NEW DELHI, INDIA — Adil Bashir Dar has been missing class lately. The 23-year-old student says he doesn’t feel comfortable telling his classmates that he’s out of money to pay his annual school fees.
“I can’t even afford the transport fare to visit the university,” he says.
Dar, who grew up in Indian-administered Kashmir – a region at the center of a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan – is pursuing a master’s in peace and conflict studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, a university in New Delhi.
He says he made repeated attempts to call his family in Indian-administered Kashmir to tell them about his financial problems. But he lost contact with them on Aug. 5, when communication lines were cut there.
That was the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi abrogated Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which granted special semi-autonomous status to Jammu and Kashmir – the nation’s only Muslim-majority state.
Life has turned upside down for residents of the region, who are dealing with communication blackouts and shuttered businesses. But many students like Dar, who live more than 600 kilometers (400 miles) south of the state in the Indian capital, feel the reverberations too. They’re cut off from their families at home.
“My entire timetable is ruined,” Dar says. His voice sounds panicked as he describes the uncertainty he feels about continuing his studies in New Delhi.
Postpaid phone services and landlines were recently restored in some parts of the valley, but prepaid phones, which most people rely on for communication, are still down. Even if students can get in touch with their families, it’s still impossible to make online transactions or send money through banks from Indian-administered Kashmir to the rest of India.
On Sept. 16, the Indian Supreme Court asked the central government in New Delhi to restore normal life in Indian-administered Kashmir and selectively end restrictions, while “keeping in mind national interests,” according to media reports.
But the situation remains fraught on the ground, with schools, universities and most businesses still shut. Only shops with essential commodities are open in most of the region, and for the most part, normal life has ground to a halt.
Dar’s family was able to contact him once after lines were cut. They called him from a local police station – the conversation lasted less than five minutes and they weren’t able to discuss his university fees, he says.
The Jammu and Kashmir Students’ Association, an independent countrywide student network, raises money to assist students who have been cut off financially by the crisis. Nasir Khuehami, an activist with the association, says they have raised more than 500,000 Indian rupees ($7,005) to help 500 students pay their dues.
He says a student recently approached him, asking for 15,000 rupees ($210) to pay her fees, but he didn’t have enough money left in the fund to help her.
“Our funds have started getting exhausted,” Khuehami says. “The demand is huge.”
Khuehami says he and his fellow Kashmiri students have a hard time concentrating on their studies since the crisis began. They are caught up with logistical issues, he says, and are distressed by the lack of communication with their families.
“The government evacuated all non-Kashmiri students from Kashmir before the article was scrapped,” he says, referring to Article 370. But Kashmiri students in the rest of India received no warning about what was going to happen.
“They are caught with no alternative options,” he says.
Nazia Dhanju, an education coordinator with Khalsa Aid India, a humanitarian relief organization, says many students seeking financial help have approached them, even though they don’t provide monetary assistance.
“We distributed essential commodities and groceries for around 500-600 students which would suffice them at least for a month,” she says.
Asra, 27, a biochemistry student who studies at a private college in Delhi, says she’s been offered food kits by various volunteers, but she refused them because she doesn’t have cooking facilities at home. What she really needs, she says, is money.
Asra, who did not want to use her surname, owes 28,000 rupees ($392) to her college for examination fees. But she hasn’t been able to pay. She received an extension from the college authorities, but that deadline passed, too. Now she’s back in Indian-administered Kashmir, hoping to raise the money to sit her exams in December.
“Nobody understands our problem and we are even scared to protest about our demands,” she says. Meanwhile, she says, the government claims everything is fine in the region.
“Initially, students were able to manage things with some savings and help from others but now they are running out of options,” says Amar Gujral, an independent volunteer based in New Delhi who has helped various organizations raise money for stranded students.
Gujral says institutions refuse to cooperate with Kashmiri students to help them continue their education. But he says it’s not the universities and colleges who are to blame for the crisis.
“Unless the government sets up a help line or acknowledges the problems of the students, it will be very difficult for educational institutions to take a lead,” he says.
Global Press Journal approached officials at a number of universities and colleges in New Delhi for an interview. None would comment on the situation of their Kashmiri students.
Dar missed his exams in October because he hadn’t paid his fees. Instead, he went back to Indian-administered Kashmir, where he visited his family and borrowed more than 13,000 rupees ($182) from them to help pay off what he owes the university.
Now that he’s back in New Delhi, Dar, like Asra, hopes to sit his exams in December. But says he grows ever more anxious that he’ll have to head back permanently if things do not improve. He’s in a significant amount of debt and says he can’t continue his studies if he’s consistently unable to get in touch with his family.
“It is not possible to consistently ask for help when expenses are really high,” he says. “Our careers are at stake, and we don’t know up to what time we can survive here at the mercy of others.”
Aliya Bashir, GPJ, translated some interviews from Kashmiri and Urdu.