Four months of closed schools in the middle of an academic year has left an entire generation of Kashmiri students in the lurch although there are some scattered efforts at makeshift community schools.
By Athar Parvaiz*, Srinagar
"I had never thought that our studies would come to a standstill all of a sudden one day." This is how Mohammad Shaheen, a student of 10th standard aiming to excel in the board exams, responded when asked about the long interruption in his schooling this year.
Students in Kashmir have not been to school for the past four months and the education department is yet to decide whether annual examinations should be held at the end of this academic year or not.
What's currently happening in Kashmir is not without precedent—miscreants also burned down schools after the armed turmoil in the state started in 1989.
"If we don't go to school and don't have our exams conducted, what can we achieve in our life?" Shaheen asked. He studies in north Kashmir's Kupwara Public School, but has not seen his school in all these months.
Since 8 July, Kashmir has been gripped by political turmoil. The killing of a young militant triggered massive protests, which were followed by several weeks of strict curfews and a massive communication shutdown by the government. It has resulted in complete disturbance of all spheres of life. The education sector suffered some of the worst effects of the current phase of political turmoil, much as it has been in other such periods of tumult since 1989, when the armed conflict in Kashmir started.
Another worry for Shaheen and other students in far off villages is that their schools, besides remaining shut for months, are facing the threat of getting burnt down. Well over two dozen schools have already been torched in the past three months.
"Those who have torched our school won't achieve anything except hell," said Mohammad Rayees, an 11th standard student whose higher secondary school in Bugam-Kulgam in south Kashmir was burnt down last month. Despite the burning down of his school, though, he remains intent on pursuing his ambitions. "Almost every student wants to become a doctor or an engineer. But I want to become a social scientist," Rayees said.
According to Kashmir's education department, 26 schools, where more than 5000 students were enrolled, have been torched so far across the Kashmir region. But these incidents, as also hundreds of such cases during the initial years of armed conflict in Kashmir in 1990s, continue to remain shrouded in mystery with most of them attributed to "unidentified persons" or "miscreants."
For Kashmir's school education director, Aijaz Ahmad Bhat, the torching of schools is something that his directorate can do little about except appealing to people to help safeguarding them and hoping that the police will bring to book those responsible. "These are our national assets and they belong to the entire society. I would go to the extent of saying that they should be protected more than the masjids (mosques)," Bhat told VillageSquare.in.
A 28-member civil society group last week issued a statement in which they urged the government to play a positive role in normalizing the situation in Kashmir, where the education as well as the economy at large have been deeply damaged in the past months. "[The] education sector (our lifeline) has suffered much damage and we can ill afford any further harm to it. The need of the hour is to have it back on rails," the statement said.
Throwback to the 1990s
What's currently happening in Kashmir is not without precedent—reports of miscreants burning down schools used to appear in newspapers every day, soon after the armed turmoil in the state started in 1989. Then too, education was collateral damage.
[Schools] are our national assets... I would go to the extent of saying that they should be protected more than the masjids (mosques). Aijaz Ahmad Bhat, Kashmir's school education director
A study carried out in 1994 by a four-member committee from New Delhi, headed by the social policy analyst Joseph Gathia, noted, "Children were the biggest victims of violence in Kashmir." The Gathia Committee report had made some startling observations. According to that report, more than 400 schools were gutted during the turmoil in the first four years of armed conflict while more than 60% children in the 10-14 age group deprived of education because of the violence in the environment.
It had further revealed that a large number of rural school buildings had been occupied by the paramilitary forces. In the mid-1990s, the number of school buildings under the occupation of army, was in hundreds. According to records available in the education department, 47 school buildings in different parts of the valley were under the occupation of security forces till as late as 2007.
In terms of damage caused to the educational infrastructure during the 1990s, the districts of Anantnag and Pulwama in south Kashmir were the worst affected. As per official records, out of a total of 714 school buildings that were gutted, mostly during the 1990s, as many as 161 and 146 belonged to Anantnag and Pulwama districts respectively. The third highest number of gutted school buildings was in district Kupwara, where 124 schools were set afire. In Baramulla district this number was 102, in Budgam 92; in Srinagar, 87 buildings were destroyed.
This time people are trying to find alternate ways. If 10-year-old Adeeba of Kumar Mohalla in Zainakote-Kashmir had not found some new friends in the newly set up community school in her locality, her life would have been far bleaker.
Adeeba has been fortunate to find a place in a community school where kids seem to be enjoying themselves under the great care of an enthusiastic bunch of volunteers. "At my new (community) school, I have some new friends now," Adeeba said.
The community school in Zainakote was set up by volunteers weeks after the security situation worsened in Kashmir. Such schools have been established by volunteers in other parts of Kashmir as well, but their number could be just around 150 or so in the entire Kashmir region. There are no official estimates.
Community schools have been established by volunteers... but their number could be just around 150 or so in the entire Kashmir region. There are no official estimates.
Sajjad Ahmad Sofi, a young businessman, said that when curfew continued for over four weeks and there were no signs of the situation getting better, he decided that he could make a difference in his locality of about 2000 families. "I consulted some 14 well-educated youth of the locality who I knew closely and asked them if they could help. All of them liked the idea and came forward quite enthusiastically," Sofi told VillageSquare.in.
"After that we approached the management of the local madrassa. They held a meeting and decided to allow us to use the space of the madrassa. Later, when we fell short of space, the local mosque provided some blankets while some well-meaning citizens contributed money for other requirements."
According to Sofi, students from well-off families were not that much affected since their parents had managed private tuition for them. "It was the poor students who had nothing to fall back on. That is why I was so keen on starting the community school."
Ghulam Ahmad, a parent, said that all the parents of the locality are grateful for the efforts put in by the educated youth in the locality to set up the community school. "This is really commendable. If they had not thought of doing something for the poor, where could we go?" Ahmad said.
Some names have been changed to protect identities.
*Athar Parvaiz is a Srinagar-based journalist.
This article was first published on VillageSquare.in, a public-interest communications platform focused on rural India.