A new dawn or an aberration?

Syed Zafar Mehdi

In the summer of 2009, there was a palpable buzz in Kashmir about a young tear-away pacer called Abid Nabi. The tall and muscular 22-year-old was drawing comparisons to many cricketing greats like Javagal Srinath and Waqar Younus. After getting amnesty from Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) for playing in a rebel cricket league (ICL), he was back in the hunt and aiming for stars. “My dream to play at the highest level lives on,” he told me in an interview that time, with oozes of self-belief and excitement. He harboured the hopes of becoming the first cricketer from Kashmir to play for India. Nobody else had achieved the feat before, so he was raring to go and break the jinx.

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It is baffling why no one from this cricket-crazy region has played the international cricket, despite the exciting pool of talented young cricketers. In the past, players like Abdul Qayoom Bagoo, Mohuiddin Mirza and Abdul Rauf had been in the reckoning but nobody could break the shackles. Abdul Qayoom once told me in an interview that his prime came around the time when armed militancy was at its peak in Kashmir valley and state cricket association was in shambles. “I needed backing, which was not there”, said Qayoom, who captained the state team for many years and later donned the mantle of J&K team coach as well. Under his captaincy, the state team the first and only time managed to cruise into knockout stage of Ranji trophy in 2002. Like others, Qayoom was excited for Abid Nabi, who he thought would go on to play at the top level.

 

In the sub-continent, cricket is a religion and cricketers are worshipped as deities. In Kashmir, the fanaticism assumes a different dimension and meaning. Every boy on the street wants to be the next Shahid Afridi or Sachin Tendulkar. But, call it the irony of fate, no cricketer from Kashmir has hitherto played at the highest level. “The dismal performance of our state team in the Ranji trophy is the biggest factor,” confides Shuja Husain, opening batsman for Budgam Cricket Club (BCC). He is seconded by many players, coaches and cricket administrators I have over the years interacted with.

Some blame it on ‘non-seriousness’ among players, some blame it on the ‘climatic conditions’ that allow cricket activity only for six to seven months round the year. One veteran cricketer told me a few years ago that the ‘mess’ was because of the infighting and inter-factional rivalries in the state cricket board, headed by a powerful politician, who is as famous for his politics as for his flings. “The right people are not in the right positions in association,” a former cricketer told me on conditions of anonymity. Some felt the need to raise the bar, while some felt the need to upgrade the infrastructure at par with international standards. Some said the selection procedure at state level has been far from admirable, because of which good players keep warming the benches.

One former state level player, who I interviewed last year, spoke at length about the lobbies’ active in state cricket body and lack of any specific criteria for selection of players at zonal level, which has hampered the chances of players from smaller state like J&K. “There is definitely a rampant bias in selection at zonal levels. Skippers of zonal sides mostly favor their own boys, and players from Kashmir are almost always left out,” he said.

Asked if any player from Kashmir were to play at the highest level, Ashwini Gupta, a former state player once told me that it would be the “best thing to happen for game in Kashmir”. So, has the time come?

After being in the reckoning for many years, Abid Nabi seems to have vanished, like many other promising cricketers in the past. Now all of a sudden, the arch lights have turned to a young player from Bigbihera, a small town in the southern Kashmir district of Anantnag. Parvez Rasool, the 24 year old talented bowling all-rounder, will be part of a 15-member squad that will tour Zimbabwe to play five ODI matches from July 24. Coming from a family of cricketers (his father and brother have played professional cricket), Rasool has represented his state J&K from under-14 level. Legendary Indian cricketer Bishen Singh Bedi, also Rasool’s coach and mentor, feels the boy has the “temperament to succeed at the highest level”.

Rasool made his first-class debut for J&K in 2008-09. In the 17 first-class matches so far, he has scored 1003 runs and taken 46 wickets, which is pretty decent for someone who has grown up playing cricket in paddy fields. However, he caught the attention of cricket pundits and selectors last season after a string of impressive performances in Ranji trophy, India’s main domestic cricket competition. In seven Ranji matches, Rasool scored 594 runs with two centuries, and took 33 wickets to finish as the third-highest wicket-taker among spinners in the tournament, and also the top run-getter and wicket-taker for his side.

Soon, he received the news of his selection for India ‘A’ squad to play against England in a one-day warm-up game in Delhi, the first cricketer from Kashmir to make it. It was a curtailed match, so he did not make much of an impression. It was then against Australia, while playing for Board President XI earlier this year, Rasool hit the headlines. He returned with impressive figures of 7/45 and scored swashbuckling 36. Then, he got an offer from Pune Warriors team to play in the lucrative Indian Premier League (IPL) this season.

Soon after the news of his selection broke out, social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter were abuzz. Local newspapers in Kashmir were replete with stories and pictures about the new star. To score a few brownie points, state Chief Minister Omar Abdullah tweeted his wishes to the young cricketer and the leader of opposition party Mehbooba Mufti went all the way to his home to congratulate his family. He became a poster-boy overnight.

Kashmir, where cricket is a political statement, the support for the Pakistani cricket team is a part of popular folklore. Historians say it has to be seen and understood in the context of their larger political aspirations and their detestation for anything to do with India. So, it would be interesting to see how Kashmir embraces its new star. While he now represents the hopes and aspirations of one billion people who are crazy about the game, back home, a daunting task lies ahead for him to create his fan base. Will the people in Kashmir switch loyalties now to Indian cricket team? “It’s a stupendous achievement and we are really proud of him, but we would still want Pakistan to win against India,” says Aqeel Bhat, a young club cricketer in Kashmir.

An unassuming boy-next-door and a practicing Muslim, he refused to sport the logo of a liquor brand on his Pune Warriors shirt in Indian Premier League (IPL), perhaps taking inspiration from South African star Hashim Amla. The road to success and fame, however, has not been smooth for this latest sensation from Kashmir. In October 2009, while representing J&K team in an under-22 tournament in southern Indian city of Bangalore, Rasool was detained by local police after traces of explosives were allegedly found in his kit bags. He was released after a few days for lack of evidence, not the first Kashmiri to have faced such a situation in an Indian state. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah said he was made a “scapegoat” and “arrested mistakenly”. Rasool’s brother Asif accused the Bangalore police of “high handedness”. “The police had used a sniffer dog for detection of any explosive material in their bags. Since there was a copy of holy Quran in the bag, my brother objected, which actually prompted his arrest,” his brother said to media. After a few days in the lock-up, he was back in the nets, bowling those vicious off spinners and lofting the bowlers over mid wicket.

The journey from the horror of lock-up to the limelight of dressing-room looks straight out of a typical Bollywood blockbuster. But, for him, it’s a reality he has lived, and a baggage he will always carry with him. As Rasool gets ready for a fresh innings of his life as the first cricketer from conflict-marred Kashmir to play for India, the big question is: is this a new dawn for cricket in Kashmir or just an aberration?

Engineering sectarian frenzy

 

Syed Zafar Mehdi

The Holy Quran in no unequivocal terms calls for the unity and accord among Muslims. “And hold fast to the rope of Allah and be not divided among yourselves” (Al-Imran, 3:103). Unity is at the root of Islam, unity is vision and unity is strength. Sand grains make a desert, and tiny droplets make an ocean. We are only as strong as we are united, and only as weak as we are divided. It’s the clear and compelling message of unity that has brought many non-Muslims into the fold of Islam. Yusuf Islam, once known as Cat Stevens, says the very first lesson he learnt from the Qur’an was the “message of unity and peace”. Holy Quran puts lot of emphasis on ittihad (unity), which is testified by ample number of holy verses calling believers to tighten the rope and promote mutual respect, harmony and accord. There is a narration that says once Yunus as-Sadafi had a heated argument with Imam Shafie and he left the scene exasperated. Then one day, Imam Shafie met him, held his hand and said, “Can we not be brothers, even if we disagree about something”. A tradition attributed to the Holy Prophet (pbuh) says; “Muslims are like a body; if one limb aches, the whole body aches.” It does.

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In his illuminating book ‘The Light of Islam’, Dr. Mohammad Ali Al-khuli says, “Islam is the greatest unifying force in the world.  It is a religion to all humans regardless of color, race and language.  It is a religion that tolerates other religions and orders its followers to respect and protect all humans.” Notwithstanding such strong emphasis on the subject of unity and accord, the fault lines still exist and continue to penetrate deeper into our social fabric. However, contrary to the widespread perception, these fault lines have little to do with the difference in interpretation of texts or understanding of the history. Toronto-based writer and analyst Murtaza Husain in a recent article for AlJazeera said the Shia-Sunni conflict has little or nothing to do with religious differences and is actually a byproduct of modern identity politics. Furthermore, he said, “western military powers have sought to amplify these divisions to generate internecine conflicts within Muslim societies and engineer a bloodbath which will be to their own benefit.” He was referring to Shia Sunni conflicts in Middle East, but replace ‘western military powers’ with ‘Indian occupation forces’ and the analogy fits well in the context of Indian-occupied-Kashmir as well.

Last few weeks have been particularly distressing. It started with the mindless massacre of unarmed protestors by trigger-happy Indian forces in Ramban district of Indian-occupied-Kashmir. The people were staging a peaceful demonstration against the desecration of mosque and Holy Quran by Indian forces when they were showered with bullets. As the bereaved people were mourning their dead, sectarian clashes broke out in Central Kashmir’s Budgam district, where Shia and Sunnis have lived in peace and harmony for centuries. What started as a minor altercation between two sumo drivers in a small non-descript village called Galwampora tucked between Bemina and Budgam, soon snowballed into major group clashes involving Shias and Sunnis from all the adjoining areas.

One of the drivers was a Shia, a resident of Bemina, who I have played cricket with. The other was a Sunni from the village Galwampora. According to privy reports, former was bashed up after the altercation in Galwampora. He came back to his village and told his friends about the incident. The same day, they intercepted a tipper (which belonged to Galwampora) at Bemina and beat up the driver. The next day, people in Galwampora stopped a tipper in their area (which belonged to Bemina) and did exactly same. Soon, the word spread, mischief-mongers got into play, leading to fierce group clashes between Shias and Sunnis in Khomeini Chowk, Dooru, Sebdan, Galwampora, Narkara, Ompora and other adjoining areas. Public announcements were made from loudspeakers in some mosques in Ompora and Narkara that Shias had attacked Sunnis, burnt their houses and shops and beaten up women and children. At that point, there was no truth to it. It was a conspiracy to pit people against each other. We know whose mischief it was, who was trying to create a rift, who wanted to fan the flames, and who wanted to shift the focus away from Ramban killings to petty sectarian clashes.

The civil administration was in blissful slumber until the clashes spilled to many parts of the Budgam district. There was no police and no official from district administration to douse the flames. According to sources, police contingents arrived late and did nothing. Even as hundreds got injured and houses were ransacked in many parts of Bemina, police did nothing. They let the tensions escalate.

The trouble mongers who instigated people to attack each other had a sinister agenda, so naturally they had full backing of police. As the days passed, the tensions escalated and clashes erupted in other parts as well. Then, perhaps as a face wash, curfew was imposed in the affected areas. Despite the restrictions, the miscreants, with overt and covert support of police, still managed to wreak havoc in many areas of Budgam like Dahpora, Naslapora, Dadina, Koolipora, Pymus, Dandoosa, Paris Abad, Garend Kalan etc.

The role of police has been particularly shameful. On Tuesday, people protested after an elderly woman, 58 year old Fatima Begum, was hit on her head with the gun butt at Dadina, a shia locality in Budgam. At the time of writing this, she is battling for the life in hospital. Police reportedly barged into many houses in some villages of Budgam and bashed up people. Many people were arrested and interrogated.

In the ensuing clashes, hundreds have been injured, women and children have been attacked, shops and houses have been set ablaze, and the madness continues. Many of my friends and acquaintances are either admitted in hospitals or languishing in police custody. And nobody will question the role of civil administration and police in letting the pot boil and instigating the majority to crush minority. Our very own Praveen Swami, in his characteristic style, gave both the administration and police a clean chit in his venomous First Post piece, shifting the blame on Lashkar e Toiba and Tableegi Jamaat. He wants us to believe that low-grade sectarian skirmishes in Kashmir have been for decades, even centuries, and predicts the doom for the community. It is not even funny, it is outright lame.

The timing of these clashes is suspect. Many people see the hand of shadowy government forces behind it, who want to shift the focus away from Ramban killings by stoking the Shia-Sunni flames and sowing the seeds of discord. “There is little doubt that an alleged scuffle between two drivers of commercial vehicles leading to a major sectarian clash in Kashmir is not something spontaneous and happening on its own free will and trajectory, such a sectarian clash, has often been sought to be engineered in Kashmir,” writes a senior journalist Najeeb Mubarki on his Facebook page. He is seconded by a Kashmiri research scholar Gowhar Fazili. “Following collective mass protests in one voice against the desecration of Quran and bloody military excess on people in Ramban that spread across the three artificial colonial divisions of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, threatening the very edifice of occupation; we have these sudden sectarian skirmishes between Shias and Sunnis. This seems to provide a fine diversion from the pressing issue of impunity and creeping militarization at hand that affects us all equally regardless of our sectarian identities or political orientation.”

This is not the first time such a non-existent conflict has been engineered by vested interests working for various intelligence agencies in Kashmir. “I remember even in 1980s’ whenever the government was under threat, it would engineer a Shia-Sunni, Sher-Bakra and Pandit-Muslim conflicts and then intervene to rescue the people from themselves,” writes Fazili in his small, incisive Facebook note. Just last year, when people of Kashmir were coming to terms with Pir Dastgeer Sahib shrine tragedy, a sufi shrine that caught fire quite mysteriously, another shocking incident was reported from a small village called Gundhasi Bhat where some ‘shadowy’ miscreants torched Holy Book and Alam Sharif (a sacred relic for Shia Muslims).

The sequence of events was not just tragic but deeply disturbing. How did the fire erupt? Why did the fire tenders arrive late? Why did the government sleep over warnings on the vulnerability of wooden shrines, and fail to put up fire extinguishers at these shrines? There were many uncomfortable questions for the government to answer. All the people, cutting across sects and communities, were asking these questions, so it was a desperate attempt to stoke sectarian flames and pit people against each other. The shrine of Sheikh Sayed Abdul Qadir Jeelani (RA), popularly known as Pir Dastgeer Sahib, was constructed in 1806 and housed the rare relics of this world-famous Sufi saint. It was more than an architectural wonder and a 200-year heritage site for the people in Kashmir. It was a silent and powerful witness to Kashmir’s turbulent history.

The latest shocking news coming is about a brutal murder of a local Sunni Imam’s two little children in Bemina. The mischief-mongers know where the fingers would be pointed and that is what they want. These are shamefully desperate attempts by the hydra-headed monsters who want to see people from different communities and sects in Kashmir bay for each other’s blood. When a popular movement poses an existential threat to the ruling establishment, they resort to such dastardly acts, creating a nonexistent conflict between people and communities and pitting them against each other. Clearly the aim is to create a wedge among people, divide them on sectarian lines, and deflect their attention from the bigger issues and bigger struggle against a military occupation.

Many of our political and religious leaders, who otherwise don’t miss an opportunity to preach lessons of unity and brotherhood, have kept mum on this latest round of engineered sectarian frenzy. Some, however, have tried to score a few brownie points by asking government to deploy military forces in the affected areas, thus asking for trouble. We have already seen how government used its police force to instigate mobs to attack each other and keep the pot boiling. Police sleuths attacked and ransacked many houses belonging to minority Shias in some parts of Budgam district yesterday. Why would people now trust the military, which only follows the orders from above, and expect ‘protection’ from them? Who would be responsible if they make the matters only worse?

It is a time of reckoning for our leaders and clerics to act wisely and keep people informed about the maneuverings and machinations of trouble-mongers. It is not the time to take potshots, or indulge in blame games. The onus lies on youth to create communication channels and douse the flames. Numbers don’t count, we have to prove that we are one community, who follow one God, one prophet, one Quran, and pray towards the same Kaabah. “There is no benefit in the majority of your numbers if there is lack of unity in your hearts,” says Imam Ali (as) in his masterpiece Nahjul Balagha. The book of guidance Holy Quran enjoins us to come forward and be the change makers. “And let there arise out of you a group inviting to all that is good, enjoining the good and forbidding the evil. And it is they who are successful.” (Al-Imran, 3:104)

It is important to have respect and mutual accord, because there are bigger battles to be won. In the words of 13th century Persian poet-mystic Jalal u-din Muhammad Rumi, “realize that your inner sight is blind and try to see a treasure in everyone.” That is the least we can do in this blessed month. And it is equally important to remain vigilant and careful. Falling into the trap is the last thing we want. To borrow the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “Pit race against race, religion against religion, prejudice against prejudice. Divide and conquer! We must not let that happen here.” We will not let that happen.

The rot at Kashmir University

 
 

Syed Zafar Mehdi

As in other parts of the globe, the death anniversary of the Iranian revolution’s Ayatollah Ruhullah Khomeini is commemorated each year in Indian-controlled-Kashmir with tremendous solemnity and fervor. It’s one of those rare occasions for people from diverse fields and different schools of thought to rub shoulders and join the chorus of unity, peace and justice. A number of programs, seminars and conferences are held under the aegis of various independent socio-religious organizations. Each year, we see a posse of high-profile scholars, historians, politicians and members of clergy pay tributes to the figure of Imam Khomeini, his instrumental role in the Islamic awakening, and the challenges of preserving, safeguarding and promoting his legacy.

This year, however, something interesting happened that grabbed the headlines for a few days. At a conference titled ‘Role of Khomeini in Islamic Awakening’, organised by Anjuman e Sharie Shiayan in the sprawling campus of Kashmir University on June 3rd, some distinguished guests were seething with anger. Invited as one of the guest speakers, Yasin Malik, the former militant commander and chieftain of the pro-independence outfit Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), was unceremoniously snubbed by the organisers due to a “paucity of time”. Embarrassed and hurt, he stood up in the jam-packed auditorium and lashed out at the organizers for not allowing him to speak. He accused them of being the lackeys of the unpopular government and bowing down to the diktats of university authorities who have never been comfortable with “seditious” political speeches and debates on the campus.

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Yasin Malik
Yasin Malik
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The organizer, Aga Syed Hasan Mosavi, senior pro-freedom leader and head of Anjuman e Sharie Shiayan, was caught off guard. He had apparently submitted the names of 10 speakers and given an undertaking to university authorities that the event will be “apolitical”. Among the names proposed were Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Chairman of Hurriyat Conference (an amalgam of pro-freedom groups), and some senior resistance leaders like Abdul Ghani Bhat and Maulana Abbas Ansari. According to privy sources, the name of Malik was conspicuously missing from the list. The organizers were perhaps reluctant to take any chances with Malik, who is known for his fiery political speeches that have often landed him in troubled waters. He was still invited (as a speaker) and the details were not divulged to him until all hell broke loose inside the packed auditorium. When the organizers cold-shouldered him on the pretext of the “paucity of time” and apologised for not calling him on stage to deliver his speech; the hot-blooded JKLF chief stood up, created a ruckus and stormed out of the hall. It begs a pertinent question: If the organizers and university authorities were not comfortable with his presence there, why was he invited? If invited, why didn’t they inform him in advance in explicit terms about their “apolitical” program? Also, how could the organizers, one of the constituents of Hurriyat Conference, accept the absurd conditions put out by university authorities?

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the main speaker of the event, in his speech urged Iran to play a constructive role in the resolution of the vexed Kashmir issue. “India and Pakistan must realize that peace in South Asia is impracticable without Kashmir issue being resolved as per the aspirations of the people. Iran has a role to play in the region and the government of Iran can use its influence over India and Pakistan in this regard.” He stressed the need to provide space for meaningful political discourses inside the university. In an apparent dig at university authorities, Farooq said, “It is very pleasing to see that we are discussing Ayatollah Khomeini in the university but the university authorities must see to it that speeches and debates on political issues are allowed here. They [authorities] must not fear intellectual debates because disallowing them may result in expression of sentiments on the streets.” He is right. Universities are the battlegrounds of ideas and there should be no scope for suppressing or muzzling voices of dissent. Only the regime that stands on shaky ground will fear intellectual discourses inside universities.

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A day after the conference, the local media in Kashmir was replete with news about Malik being snubbed by the conference organizers at the behest of university authorities for the fear of a religious-cum-academic event turning into a political platform for pro-freedom leaders. The reports quoted Malik as saying that the organizers (Anjuman e Sharie Shiayan, an important constituent of Hurriyat Conference) was mollycoddling the university authorities and acting against the interests of the movement. Soon, the war of words ensued. ASS accused Yasin Malik of being “narrow-minded” with “autocratic political behavior”. Malik’s JKLF hit back and accused Aga Syed Hasan of orchestrating the split in united Hurriyat Conference. Soon the bickering turned murky as ASS accused Malik of handing over the arms to Indian forces under a secret pact. JKLF shot back saying that unlike the ASS leader, JKLF leaders don’t believe in making money, bungalows, and shopping malls in the name of the resistance movement.

At the end of the day, we know who had the last laugh. Not Malik, not Aga, but the university authorities and their masters in the corridors of power. The ugly confrontation between the two senior resistance leaders on a day when they had assembled to remember a revolutionary leader is a sad reminder of how we have always played into the hands of our enemies. It was Khomeini who once remarked, “We [Muslims] are so busy bickering over whether to fold or unfold our hands [during prayer], while the enemy is devising ways of cutting them off.”

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Very little has been written about Khomeini’s fascination with Kashmir, but it is no secret that he was a supporter of the Kashmir cause. He once made it emphatically clear to a visiting Indian delegation of MPs that relations between Iran and India couldn’t improve until the killing of Kashmiris doesn’t stop. Some historians even trace his roots to Kashmir, which is evident from the letter he once wrote from exile in Iraq to the then top Shia cleric of Kashmir Aga Syed Yusuf, expressing his desire to visit his ancestral land (in reference to Kashmir).

Yasin Malik is known to speak his mind and occasionally ruffle a few feathers. During the Iranian ambassador’s visit to Kashmir in June last year, Malik confronted the envoy in a seminar on “Imam Khomeini’s Political Thought” in front of a large gathering comprised of many senior pro-freedom leaders and some ministers of the J&K government. The envoy stressed the need for greater cooperation between India and Iran and said the bilateral trade had leapfrogged to 16 billion dollars from 9 billion in the last four years. This did not go down well with Malik. “Iran cannot afford to annoy India just to please Kashmiris. We understand that but it does not mean they will come all the way to Kashmir to glamorize Indian growth,” Malik said. To this, the envoy said Iran was not oblivious of her responsibilities and firmly believes that the movements of the suppressed nations cannot be crushed by sheer militarism. He then invited Malik and Mirwaiz to Iran.

Malik has often spoken about how the Iranian revolution inspired the youth in Kashmir. In a seminar on Ayatollah Khomeini’s death anniversary in Srinagar last year, he made a passionate appeal to the Iranian regime to break their silence over Kashmir. “Iranian revolution was an inspiration for us to demand our right to self determination.” As a young militant commander in the mid 90s, when the armed rebellion against the Indian occupation was at its peak, Malik was known for his passionate oratory and steely valour. He would often invoke the struggle of Ayatollah Khomeini to boost the morale of his comrades. In 1994, Malik gave up arms apparently on the dogged insistence of Indian civil society that urged him to explore democratic channels to engage with Indian government and work towards a meaningful resolution of this long-standing logjam over Kashmir.

Meanwhile, in an apparent fallout over the fiasco at the university, Kashmir University authorities, on the orders of the Governor of the state, expelled the Deputy Proctor of the university on June 7th for giving permission to pro-freedom leaders to hold a conference on the campus in the memory of Ayatollah Khomeini. The governor, who is also the chancellor of the university, was apparently not happy with the pro-freedom leaders getting a platform to speak in the campus. He fears these leaders might “indoctrinate” the students and the campus would become the Tahrir Square of Kashmir. Facebook has been abuzz about how the governor is turning the university into his personal fiefdom. In one such group on Facebook called ‘Liberate Kashmir University’, a Kashmiri scholar and researcher Abir Bashir Bazaz writes, “There has been too much interference over the years from the Governor’s office in matters of University administration. The Governor’s questioning of the University authorities is a brazen violation of the university’s autonomy.” His concerns are echoed by many others, and rightly so. The Kashmir Spring is not too far, it seems. This time, the tsunami will emerge from Kashmir University.