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Peace lectures, counselling, Army camp: IS recruit’s college sends a message

Down the road, a police poster on a tree reads “Terrorism has no religion”.

Written by Tabassum Barnagarwala | Mumbai |
January 25, 2015 3:23:35 am
“Army camp is subtle encouragement to students to render their services to the country,” says the college director. (Source: Express Photo by Tabassum Barnagarwala) “Army camp is subtle encouragement to students to render their services to the country,” says the college director. (Source: Express Photo by Tabassum Barnagarwala)

On the playground of the Panvel college where Islamic State recruit Areeb Majeed pursued his third-year civil engineering course till last May, a hoarding of the Indian Army announces a week-long recruitment drive. Another banner on the college gates says, “Tips for safe social networking”. Down the road, a police poster on a tree reads “Terrorism has no religion”.

Inside the college, an in-house centre for guidance and counselling is taking shape and a senior local police officer is scheduled to be the first guest speaker on social media. Peace activist and Padma Bhushan recipient Maulana Wahiduddin Khan may soon talk to the students on Islam and peace.

More than six months after The Indian Express first reported on Majeed’s journey to Iraq and into the ranks of the Islamic State, and nearly two months after he returned, the “subtle” message from his college — as one of its directors puts it — is this: we will not encourage terrorism on this campus.

“We have given our ground to the Army for conducting physical and medical examinations. Our students have been told to appear for screening if they wish. It’s subtle encouragement to them to render their services to the country,” says the director who spoke to The Sunday Express on the condition that his name or that of the college and its staff or students not be identified.

Army officials at the recruitment camp say that students from the college and youth from outside its gates had “enquired about the official documents required for submission”.

The counselling centre is the other big step, especially after the frequent visits from security agencies attempting to profile Majeed, and the profusion of online war videos broadcasting executions and beheading, now seen as a recruitment tool used by supporters of Islamic State.

“A psychologist will be appointed. We are looking at an arrangement where apart from career guidance, students are given individual counselling on several aspects of life. This will help the students attain a balanced viewpoint,” the director says.

Another initiative that college staff are looking forward to is a series of lectures on the cyber world and social media, with a Panvel officer of assistant commissioner-rank addressing a session in February.

The college has also compiled a list of speakers for lectures on the idea of Islam, peace and war, to steer students away from extremist views or readings that misinterpret the Quran. Its office is now coordinating slots with Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, who is based in New Delhi.

The atmosphere inside the engineering college is also slowly easing up, reveal students, after the initial tension following the news of Majeed’s departure along with three other youths.

Till now, eight faculty members from the Panvel college have been called by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) for questioning. Two of them subsequently resigned.

Teachers say even now they find it difficult to believe the step Majeed and the others took. “We are waiting to see if the episode affects this year’s admission in our courses,” a teacher admits.

The college has 4,500 students on its rolls. Teachers say that soon after the news about Majeed broke, the concern was that the name of the college would become public. Students feared that campus placements would get cancelled.

According to the college’s placement coordinator, a lot of effort was put in to bring companies and “boost student confidence”. Fifteen companies reportedly came for recruitment and placements.

The college has also started keeping a close watch on its students. A fourth-year pharmacy student says they are pulled up for even a day’s absence. “Absenteeism is now directly reported to parents,” he says.

There is stringent checking of identity proof at the gates, and mobile phones are banned.

Majeed’s classmates say they hardly knew him, and that he was an introvert who seldom initiated a conversation. One of Majeed’s teachers calls him “respectful”, though not too participative in class. Majeed appeared for his exams — including oral — until May 23 before he allegedly took a flight to Abu Dhabi and then onward to Baghdad.

According to staff, after the news of his joining IS broke, a cyber expert was appointed to track online activity on college computers used by students. “Certain keywords have been blocked. We get details of content that has been denied to a student. But nothing suspicious has turned up yet,” says the expert.

A student says that two months ago, professors, labelled “mentors”, were also appointed to specifically observe the behaviour of students in each class.

“We have kept a close watch to check if there are any getting influenced. But we found that the students have not searched anything to suggest anything untoward, neither did we observe anything during class hours,” says a teacher.

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