Kashmir’s schools are being mysteriously burnt down and nobody seems to care about the students

A lesson unlearnt.
A lesson unlearnt.
Image: AP Photo/Dar Yasin
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At the entrance to a school compound in Srinagar’s Goripora locality, half-burnt textbooks lie strewn under the autumn sun.

The books meant for free distribution to students belonged to the 29-year-old Government Girls High School, Goripora, about 8 kilometres from the city centre Lal Chowk. At about 9pm on Oct. 24, unknown miscreants set fire to one of the school buildings that housed the library and laboratory.

A large tin trunk that contained books now sits in the middle of the burnt library amid a heap of soot. The walls—on which a map, a skeleton, and other specimens, such as a facsimiles of a human eye and human body, once hung—bear the reminders of the inferno that swept through.

This school is one of the 32 educational institutions gutted by unknown people across the Kashmir Valley over the last two months. Curiously, they were all set alight after chief minister Mehbooba Mufti’s government, on Sept. 23, announced that the annual examination for classes X and XII would be held on Nov. 14 and Nov. 15.

“It is not clear who is behind these incidents,” Jammu & Kashmir’s (J&K) special director general of police (law & order), S P Vaid said. “We have made progress in two to three cases.”

Such school-burning has now become part of the narrative in the Himalayan state that has witnessed deadly political turbulence over the past few months. For decades, a section of the strife-hit state’s Muslim-majority population has rebelled against Indian control and military presence.

Yet, even as the government, the opposition, and the separatists blamed each other for the attacks on educational institutions, the annual class X and XII examinations that began on Nov. 14 saw nearly 95% attendance. This, though, is unlikely to tone down the political wrangling.

The spark

In the week before the fire at Goripora, the school with 150 students had resumed functioning after staying closed since July 01 when summer vacation began. The holidays were extended following widespread protests and a four-month-long shutdown across the Kashmir valley sparked by Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani’s killing on July 08. All educational institutions in the region remained closed during this period.

Ajaz Ahmad, who teaches the Kashmiri language at the Goripora school, said slogans began appearing on the school building’s walls soon after classes resumed. One can still read “No exams till azadi (freedom)” written with black charcoal on a red-coloured wall of the burnt building.

“We were unconcerned about the slogans and taught half-a-dozen out of the 150 enrolled students. We never expected that someone would take such an extreme step for this,” 34-year-old Ahmad said.

Since the attack on the school, classes have ceased to be held again and the teachers now attend school merely to mark their presence. “Now we feel insecure. Those who can burn a school can go to any extent,” said Ahmad.

The increasing frequency of school-burning has put teachers, students, and parents on the edge.

“Education politicised”

“When the government can’t protect schools, how can they guarantee the safety of our children? They (students) are already traumatised,” said Ali Khan, resident of Nawa Kadal in Srinagar’s downtown, which was under curfew for over 100 days. Mohammad’s daughter Khushboo Jan, a class X student, said she is not prepared for the exams owing to the complete lockdown in the Valley.

“Education was politicised. The government tried to use education as a tool to project normalcy,” said Danish Bhat, president of the Jammu & Kashmir Students’ Welfare Association.

Danish, along with representatives of the student body, met Mufti on Oct. 18 and held dozens of protests seeking the postponement of the exams. “The chief minister was unwilling. The government can use different measures like dialogue to bring normalcy, but not education,” he said.

And it is not the first time either. In the 2010 summer uprising, similarly, the government opened schools to show “signs of normalcy,” said Sheikh Showkat Hussain, head of the law department at Kashmir’s Central University.

“Education has been used as a tool of assimilation into the mainstream here. It (burning of schools) is being done by some agencies to malign the resistance camp,” Hussain alleged. The role of the government, Hussain said, has been “deplorable” as education has been turned into “vicious propaganda” towards political ends.

A government teacher at Sri Pratap Higher Secondary School on Maulana Azad road said education should be “conflict-neutral.” “We have only completed 40% of the syllabus and could not conduct laboratory works in our school due to ongoing unrest,” he said. “But the government still wants to hold exams and we can’t refuse to obey the order.”

Political slugfest

Now these exams have generated a lot of heat. The separatists and the opposition are on one side of the debate, while the Mufti government is on the other. They hold each other responsible for the wanton destruction of schools.

Former chief minister Omar Abdullah accused the government of inaction while making a case for postponing the  exams. “Their arrogance is baffling if not outrightly ridiculous. When you cannot protect the public education infrastructure, your misplaced sense of confidence in forcing examinations on students is absurd,” he said in a statement.

Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front chief Mohammad Yasin Malik has held the government responsible for even the attacks on schools. “Students are being used as cannon fodder to show normalcy and the government wants to hold exams in cantonments,” Malik said referring to the many schools temporarily occupied by security forces.

Along with the Hurriyat Conference’s Syed Ali Geelani and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Malik has been issuing the weekly protest calendars in the Valley since July.

On its part, the government has refused to buy its critics’ argument that exams were being forced on students. Official spokesperson and state education minister Naeem Akhtar insisted that holding exams was “nothing new in the academic arena” and blamed the separatists for destroying the students’ careers.

Akhtar said “no inquiry” was needed into the violence. Those behind the burning of schools, he said, are the same people who promote “looting banks, torching of shops and vehicles, stoning of innocents, and intimidation of citizens.”

“It is those people who have created this tirade against education as they see it as a threat to their vested interests,” Akhtar said in a statement. “Burning of schools is one of the ploys to keep the fire burning.”

Besides, politicisation alone is not the problem.

The school cantonments

Despite the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack guidelines advising against the use of schools and universities for military purposes, Sri Pratap Higher Secondary School was one out of the 20 occupied by the paramilitary forces during the unrest in August.

Since then, though, they have vacated 14 schools and currently occupy only six in Srinagar. “We will leave the six once we are provided alternative accommodation. The accommodation for central forces has to be provided by the state government,” said Bhavesh Chaudhary, staff officer to special director general CRPF on phone.

Of the six schools still occupied, the government notified two—Government Girls Higher Secondary School, Kothibagh, and MP Higher Secondary School, Bagh-e-Dilawar Khan—as exam centres. “They (forces) occupy 19 classrooms,” Rifat Bashir, principal, MP Higher Secondary School, said. At the Kothibagh school, 12 classrooms have been taken over by the forces.

Even in the 1990s, when armed militancy peaked in the Valley, educational institutions became targets. In fact, in the villages, people burned neighbourhood schools to prevent the forces from setting up camps there. Paramilitary personnel were stationed even in the guesthouse inside the sprawling Kashmir University campus for nearly two decades.

Now, with the Valley’s educational infrastructure going up in flames, the J&K high court on Oct. 31 took suo motu cognisance and directed authorities to take all preventive measures.

Ironically, the incidents have disturbed the slain Hizb commander Wani’s father Muzaffar Wani, a teacher himself.

“I appeal to everybody… We have to secure the school buildings as these institutions belong to our future generations,” he said from his hometown Tral.

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