“When I first told my father that I wanted to go to Delhi after class 12, he, just like any other father in our place, was reluctant. At the time I did not fully understand why he wanted me to stay home and study in Kashmir. I cursed my fate and my father for crushing my dreams. You see, I want to be a psychologist. There was no better place in India than Delhi to help me pursue my dream profession.”
This is the story of Atif Mehtab, a first-year student of Psychology at Jamia Millia Islamia. He belongs to Jammu and Kashmir. His family is engaged in the thriving fruit business in Pulwama district of Kashmir. He sounds nostalgic when he talks about his homeland and when I asked if he misses home, he said, “I do, but then I think about all the things Delhi has shown me and I don’t miss it quite that much.”
Kashmiri students in Delhi have significantly differing experiences. For instance, while some have had it relatively easy finding accommodation, other have faced unnecessary scrutiny by both legitimate and self-proclaimed authorities, often with harassment remains an everyday reality for most of them.
“After I cracked the entrance and got listed for admission to Jamia Millia Islamia, my father finally agreed and gave me his blessings. When I first came here, I tried to find a flat in Okhla Vihar. They were clearly suspicious of me. They asked for my election card, wanted to know about my background, asked for my documents, explicitly mentioned police verification. Some were simply too averse.”
He also adds, “Parents who send their kids to study out of Kashmir often caution them, are adamant that their kids don’t participate in anything ‘political’ and worry significantly more than others.”
Shifting to the topic of food and cuture, he says he loves the food in Delhi. “I came to Delhi with two suitcases full of clothes and food-stuffs, as my friends who had visited Delhi told me the food is intolerably bland and non-spicy. Well, I think they ate at all the wrong places because I love the food in Delhi. It is different, no doubt, but very tasty.”
I ask, “What do you do when you crave home food?”
“I go to Old Delhi. They have the best Kashmiri food you’ll find in Delhi. And it almost tastes like home. I go there when I feel home-sick or miss my mother. There is a community of Kashmiris who are always very welcoming; I like chatting with some of them at random. It makes me feel closer to home.”
He also talked about the Muslim students’ community, saying that “discrimination starts as soon as their identity is visible.”
It is sad to note that most Kashmiri students feel that they have to find a way ‘invisibilise’ themselves so that they do not come under scrutiny.
Atif receives a monthly pocket money from his parents and lives in a PG in Okhla Vihar. He also receives a scholarship of ₹5000 a month, which he uses to commute and pay the tuition fee.
Besides Delhi, he also considered going to a few other cities. “I applied to Christ University in Bangalore, Amity Noida and Kashmir University. Law was another field that attracted my attention, so I applied for law at Aligarh Muslim University, and IP University, Delhi.”
I asked him if he was likely to stay on in Delhi after completion of his higher studies, “I think it really depends a lot on the job availability. I would prefer staying here or any other metropolitan city, rather than going back to Kashmir. You see, the political situation is too bad and I wouldn’t want it to come in the way of my dreams.”
He says he has encountered 2 types of people in Delhi. The first category includes:
“People who just oblivious to the Kashmir issue. These are the kind of people that I have encountered the most. They are pleasant and amicable. They love you, they don’t judge you. They don’t treat you differently or look at you like you are some parasites. The only information that they have is that Kashmir is a beautiful place to visit. And I just happen to be born there. So nothing special. Nothing jazzy. They will treat me just like they treat the others.”
The second category includes:
“People who are misinformed about the Kashmir issue. Now, this is a dangerous lot. They will view you as anti-Indian. They will call you names. And when you try to tell them your side of the story, they will label it as a hoax. I have witnessed a few people of this kind. I had to go to a friend’s place for a sleepover, and a day before the sleepover he tells me not to mention in front of his mother that I’m a Kashmiri Muslim. I was shocked and taken aback.”
Atif is one of the many Kashmiri students in Delhi who have similar stories to tell. Their perceptions of the environment that Delhi provides are very peculiar and are moulded by their understandings of politics and religion and region-based discrimination.
They are socially alienated from their surroundings because of their regional identity and often end up being victims of discrimination. Urban spaces have failed to reduce the importance of religion for this particular section of the population, just like so many others.