February, I could not gather the courage to return to my rented accommodation from college. I was forced to skip my practical exams,” he added.
Recalling the hours before his midnight getaway with around 250 fellow Kashmiris, he said a woman classmate had to accompany him to his rented accommodation at Gautam Vihar.
Within an hour of reaching his house, he added, residents of the housing society gathered outside his door, asking him to leave.
This group included neighbours he once considered his local guardians.
“There was this middle-aged lady, a teacher at a reputed school, who lived next door and used to inquire after me often,” he said.
But that day, Ahad added, she stood outside his door and said “you Kashmiri terrorists should go”.
Ahad said he locked himself into a room and called up his landlord.
“He pleaded helplessness. He said residents had told him not to give rooms to Kashmiris. He told me to vacate the room as he did not want any trouble,” Ahad said.
“I was in a daze. I called one of my friends for help. Hungry and terrified, I waited for night to fall. Around midnight, my friends came to rescue me,” he added.
They went to the local bus stand, where he and the other Kashmiris first fled for Chandigarh, and then on to Srinagar.
Mohammed Hafiz, 23, a final-year agriculture student of Uttaranchal PG College, Dehradun, was part of another group of Kashmiri students that fled the state after the Pulwama attack.
It was a wake-up call for him, he said, when his classmates looked the other way as a mob armed with sticks entered the college on 15 February.
“I thought if I can’t trust the classmates with whom I have studied for over four years, there is nobody I can trust in the city,” Hafiz, a resident of south Kashmir’s Bandipora, added.
Aamir Khan, 21, a third-year radiology student of Sri Gururam Rai College, Dehradun, said he has been confused since he returned home.
“Our classes have already started, exams are in May. But I just can’t bring myself to return,” he told ThePrint. “And where am I going to stay? Is the college going to ensure our security?”
Khan, a resident of Handwara, said his parents were more worried than he was, and wouldn’t let him go till they were convinced of his safety.
How Kashmiri students helped each other
The 14 February Pulwama attack was followed by multiple reports from across India, especially Uttarakhand, about the harassment of Kashmiris by vigilantes looking to avenge the terror strike, which killed 40 CRPF personnel.
The reports stirred a group of students, who were in Kashmir on their winter vacation, into action, leading them to mount a social media-driven rescue operation for the harassed Kashmiris.
Nasir Khuehami, spokesman of the Jammu and Kashmir Students’ Organisation (JKSO), was at the forefront of the rescue mission.
Talking to ThePrint, he said the first thing they did was to make four WhatsApp groups comprising Kashmiri students studying across India.
“We added 1,000 students in the groups and told them to send an SOS on WhatsApp if attacked or threatened, along with their address,” Khuehami, a student of journalism at Garhwal Central University in the Uttarakhand capital, added.
“Within half-an-hour of the group becoming active on 15 February, some 40 students reached out to us for help,” Khuehami said.
In all, some 1,700 messages were posted by students seeking help, he added.
“The moment a message was received, we called up the local police in the respective state and gave them the address of the student being harassed,” he said.
But the enormity of the situation, Khuehami added, made them realise that one of them needed to be at ground zero to coordinate between police and the students.
“I reached Dehradun on 17 February. Some other Kashmiri students and I then went to the spot [of harassment] along with police to rescue our friends,” he said.
For the first two days, Khuehami and a couple of other students pooled their funds for the effort. “We had Rs 20,000, but it was over within two days.”
It was then that the group contacted Khalsa Aid, a Sikh voluntary organisation famous around the world for its charitable initiatives. There was no looking back after that. The NGO took charge of everything — from providing food to arranging transport — and, soon, at least 1,100 students had been sent home from Uttarakhand.
JKSO in touch with colleges, police
Khuehami told ThePrint that the biggest challenge now was to convince the students to go back to their college before their exams, which are due in May.
To this end, the JKSO held a meeting in Srinagar Wednesday with the students.
“We have decided to approach the college authorities again and ask for specific measures that they have [implemented] to ensure students from Kashmir are not targeted again,” said Gulzar Ahmad Lone, 21, a radiology student at Uttaranchal PG College, Dehradun.
Khuehami said one of the options they were considering was sending the students back to Dehradun in small groups of 10-15, to see if the security situation on the ground had improved.
“Based on their feedback, we will tell other students to return. We just hope it’s a one-off case and will not be repeated,” he added.
An earlier version of the report identified Sopore as a part of south Kashmir, though it’s located in the Valley’s north. The error has been corrected.