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Kashmiri students abroad strapped for cash as crackdown blocks lifeline

  • Haziq Qadri
  • 29 Aug 2019

Kashmiris studying in India and Bangladesh are already wracked with worry about their families due to the communications blackout and now face alarming financial pressures as their funds dry up.

Kashmiri students march in Bangladesh to protest India's abrogation of Article 370 and 35A which guaranteed Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh, a degree of autonomy. ( Syed Zakir / Dhaka Tribune )

New Delhi After the Indian government imposed a blanket ban on all forms of communication in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, following its total annexation, hundreds of Kashmiri students living in different Indian states were immediately cut off from their families. 

While the disconnect has students concerned about the welfare of their families back home, it has also led to a financial crunch for them. To live outside Kashmir, most students receive money from their parents once or twice a month. But with banks shut and the internet down, there is no way hundreds of these students can access money from home.

Areeba Mushtaq, who studies at Delhi University, told TRT World on August 23 that she is left with Rs 2,000 ($27) and has not been able to get in touch with her family since August 10, when her father called from a government official's mobile phone.

“I don’t know how long I will be able to survive on these Rs 2,000. I have to manage my meals, auto fare and other expenses. I don’t know how will I manage the rent of my apartment next month,” Areeba said.

She said her father used to send her Rs 15,000 every month through internet banking. She hails from Srinagar’s Illahibagh locality, one of the few areas that have seen massive protests and is under complete lockdown.

“Those Rs 15,000 would cover my rent, auto fare and meals. Now it does not seem like they [the government] will restore internet or the banks will resume functioning. I don’t know how to survive on these Rs 2,000 until things return to normal back home,” she said.

The Indian government, citing the security situation after stripping Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomy and relegating it to two centrally-administered territories, cut all means of communication and put the entire region under strict lockdown. With thousands of Indian troops  - said to number around 500,000 - and local police dotting every street, the movement of civilians is by and large restricted. 

Sehrish, who is from Srinagar’s old city – considered to be a volatile area – studies in one of Delhi’s engineering colleges. She returned to Delhi two days before Kashmir was cut off from the rest of the world.

“My father had told me that he would send me money for the hostel fee. I have to pay Rs 32,000 for accommodation and food, and I have not even been able to talk to my family. I have run out of money, and I have been dodging my hostel warden. I don’t know how I will survive,” she said. 

The exact number of students in India and Bangladesh is unconfirmed but it is estimated that tens of thousands of Kashmiris study in India and Bangladesh combined - the latter serving as a hub for those studying medicine as it's a cheaper option than India. According to the Kashmir Monitor, around 500 students enrol in medical studies in Bangladesh every year. 

Crowdsourcing for funds

A few organisations have been crowd-funding to help Kashmiri students living away from their homes. Nasir Khuehami, a student activist, along with his friends have raised funds to help out Kashmiri students in different states. 

“We have distributed rations and money among hundreds of students in Delhi, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Haryana, Bangaluru and other states,” Nasir said.

But with thousands of students in need of money and rations (rice, oil, salt, and sugar etc), Nasir says, they are not able to pay large sums to individual students, except in a few critical cases.

Kashmiri men shout slogans during clashes with Indian security forces, after scrapping of the special constitutional status for Kashmir by the Indian government, in Srinagar, August 23, 2019.(Reuters)

Nasir said one student fell ill in Uttarakhand and he required more than Rs 35,000 for his treatment. He was running out of money and could not call home for help.

“He was dying. He had no money left. After bargaining with the hospital staff, we settled for Rs, 35,000 [$488] for his treatment. We used the donation money to get him treated,” he said.

But the kind of work Nasir does comes with its dangers. Nasir said he was heckled and harassed while he was in Dehradun to distribute rations among Kashmiri students in Dehradun, Uttarakhand. 

“In one of the areas in Dehradun, a group of people harassed us. They called the police and told them that we were distributing arms,” he said.

Nasir and his friends have been able to help out hundreds of students, ones like Areeba and Sehrish. 

Facing the unknown in Bangladesh

Apart from Indian states, there are hundreds of students currently enrolled in different medical colleges in Bangladesh. They are the worst hit in this communication lockdown: parents in Kashmir, who manage to call from government officials’ numbers, can make calls to those in India, but international calls are barred in Kashmir.

As such, those in Bangladesh have been completely cut off from their families, with little hope left. Those facing financial problems there have no one to seek help from.

Aisha, a student pursuing a degree in medicine, talked to TRT World over the phone on August 25 and said she was running out of money. 

“I have not been able to talk to my family for the last 20 days. I have no idea if they are alive. All of us here in Bangladesh are depressed, and we are running out of money. We don’t know what to do,” she said.

Some of their friends in Bangladesh are helping them out monetarily, but Aisha asks: “How long will they keep lending us money?”

She said she keeps her phone close to her all the time with a hope that she might get a call from her family “but nothing happens”.

“We just pray for a phone call from home. We are dying for one phone call from home,” she said.

Aisha’s friend, who doesn’t want to be named, shared the same ordeal.

She said she feels helpless as no news comes from home.

“I call my home at least 40-50 times a day with the hope that the phone might ring, but all in vain. We have to pay our hostel fee, and we are running out of money,” she said.

“Please try to help us somehow...anyhow.” 

Jammu and Kashmir Governor, Satya Pal Malik, told reporters in New Delhi on August 18 that the administration wants to avoid the loss of life. “If there is no telephone for ten days, so be it. But we will roll back these measures very soon,” he was quoted by several media agencies as saying. 

However, Malik did not specify how soon the communication will be restored or how soon Kashmiri students will be able to talk to their parents – their lifeline.

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