The class must go on

Through the autumn months of September and October, schools in Kashmir burned — set on fire by unknown people. Peerzada Ashiq meets students, teachers and parents who did not let protests claim the academic year

Updated - July 09, 2017 06:30 pm IST

Published - December 03, 2016 12:15 am IST

Students leaving after finishing their school exams in Srinagar.

Students leaving after finishing their school exams in Srinagar.

An uneasy calm prevailed on the morning of September 13. Id-ul-Zuha , a day of reflection, offered a momentary respite after wo months of violent slogan-raising protests and life-crippling curfew in the Kashmir Valley. But before the day could ease into the night, an incident occurred which would set off a chain of concerted attacks on schools across the Valley. The Government Middle School at Yaripora village in Kulgam district, 70 km away from Srinagar, was set on fire.

The flames were seen licking the window frames of a classroom , sending shock waves among the local villagers. Ameen Jan, 55, was among the first few to reach the spot. “We hurled whatever we could lay our hands on — sand, water and clay — to douse the flames. We could not to save it,” says Jan, who was soon joined by other villagers, including women and children. None of them could see the culprits in the darkness.

Almost on cue, there were copycat acts of vandalism. Within two months, up to 36 schools were reduced to cinder. The police records, in most of these instances, state that the attacks were by “unknown persons”. Investigations are on. “The situation is very volatile. It is difficult for us to undertake a visit to the interiors. We hope for a breakthrough. Over a dozen youth have been arrested,” says an investigation officer in south Kashmir. Seven out of the 36 schools that were targeted are located in south Kashmir’s Kulgam.

Deputy Commissioner (DC), Anantnag, Abid Rasheed Shah, says investigations have remained inconclusive. “In many cases, miscreants have been identified. We are investigating all the cases thoroughly, and the guilty will be taken to task. In two cases, arrests have already been made,” he says.

Tucked away from the irregular cluster villages surrounding Yaripora, three rooms of the nine-room single-storey school have been reduced to rubble. The room which would often double up as a library may now take years to be restored. “This was a place where 48 students, all economically impoverished, could dream big. It’s painful to see its rooms in ruins,” says school headmaster Altaf Ahmad Parray.

The classes for the new session started in November 18 after a four-month-long shutdown. The government’s decision to mass-promote over a lakh students, except those in Class X and Class XII, has made seven-year-old Insha Mir happy. She sits in Class I without any annual exams. However, she shares her classroom with four newly admitted lower kindergarten students. With three rooms gutted in the school, the school administration has been forced to take two classes in a single room. There is a combined class of over 15 students now in a classroom.

In the crosshairs of politics

On September 4, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh visited the Valley, heading an all-party delegation to reach out to all stakeholders, including separatists, in a bid to work out a solution for the anger, anxiety and despair in the wake of the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen ‘commander’ Burhan Wani on July 8. Official records have put the number of those who died in the turmoil since Wani’s killing at over 90 civilians. Around 60 per cent of over 10,000 civilians injured in the clashes in the Valley were below the age of 25.

The four-month-long stalemate between the state and the separatists was deepened by the announcement of the High and Higher Secondary State Board Examination for students — the separatists believed holding it was a ploy to end their protest calendar, forcing a normalcy where there was none. The students were caught between the two. Beginning November 13, 1.5 lakh Class X and XII students braved the threats of stone-throwers to reach examination centres.

At first, the separatists had opposed the government’s move. “My response to them was that the world outside was not going wait for us. Dates of examination are not decided by a government but by the larger cycle of education system of the country. If we had not conducted the examination, most students would not have been able to prepare for upcoming professional examinations. The career and the future of lakhs of students was at stake,” says State Education Minister Naeem Akhtar, who was adamant about holding the examinations.

A concession awaited the students appearing for their Board examinations after losing four months in the academic calendar. Only 50 per cent of the syllabus figured in the question papers. The State government offered to hold examinations in March, besides November, for those students who had been detained in stone-pelting incidents and those who were injured.

Challenging separatists’ writ

The examinations began on November 13 and got over on November 29. Reliving the moments, Muskan Qureshi, 15, a student of Srinagar’s prestigious Presentation Convent Higher Secondary School, says it has been a tense and anxious year so far: “For more than four months, I had no access to the Internet. I could not go to school or see my friends. Our summer vacations, soon after our first term ended, slipped into a long-drawn street agitation in the first week of July.” Around 650 major incidents of stone-throwing were reported in Srinagar in the months after Wani’s killing, in which over 10 civilians were killed. All those months, Muskan says she spent more time gathering news about what was happening around; education took a backseat. Just metres away from her residence, the mosques would blare songs in favour of azadi (freedom) and Wani. Processions on Fridays, with barricaded roads, would last till evening and only end with security forces firing tear gas shells to restore order. “There were loud explosions outside. Can one study when a war is going on outside? One just counts the dead on television,” she says. Then the blinding of a fellow student, 14-year-old Insha Malik, a Class IX student from Shopian’s Sedow area, from pellet fire took over the discussion at Muskan’s home.

A classroom inside the Islamia Hanfia Educational Institute in Anantnag town.

A classroom inside the Islamia Hanfia Educational Institute in Anantnag town.

Appearing in the examination was no cakewalk: the route from Muskan’s downtown residence to the examination centre in Lal Chowk’s Kothibagh Higher Secondary School had borne the brunt of stone-pelters. Her father Basharat Saleem, a District Agriculture Officer, admits it was not an easy decision to send his daughter for the examination. The azadi-versus-education discourse held the Valley in a nervous grip. “On November 12, on the eve of the examinations, I drove a Scooty to check security arrangements at the examination centre. I checked the route twice to see if stone-throwers were objecting to the examination [being held]. But, thanks to the Almighty, they did not,” he says.

Jozy Ara (name changed), a Class XII student of a private school in Srinagar’s old city area, saw worse than Muskan. “Security forces’ crackdown in the dead of night became a norm in Safa Kadal in downtown Srinagar in September. Boys would stay awake all night in mosques to avert the security crackdown. We would prepare salt-dipped cloth and sugar-heavy kehwa (a local tea preparation) for them to minimise the impact of pepper spray and tear gas shells,” recalls Ara.

Ara’s elder brother, angry at the deaths of civilians, hit the streets too to join the protests, putting the family under state scrutiny. “My room was ransacked, my books damaged. My cousin was dragged down the stairs by security forces. It was like living a nightmare,” says Ara, who is interested in pursuing Political Science in college.

“Being uneducated only helps those who want people here not to be self-sufficient. Education is also resistance. No one objected in the family. In fact, the route to resolution of the Kashmir issue is through education only. Education helps in differentiating between right and wrong,” Ara argues.

Classes during curfew

Fast-setting winters have denuded the trees and turned the sun milder over the ruins of the all-wooden single-storey structure of a school in Kabamarg village of Diyalgam area, Anantnag district, more than 70 km south of Srinagar. Established in 1954 as a primary school, the Government Higher Secondary School here has been “a springboard” for the 20-odd villages in the vicinity, says Ali Akbar, 73, a local.

The school now stands on the charred wooden pillars and blackened concrete walls. Of the 23 classrooms, seven are completely gutted. Science teacher Mudasir Rehman was among the first to reach the spot when flames leaped from one window to another around 3.30 p.m. on October 30. “It seemed the fire emerged from multiple points. The intention seemed clear,” says Rehman. “There is someone who wants the students of Kashmir not to have an educated and informed stand on their political, social and economic realities.”

An ex-student of the Kabamarg school, Amir Hussain, a resident of Navedpura, fell to the bullets of the security forces who were clamping down on stone-throwing protesters in Dooru tehsil soon after the Wani encounter. Hussain’s killing fuelled anger further. There have been protests in Kabamarg village all these months. The higher secondary school too was shut in the wake of separatists’ shutdown call. However, education did not grind to a complete halt. Rehman and other volunteers started a community school in the last week of August within the village as the curfew immobilised movement of vehicles and men outside. “Around 125 students, a mix of private- and government-school students, were taught at the community school. The classes may not have provided the students their routine environment but the village was adamant that education has to continue come what may,” says Rehman.

Hamidullah Khanday, who graduated from the Kabamarg school in 1979 and is now its vice-principal, felt as if his own home was set on fire. “I saw local women beating their chests as the flames brought down the future of the students. The school had survived the harshest phases of militancy in the past,” he says.

Since the arson of October 30, the teachers here have become nightwatchmen to keep miscreants at bay. The office of the school principal, Showkat Hussain, is the post-sundown living room for the staff. Three teachers and a helper form the night-vigil team.

An informal instruction issued by the State government on November 4, asking teachers to guard local schools, has helped thwart five bids to set schools on fire in the Valley. However, the staff and the students of the gutted and damaged schools are a worried lot. “We fear many students may migrate from the school after the incident. We want to assure them the building will be renovated soon,” pledges Rehman.

No villager or teacher in Kabamarg is ready to name or identify the group or individual responsible for setting the school ablaze. Most refer to the attackers as “unidentified” and “masked men”. Wild conspiracy theories are rife as the authorities have failed to make any arrests so far.

Just 11 km away from the Kabamarg school, the Islamia Hanfia Educational Institute in volatile Anantnag town — that was set up in 1925 and has produced the likes of Chief Ministers Mir Qasim and Mufti Mohammad Sayeed — was the first private school targeted by the “unknown” arsonists. It took just three hours to efface the 10-decade-long history after the fire broke out around 3 p.m. on September 19; all 18 classrooms were razed to the ground. In one classroom, all that’s left now are some charts hanging on the wall, including one showing different yoga asanas (postures) and one of the digestive system of the human body.

Some Anantnag locals see politics behind the arson attack on the school — it is run by the Muslim Auqaf Committee headed by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti. In fact, as recently as June, Mehbooba Mufti had won the Assembly bypoll from the same constituency, defeating her main opponent by a margin of around 12,000 votes. The long-running protests have, however, damaged much of the goodwill for her.

A whodunnit, as it were

As the mystery deepens about who set the Valley schools on fire, the police have arrested a villager living next to the gutted Iqra English Medium School in Batagund, Dooru-Shahabad tehsil. Dildar Ahmad, who owns the school, isn’t impressed. “If it was an act of militants, they would have sent a letter beforehand or warned us,” he says.

Besides militants, security agencies too have come under the cloud of allegations in some cases. On September 10, a protester, Yawar Mushtaq Dar, was killed in security forces’ firing in the Batengo area of Anantnag. It was 2.30 p.m.; Dar’s funeral drew a huge gathering. The mourners decided to take the Srinagar-Jammu highway to reach a playground nearby for the funeral prayers. “The police showered the procession with stun grenades and tear gas shells. Several shells hit the Government High School, Batengo. It caused the fire,” claims Farooq Ahmad Dar, a village elder. Several cold smoke shells still lie on the school premises, kept by caretaker as evidence.

“When protesters were out on the streets, no school was attacked. It’s only when the government picked up 10,000 youth that schools started burning. All the local youth used to safeguard them,” says Nahida Nasreen, general secretary of the separatist all-woman outfit Dukhtaran-e-Millat.

Saima Akhtar, a Class VIII student, is playing on the premises of the Batengo school. Not much is left of the single-storey structure. Outside the school wall, someone has scribbled with a charcoal in cursive writing: ‘Burhan is our new leader’.

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