A class quite apart
Sonia Sarkar reports from Kashmir on efforts by Valley folk to prevent the violent turmoil from derailing children’s education
Winter is closing in on Kashmir. The skies have turned grey, the air ridden with fog, the tall chinars have shed their leaves and stand shivered, the government has moved to Jammu. Winter is a quiet season in these parts. But this year, an unusual hubbub has come to populate the Valley’s indoors. Shut out of schools since summer, children are keeping up with the help of community volunteers — a unique effort to insulate education from disruption.
Hena Bashir is not worried about the ongoing board examinations. “At least I know I won’t fail,” says the 17-year-old Class XII student of a government school in Kashmir.
Bashir was given special lessons in Shopian in a makeshift arrangement locally referred to as a curfew school.
Classes are held in wedding halls, mosques and homes. The tutors are engineers, lawyers, doctors, teachers and fresh graduates. Among the students are children who sometimes travel eight kilometres to take classes.
Regular schools in Kashmir broke for the summer on July 1. They were to have reopened after 15 days, but never did. On July 8, Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed by security forces, leading to widespread protests. Curfew was in force for 79 days. Among the worst hit were schools.
Schools have become a bone of contention in Kashmir. “The separatists are not letting schools open to register their protest. The government is conducting examinations to show normalcy,” says a government education officer. “It is education versus azadi.”
But Kashmiris, who saw thousands of youngsters dropping out of school and college when militancy was at its peak in the 1990s, don’t want another generation to suffer. It is for this that curfew schools have come up.
The first such school was set up in Bandipora in north Kashmir this August. When the unrest showed no signs of abating, more informal schools — they charge no fees — came up.
“We had to support the resistance movement but we also wanted to help our students. The entire community pitched in. Even a former militant opened his house for a curfew school for more than 300 kids,” says Arafat Basheer, a civil engineer from Tral, the south Kashmir home to Burhanuddin Wani and militancy hotbed, who taught in one such school.
To begin with, not many parents were enthusiastic about these classes. But with private tuition centres shut, they realised this was the only way out. “Parents took the risk of sending their children to our school because they wanted them to study,” stresses Idrees Fazili, a computer science expert who taught in a school in Budgam, south of Srinagar.
Classes were, on an average, held for four hours every day. Some of the schools opened at 6am to ensure that there was no police interference. Still, it was not easy.
“I was stopped by the police once. They were not convinced that I was going to a school to teach. They let me go only after one of my students, who was passing by, told the police I taught them,” says Engineer Arshad, a civil engineer who taught mathematics in a curfew school in Shopian, also in south Kashmir.
Kashmir’s education minister Naeem Akhtar, however, believes that these schools cannot be a substitute for formal education. “This is only a stop-gap arrangement,” he says. “People must understand that discipline comes only through formal schooling. One cannot miss it for long.”
The curfew schools are shut for now, but are likely to start again. Right now, there is a lull, for the government has announced that all government students from Classes I to IX and XI will be automatically promoted. Most private schools have followed suit.
Board examinations for Class X and XII have also begun. The syllabi have been relaxed to help students clear the exams, a move some youngsters describe as a “super sale”.
But the people of Kashmir stress that the classes were not just about helping children cope with studies. Often, the teachers discussed issues that went beyond school syllabi.
“When we were teaching a chapter on Gandhi, some students wanted to know why they were being taught India’s history, why not Kashmir’s history,” says Mohammad Saquib, a curfew school teacher in Anantnag.
The journalism graduate adds that intense political discussions often took place. “Articles on Burhan Wani and a copy of the Instrument of Accession of Jammu and Kashmir were distributed among the students. We also showed them documentaries on identity and colonialism,” Saquib says.
For many of the students, education is important — as is the cause of independence. So, while the informal classes carried on, so did the protests. Some of the curfew school students admit that as soon as the classes got over, they were out on the streets, chucking stones at security forces.
“I used to cover my face with a handkerchief and wear a pair of sunglasses to join the protests,” says a 16-year-old Shopian student.
But some children are also missing regular school. Thirteen-year-old Ikra Jaan, playing cricket at the Tral Idgah with her best friend, Qurat ul Ain, is among them. Jaan has a message for separatists: “Humare liye jaldi se school khol do. Hamara future kharab ho raha hai — please get our schools to open; our future is in danger,” she says.
Some elderly Kashmiris, who have entered the grounds, shut her up. “What would they achieve even after they study? They won’t get a job even if they become toppers. As Kashmiris, their life won’t change, will it?” asks Zafar Mushtaq, 60. As if on cue, a group of small children — all in the 6-8 age group — begin an “Azadi! Azadi!!” chant.
The closure of schools underlines the divide in Kashmir over how long the protests should continue. Burhan Wani’s father, Muzaffar Wani, principal of a government school in Tral, stresses the need for qurbani (sacrifice). “Some children have lost their eyesight after being shot with pellet guns. Some have lost their legs. So some students might lose a year. Qurbani toh deni padhegi Kashmir ke cause ke liye,” he says.
The curfew schools also point to a development that has had the people worried — the burning down of school buildings. In these five months, at least 31 schools in Anantnag, Pulwama, Kulgam and Shopian have been burnt down. Security forces blame supporters of separatists for the arson, holding that they want to ensure the protests carry on. But people in the Valley believe security forces burned the buildings to malign separatists.
More than 25 people have been arrested in this connection. Control rooms have been set up by the government to prevent more cases. Teachers have been assigned to guard schools.
In parts of Kashmir, some people are questioning the impasse between the government and the protestors. “Since the government is not responding to the bloodshed, it’s time separatists revised their strategy. Let’s de-link education from protests and allow students to attend school,” says Hameedah Nayeem, a professor and chairperson of the Kashmir Centre for Social and Development Studies.
Syed Ali Shah Geelani, chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an alliance of pro-freedom parties, doesn’t agree. “It’s the people’s decision to continue with the strike,” he says. “How else do you register protest? It’s not that we are not worried about the future of our children, but the strike will continue.”
For Kashmir’s students, crisis has always been a way of life. Bashir has faced academic hurdles almost every year. When she was in the sixth standard in 2008, schools closed for months because of an agitation surrounding the Amarnath land row. In 2009, there was an uprising when two women from her district were allegedly raped and killed by security forces. In 2010, more than 110 protesting children were killed by security forces. Two years ago, schools were shut because of floods.
This time, though, a curfew school came to her rescue. Just for the present, Bashir has no worries. And this quiet winter, there’ll be enough time to sit close to hearth fires and burrow into books.