For Kashmiri Graduates, India’s Clampdown Is ‘Like Death’
With the repeal of Article 370, India has opened the way for fierce competition over scarce government jobs.
SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir—A mile away from the banks of the picturesque Dal Lake, a despondent 26-year-old Mohammad Shoaib Zahoor sat in his room. India’s ongoing clampdown in Kashmir “has affected my mental health and shattered my confidence,” he said. The last “50 days were like death to me.”
Zahoor once aspired to become a bureaucrat in the Kashmir Administrative Service (KAS), which used to be governed by the Jammu and Kashmir Public Service Commission (JKPSC) before India’s repeal of Article 370 in Kashmir. But this fall, he has spent his time trying to find a way around the monthslong communication shutdown that came with New Delhi’s move. In particular, he needs to find an internet connection to continue his studies.
He had recently enrolled in an online course to prepare for the upcoming competitive exam, KAS 2019, and had also joined a coaching center in Srinagar. Zahoor, who used to study 10 hours a day, now sits idle and out of sufficient study material. Now, on a typical day, he mostly listens to All India Radio, with a notepad in his hand. “I make notes from the news to stay updated with the current affairs,” he said.
He’s not the only one whose future is in doubt. On Sept. 7, State Times, a local English-language daily, published a letter written by JKPSC candidates requesting that the authorities let them sit for the upcoming exam after 1,123 candidates failed to submit an online registration fee due to the internet ban.
There are other problems, too, beyond the lack of internet. With New Delhi’s Aug. 5 repeal of Kashmir’s special political status under Article 370, which had granted the region some autonomy, the central government also reorganized the competition for jobs in the civil service. Previously, nonlocals had been barred from these positions. But now the law that used to make that possible has been repealed. In turn, it is unclear whether local Kashmiris will have to compete with applicants from the rest of the country for these highly sought-after postings.
The fear of outsiders qualifying for local administrative positions has sent a chill throughout the valley. For one, there’s the problem of outsiders being in control of administrative functions. They “won’t have the emotional connect with the people,” Zahoor said. That could lead “to discrimination with common people on the administrative level.”
Beyond that, many Kashmiris look to the civil service as their best hope for employment. In 2016, nearly 40,000 aspirants sat for preliminary testing. After three stages, just 963 qualified. And eventually, only 277 made it to the final list. Although the civil service isn’t a major source of employment, in other words, it is the most in demand, since it is seen as respectable, comes with job security, and good pay.
In the pursuit of an economically stable and independent life, 24-year-old Bazila Akhtar, also a resident of Srinagar, had planned to take the daunting exam. “Most of my study material was on internet,” she told me in September. “Its absence has not only left my syllabus incomplete but also intensely discouraged me.” Her father, who is a shopkeeper in central Kashmir’s Budgam district, paid about $1,400 for her special coaching classes, which have also been canceled since Aug. 5.
In part, Akhtar and other Kashmiris’ reliance on government jobs is an artifact of ongoing violence in the area, which has discouraged other forms of economic development and foreign investment. According to a report published by the Mumbai-based Economic Times in August, Kashmir received a mere $5.5 million in foreign direct investment between April 2000 and March 2019, the lowest among all Indian states.
And like the rest of India, which has seen a 45-year high in unemployment rates, Kashmir has also experienced booming joblessness. According to the state government’s Economic Survey 2016, unemployment for 18- to 29-year-olds in Jammu and Kashmir had reached 24.6 percent.
With the new administrative rules governing the valley, students from across India could move there to apply for jobs, which would not only change Kashmir’s demographics but would also make the valley’s existing jobs crisis worse for Kashmiris. Young people would either have to leave the region to pursue a better future or get trapped in the ongoing conflict with India.
“To secure my future, I need to get out of this place,” said Faisal Javed Shah, 24, standing in line outside an internet kiosk set up by the government in Srinagar. He hopes to take the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering soon. “Here the environment—curfews, protests, and killings—aren’t suitable for studies.”
Government data states that the number of students enrolling in Kashmir-based colleges dropped by more than 50 percent between 2010 and 2016. They might have previously aspired to seek education and work outside of Kashmir, but a recent rise in attacks on Kashmiri students in the rest of India—especially after the February 2019 killing by a Kashmiri suicide bomber of Indian military personnel in Pulwama—has left young people feeling more vulnerable. According to data available from the Private Schools Association of Jammu and Kashmir, the total number of Kashmiri students studying in other states dropped from an estimated 15,000 in 2016-2017 to 11,500 in 2017-2018.
Shah, for his part, would prefer studying outside the valley for a better future. But he has found himself trapped in conflict. He argues that he isn’t able to study anything, while the rest of the students, his competitors, in the thousands, are going about their normal routines.
Driving with me to Lal Chowk, a historic town square in Srinagar, Zahoor was out to look for a particular competitive exam magazine. It was his go-to guide for everything, including current affairs. “I’m thinking of dropping this exam,” he said. “I don’t want to waste an attempt. My preparation starts where the others’ end.”
He believes that after the central government’s move, trust among Kashmiris has deteriorated. “All the politicians are locked up. We have no rights,” he said. “In this messed-up system, the need for a good civil service officer has increased.” For Zahoor and many others, representing their community is vital and may be the last chance to save what remains of the idea of Kashmir.