Jammu is witnessing violent protests over alleged regional disparity in the selection of candidates for the MBBS course in the State.
IF there were any doubts about Jammu and Kashmir joining the "national mainstream", the scenes in the State Assembly on March 23 laid them to rest. Seventeen MLAs belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress(I), the Janata Dal, the Awami League and the Panthers Party were suspended for occupying the well of the Assembly. The MLAs resisted the watch and ward staff's attempt to evict them. The Congress(I)'s Ashok Sharma and the BJP's B.R. Bhagwat, perhaps inspired by the spectacle in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly last year, wielded microphone stands and broken tables. Seven days later, the MLAs clashed inside the House. "For God's sake, control your emotions," Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah was heard shouting.
The display was not prompted by issues that one would think are important to Jammu and Kashmir - such as terrorism, communal riots, unemployment, poverty, development or corruption. It was over the future of the 220 students who were given admission to the MBBS course in the State in 1997. The Jammu Joint Action Committee (JJAC), a coalition of bodies ranging from student organisations to the Hindu Raksha Samity and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, has been spearheading a programme of agitation demanding that the list of candidates who were successful in the medical entrance examination be scrapped. In addition, the Jammu Bar Association has led a strike by lawyers since March 7, and a succession of bandhs have all but shut down Jammu town.
The JJAC and its supporters in the Congress(I), the BJP and other parties that have a support base in Jammu allege that the entrance examination in 1997 was rigged to favour students from the Kashmir division. At first glance, their claim would seem plausible. Jammu's share of the open seats has been falling steadily - from a peak of 52 out of 100 in 1993 to 30 out of 110 this year. By contrast, Kashmir's share has been rising.
According to the BJP's Chaman Lal Gupta, the state of education in Kashmir division is in a mess, and only 14 per cent of the students from this division passed their final school examination last year. So how is it that they fare so well in the medical entrance examination? "The Farooq Abdullah Government is rigging the results to curry favour with the people of Kashmir." A seductive argument, no doubt, and one that many in the Jammu division are only too willing to buy.
However, the facts are much more ambiguous than what the JJAC is willing to concede. The most drastic fall in Jammu's share of MBBS seats came in 1994, when just 38 students from the division were selected. This figure improved marginally in 1995, but has since declined steadily. This year's allegedly rigged figures seem consistent with the pattern of decline. But then, just 2,255 students from the Jammu division appeared for the entrance examination, against 5,433 from the Kashmir division, giving the region that is claiming discrimination a higher success rate of 3.77 per cent. The collapse of school education in Kashmir has no relevance to these results, since MBBS students generally tend to come from elite backgrounds.
A second line of attack came from Bijbehara MLA Mehbooba Sayeed, daughter of former Union Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, who is now the member of Parliament from Anantnag. Speaking to Frontline, she alleged that some people were trying to turn it into a Jammu versus Kashmir and Hindu versus Muslim issue, while the real issue was corruption. According to Mehbooba Sayeed, only two of the students who were selected from the Kashmir division belonged to the Anantnag Lok Sabha constituency, while 32 were from Ganderbal, the Chief Minister's Assembly segment. She said that the names of the children of five senior National Conference (N.C.) figures, including Mohammad Shafi Bhatt, Ali Mohammad Sagar and Abdul Rahim Rather, were on the list. For Mehbooba Sayeed, taking the position of corruption makes political sense since it allows her to tap the anti-N.C. agitation in Jammu and secure her constituency in the Kashmir Valley.
Farooq Abdullah reacted angrily to charges that Ganderbal has benefited disproportionately. According to him, barring Srinagar, all centres in the Kashmir division have thrown up a roughly equal number of students. While he admitted that some Ministers' children had gained admission, he said that this was under the management quota of the privately run Acharya Sri Chandra College in Jammu. "According to Supreme Court orders, they have the right to do what they want with their management quota seats," he told Frontline. "Look," he added, "my niece's daughter sat for this examination and did not get admission, my Minister Bashir Ahmad Negroo's daughter did not get through, nor did Srinagar MLA Mubarak Gul's child. The examinations just cannot be rigged."
However, these facts are unlikely to douse the agitation. In fact, the JJAC has rejected the State Government's offer to set up a three-person committee to review the results independently.
Balraj Puri, an academician, is of the opinion that the medical seats issue is just an excuse. According to him, the real problem lies in the fact that the people of Jammu feel that they are not treated on a par with the people of Kashmir. This, he said, helped Hindu communalism. He said that although the N.C. could have come out with the relevant facts earlier, it chose not to. According to Communist Party of India (Marxist) State secretary Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami, the elite promote communalism and chauvinism to advance their vested interests. "Instead of debating mass unemployment or mass education, we are spending all our time fighting for the interests of a hundred children of the rich."
Why is the agitation in Jammu gaining ground? Street violence has increased; over 50 people were injured in a confrontation with the police on April 12. Popular participation of this kind reflects the fact that in key senses, the JJAC's agitation marks the final act of a long-running drama. An informal quota system has always operated in government recruitment, and positions in the Jammu and Kashmir administrative apparatus have been routinely allotted on the basis of communal and regional considerations. Appointments to various posts - from constables to village lambardars - are the means through which the power of the regional and communal elites are established and asserted. For example, the appointment of a Hindu as a District Magistrate is "balanced" with the appointment of a Muslim as a Superintendent of Police. This, according to Farooq Abdullah, is not a desirable state of affairs. "If we do not think of ourselves as one people," he said, "the consequences will be unthinkable." With horrible inevitability, the communal sundering of Jammu and Kashmir appears to be proceeding apace.