Kashmiri evacuees from Wuhan face a different lockdown after fleeing the coronavirus

Wuhan beats Kashmir in a number of ways.
Wuhan beats Kashmir in a number of ways.
Image: REUTERS/Danish Ismail
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Aspiring doctors from India’s troubled region have increasingly been moving to China.

Now, they face a unique predicament of staying in China, where there is an ongoing battle against the Covid-19 coronavirus, and going back to India—which, for them, signals a different, and more time-honored, kind of danger.

As the outbreak spread in China, cities were shut down, and foreign students were bombarded with messages from their families urging them to go home. But for Kashmiris, “back home” means returning to a communication blackout, a crippling curfew, reports of violence and torture by the Indian army, and the political turmoil that has been sweeping through the disputed state for decades.

On Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, two Air India flights evacuated nearly 650 Indians out of Wuhan. Dozens of those evacuated were young Kashmiris studying at Hubei University of Medicine. After leaving the region at the epicentre of the influenza-like disease, many remained conflicted about what to do, given the situation in their home state.

“We have come home, but there is another situation now, which is the communication blackout in Kashmir,” said Saleem, an evacuee from Anantnag, Kashmir, at the ITBP facility in Delhi. (His name has been changed for safety reasons.) “I will probably drop off in the next few minutes,” he said, a few seconds before losing his internet connection, enabled by a VPN.

Evacuation from Hubei province

Kashmiri students didn’t think much of the virus when it first hit China while they were studying at Hubei University of Medicine. Among them was Sanee (name also changed), a 22-year-old MBBS student from Lethpora, Pulwama. When he heard of the virus in early December, he and his friends thought it was “some kind of pneumonia” that would pass in a few days, and decided to stay on at the university.

But on Jan. 23, when the Chinese government imposed a lockdown in Wuhan and other cities, he realized things were getting worse. Back home in Lethpora, his parents were getting anxious. “They wanted me to return home at any cost,” he said.

His university, located in Shiyan, has nearly 150 Indian students, he said. Suddenly desperate to go home, they contacted the Indian embassy in China on Jan. 26, requesting evacuation. Two days later, they reached out to Raveesh Kumar, spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs.

“Our senior, Shoaib Mushtaq, didn’t get a direct response from the embassy, so he said, ‘Let me directly call Raveesh Kumar’,” said Mansoor Ahmed, another Kashmiri evacuee from Srinagar, in his third year. Mushtaq found Kumar’s number through a Google search, and reportedly called him directly. When Kumar picked up the phone, everybody in the room was shocked.

“He told Raveesh Kumar, ‘Sir, I’m Shoaib from Hubei University of Medicine. We called the Indian embassy, they told us they would help, but they’re not responding now.’ Raveesh asked Shoaib, ‘Why are they not responding?’ He gave us a number, which my friend immediately called.”

They were asked to prepare a list of all their names, numbers, email addresses, and passport details and send them to the embassy individually.

On Feb. 1, Sanee, Ahmed, Shoaib, and other students were evacuated from Hubei University of Medicine by bus. They reached Wuhan, took a few tests, and then boarded an airplane. They arrived in Delhi on the morning of Feb. 2 and were taken to the Chhawla ITBP center for quarantine.

Videos from the quarantined facility show masked people buried in textbooks and getting routinely tested for infections by medical professionals in suits.

“It was like Big Boss,” said Ahmed. “There were speakers everywhere, we were given serial numbers, and mine was 250. In the mornings they would say ‘from 1-100, please come downstairs,’ and doctors would be waiting for a checkup. That was every morning. So we’re now used to waking up, doing a check, and then going back to sleep.”

“Our parents are not allowed to meet us,” said Sanee while under quarantine, adding that life in the center was mundane, and they couldn’t stop wishing they could see their families.

Two weeks later, they were released with around 600 other Indians and seven Maldivians, each with a certificate affirming they didn’t have the virus. Nobody in the group had tested positive.

How did they feel? “We can’t explain in words,” Sanee said.

But there’s another situation they’re facing now.

Between the devil and the deep blue sea

On Aug. 5, the Indian government imposed a communication shutdown in Jammu and Kashmir, in what became known as the world’s longest internet shutdown in a democratic country.

The ban came after the Narendra Modi-led BJP government revoked Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status, after which, in anticipation of unrest in the disputed state, authorities suspended landline and mobile connections, cut off the internet, and deployed thousands of troops to the region.

Months after imposing the blackout, some websites were unblocked, and internet restrictions eased. But the police have reportedly been filing FIRs against those who are finding ways to access Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media apps that are not listed under the 301 “white-listed” websites.

Kashmiri students are struggling to contact their friends and study without the internet—the rest of their semester at Hubei University of Medicine is slated to be completed online.

“Life was great in China,” said Saleem, who is in the fourth year of his medical programme. “It’s a great nation, with great people. Studying there was my dream. When I got the opportunity, I went for it.”

Studying online has not been easy. “I hardly get a connection for over a few minutes a day here because most sites are banned by the government,” he said. “You can imagine my situation here [in Anantnag].”

Migrating to China

Saleem and Sanee are part of a small but significant wave of Kashmiri students who have been moving to China to study medicine over the last few years.

According to The Counselor Education, a popular consultancy in Srinagar, and Baramulla-based Kasmiri Education Service, the number of young Kashmiris looking to study in China has risen steadily over the years, most of them aiming to pursue medicine.

“A degree is a degree. Whether it is an MBBS from Oxford or an MBBS from China, that doesn’t matter for parents. Kashmiris want to make their children doctors,” said Tasaduq Bazaz, associate director at The Counselor Education.

Bazaz’s agency is run by Nomaan Bazaz, an engineering graduate from Hertfordshire University, whose vision was to come back to India after graduating in 2013 to help other students of Jammu and Kashmir who wanted to study abroad.

Since most such students are from middle-class or upper-middle-class backgrounds, they reportedly prefer countries like China, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, which offer affordable medical programmes with several scholarships.

Bazaz said that Bangladesh was also a “popular choice,” but recently, universities there started “making it expensive especially for Kashmiris,” he said, and many visas have stopped being doled out to people from the Valley.

It used to be around Rs10,00,000 to study medicine in Bangladesh, but it now costs over Rs30,00,000, pulling Kashmiris to China, which is far cheaper, even more, said Bazaz.

The Counselor Education helped its first group of 20 boys to China in 2013. As there was “not a single complaint from students in China nor their parents,” that number moved up to 50 in 2014 and over 75 last year.

A combination of the infrastructure in China, the promise of development, affordable tuition—including generous scholarships from Chinese universities, offering up to 100% paid, said Bazaz—and safety have been luring Kashmiris there.

“China is cheap for us, and we feel much safer there than we do in India,” said Sanee. “My parents didn’t allow me to study in any other Indian states.”

But the plan isn’t to stay on for long—the to-be doctors want to come back and practice in either India or Kashmir. “I am waiting for the day that I can serve the people of my motherland, but with the situation right now, that seems impossible,” said Saleem.

Now, with the coronavirus outbreak, things may get even more complicated.

“The virus has taken an ugly toll on businesses, trade, and education choices in Kashmir,” said Muhammad Ali, a spokesperson for Kashmir Education Service. “Now, people would rather stay here.”

Parents have been worried about the children who just returned to Srinagar from quarantine under Delhi’s ITBP facility, said Bazaz. “Everybody is going to start taking precautions since it concerns their children’s health, and as the fatalities of coronavirus keep rising.”

A new country may become the destination of choice for aspiring Kashmiri doctors. “People are scared and, if this situation in China persists, they’ll start going to places like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan starting 2020,” said Bazaz.

Current conundrum

Still, China is offering a respite that conflict-ridden home states never could—in more ways than one.

“I’m happy I’m finally going home,” said Sanee, while exiting quarantine on Feb. 19. “But on the other hand, I won’t be able to attend online classes because of the internet issues in Kashmir.”

Army personnel routinely check citizens’ phones in Kashmir. When they find they have VPNs, they use physical violence or arrests, said Sanee. “But without a VPN, I can’t connect with anyone, nor can I finish my semester,” he added.

Ahmed, who was released from quarantine a few days ago, is waiting in Delhi for things to get better before he can go home to Srinagar.

“When I go around on my bike in Srinagar, the police come and check me at random. There’s no privacy. It’s like you’re in a dictatorship. They’ll say, ‘give me your phone.’ Why should I give you my phone?”

Ahmed remembers the summer he was home when Article 370 was revoked. His mother had to go through an ultrasonography after the curfew hours in the state. She “was on the back of my bike, but [the police] didn’t allow us to go. They said go back, and that was it. If we argued, they would beat us. Who’s around to say anything? If they beat us, nobody would’ve known, and even if they did, nobody would have saved us.”

Luckily, he said, his advisors at Hubei are understanding about the situation in Kashmir. After 370 was revoked, and students from the state were taking longer than other students to return to university after their summer break, they made academic concessions for students’ attendance and grades. And now, they are agreeing not to cut their marks for this semester, and have sent them PowerPoint presentations in advance to work around the internet ban in effect.

China is the safest country for any person, from anywhere, no matter what the religion, Ahmed believes. “For anybody in the world, no matter who you are, it’s the safest place I’ve ever seen.”

Still, he and several Kashmiris say they want to go back home to Kashmir after graduating and “serve their people,” and can’t imagine working anywhere else in the world.

“I’ll just have download like 20-30 VPNs, maybe that will work?” said Ahmed.