Out of Order

How Kashmir's future survives a curriculum in conflict every day

Students, parents and teachers are the biggest symbol of resilience as they managed to tackle the board exams in November.

 |  Out of Order  |  24-minute read |   06-12-2016
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It is November 13, 2016 in Srinagar. Ordinarily, Kashmiris would have thronged the streets and markets, teenagers flocking in and around cafes on a lazy Sunday afternoon. But today, they aren’t allowed out of their homes owing to a fear that they will soon be the violent target of a stray pellet gun.

Ordinarily, the shutters would be up, vendors and people creating a chorus of cacophony to fill the air. Today, the atmosphere is desolate, resounding with a deafening silence. Ordinarily, the Dal Lake would be a constellation of shikaras, flickering to the backdrop of regal rubicund autumn leaves, falling away from magnificent Chinar trees.

kashmir_examination__120616090914.jpg Kashmiri students, all politically aware, feel very strongly about completing their education. Credit: Abid Bhat

Tourists and locals alike being ferried across at both exorbitant and familiar rates, depending on which category of patrons they fell under. Today, there isn’t a ripple; the stillness of the lake comes with a turbulence in the political sphere. Ordinarily, the paramilitary officers, toting guns, dressed in riot gear, would blend in with the multitudes, a camouflage to reinforce the alternate idea of normalcy that exists in a conflict zone. Today they stand blatantly, the only humanity clothing the otherwise abandoned streets.

Ordinarily, children would be reeling from the joy of either graduating from school or having been assessed and promoted to their new class a few weeks prior.

Today, they are studying for the board exams, which begin tomorrow, with no structured system of education in the last five months since schools and tuition centres have either been defunct, set ablaze or damaged in the clashes.

November 13, 2016 is no ordinary autumn day in the Valley. On July 8, 21-year-old militant leader Burhan Wani was traced and killed by the armed forces as he attended a daawat on the occasion of Eid in Bumdoora Village, South Kashmir. Since then, the Valley has seen one of its fiercest phases of unrest, since the 1990s, as some locals describe it. Protests erupted across Kashmir, including areas that were previously unaffected by conflict and turmoil.

More than a hundred civilians and upwards of 60 army officers have been killed, more than 13,000 people have been injured, thousands of young boys have been rounded up by the police and arrested for being involved in stone pelting and other militant activities. By July 12, just four days after Wani was killed, hospitals had already reported over 90 eye surgeries, treating injuries from pellet guns, today hundreds have been blinded.

After three months, as things began to simmer down, as people began to dust the soot off the rubble, there was a need to direct attention to the youth and to their education. There was a need to restore an atmosphere of normalcy, to mobilise citizens and bring them back out on the streets, at timings that weren’t slotted for regularity in separatist calendars. There was a need to conduct board examinations.

kashmir_examination__120616091125.jpg Teens take the board exam - parents in tow, CRPF standing guard. Credit: Abid Bhat

 

The Jammu and Kashmir Board of School Education announced that the examinations for class 10 and 12 students would be conducted in November and on October 23, a datesheet was released. The authorities were faced with representations by students and educational bodies asserting their underpreparedness and immense security concerns.

A few weeks later, pursuant to a meeting between the board with officials from the state government, a 50 per cent concession was granted, wherein students were told that they would be assessed on only half the total syllabus. The few students, to whom the arrangement was still unacceptable, made further representations to the authorities.

Finally, their demands, which were also the demands of the Hurriyat, were met. The board examinations for students of class 10 and 12 would begin on November 15 and 14 respectively, with a 50 per cent concession.

An alternative was available, wherein students would have the option of taking the exams in March (as was the case when the floods hit the Valley in 2014, and the standard CBSE exam schedule in Jammu), however, for the March edition, students would need to prepare the course in its entirety.

And so, over four months of no structured schooling or tuitions, no internet and limited communication with their peers, the teens in the Valley who did little else except saunter from room to room in their homes to the sound of stones, shrieks and cross fire, had a little under a month to prepare for examinations that, especially in this country, would shape their future prospects and higher education. Albeit, with a minor adjustment in course magnitude.

D-day

After months, on the morning of November 14, it was as though an unstoppable force of innocence and diligence filled the deserted streets. Convoys of vehicles overflowing with children, created traffic jams, the picture of imagined, but hopeful normalcy. A sea of headscarves and clipboards, furiously flipping pages and revising last minute definitions flowed nervously into examination centres, parents in tow, CRPF standing guard.

Students had completed close to 30 per cent of their syllabus in school, and it was invariably higher in tuition centres, a popular industry, catering to students from all classes. The arrangements made by the board and the government entailed tight security outside the 545 examination centres for class 10 and over 450 for class 12.

teacher_khoti-bagh-s_120616090607.jpg A teacher at Kotibagh, Srinagar. Credit: Abid Bhat

This meant the ubiquitous presence of the CRPF, with rifles slung over one shoulder and the J&K police standing by, surrounding schools on both the inside and the outside. “There are also Contingency Paid Workers, who are like chowkidars present in schools to ensure no untoward incident takes place.”

khoti-bagh-school_-2_120616050340.jpg At a school in Kothibagh, Srinagar. Credit: Abid Bhat

Accompanying the forces were parents, worried in equal measure about their children’s safety and scores. Outside both SP Higher Secondary School and Government Girls Higher Secondary School, Kothibagh, concerned mothers, fathers and teachers sat between the hours of 11am and 2pm, heads covered with shawls and protected from the biting cold by pherans.

The procedure for conducting the examinations had been formulated so that the question papers and answer sheets could be transported from the board office to the centres like clockwork, but under the watchful surveillance of the police. “The question papers will be sent to the nearest police station, from here the police will carry them to exam centres,” said a board official.

“Once the exams are completed, the papers will be tied up, sealed with wax and taken back to the police station by the police in a police vehicle,” he added. These bundles would then be transported to the board the following morning. In spite of enhanced safety precautions, there were a few skirmishes in intensely turbulent areas, the first one breaking out at around noon in Pulgam, South Kashmir, where the answer sheets were taken away and negotiations initiated.

Aside from the stray protest, however, the examinations conducted, quite literally under the gun, for one of the highest turn out of examinees (more than 95 per cent students appeared for the class 12 boards and 99 per cent for class 10) went off smoothly, without strife.

While the government and the board tout the exams, their conduct and resultant normalcy as a victory, reactions across the Valley have been mixed.

“They have made a joke of this exam. They say if a student appears this time, they will give them 50 per cent concession. So it’s sort of a sale – education on sale,” says GN Var, president of the Private Schools Association of Kashmir (PSAK).

“The children who are appearing this time are also those children who would never have passed, but will do so because of the concession. The degree you're giving at this time, shall I see it as a 50 per cent degree or a discounted degree?” he asks.

Young Kashmir put to the test

Somehow as the state and the rest of the country is caught between accusations and counter accusations tossed with reckless and hateful abandon between politicians and separatists, militants and the armed forces, news anchors and a panel of elite panellists, the average Kashmiri remains ignored. While discussing the examinations, very little was heard of the students. Those who carry the burden of not only these examinations, but of the future of the Valley on their shoulders and in their backpacks.

“Personally I didn’t want to appear for the exams just now because I was going through some anxiety issues and also because I am not prepared,” said Shayaan Nazir, 17, a student of SP Higher Secondary School. “This anxiety and the four month gap – no school, no going out, because of that a person was imprisoned.”

Nazir dreams of being a journalist one day and reporting on the Valley, but is presently in a desperate hurry to get away from the conflict in order to complete his education. His therapist and his father have been worried about the stress the exams would cause and are concerned about his well-being.

12th-class-students__120616051058.jpg 'They’re in class 12, they are still children. They should have given them at least a month or two more.' Credit: Abid Bhat

“A person who already has a psychotic paranoia inside, gets sick sitting at home. He goes through that phobia and overthinks. Because of that it’s like a situation where one wants to run away,” he said. Nazir opted to take the exams in November, so he could flee the city soon after and pursue journalism in Delhi University. This, along with the common entrance tests, which most students need time to prepare for after their exams and the uncertainty of what March holds is what drove them out in large numbers to take the exams in November.

A student of science with physical education, Nazir studies along with his friend Fazil Arshid from the same school. Arshid, who lived in one of the most violent areas in Srinagar, Downtown, said he could not manage to open his books for the first four months, due to the constant disturbance, noise and fear. "'Bhaago bhaago! Darwaaze bandh karo!' There the whole day would go in closing doors and listening to noise," he recalled.

The 18-year-old had to travel to Nazir’s home on foot, since there was no public transport and travelling in cars attracted danger. “I left from home and it took me two hours to cover a kilometre and a half. The CRPF stopped me and would say, ‘beta kahaan jaa rahe ho?’” he says.

“People say they treat you badly. They didn’t say ‘abbe kahaan jaa raha hai?’ They called me beta.” Arshid, says he was more jittery than most, being a slow learner. The medical student spent hours fretting over how he would manage to complete a syllabus he wasn’t taught in schools or in tuition centres.

coaching_institute_-_120616091439.jpg Saving grace: A packed tuition centre isolated from the din of protests and pellet-firing. Credit: Abid Bhat

Spending close to 20 hours everyday trying to understand colloidal solutions days before his chemistry exam, his breaks were spent pacing nervously wondering what the 50 per cent concession actually meant. Kashmiri students, all politically aware, feel very strongly about completing their education, but this drive is clouded somewhat by doubt and resentment harboured because of the environment they grew up in.

“What is the fun of degrees, when at last we have been killed?” asks Nusrat Jehan [name changed], a student outside her tuition centre in Bohri Kadal, Downtown, Srinagar.

“I have read in my books that India is a Democratic country and their are constitutional rights like freedom of speech and expression. But our thoughts are always pressed down, so it really proves that we are not considered part of India,” she adds. Jehan also asserts that her freedom of movement is snatched away from her each time she has to ask the forces for permission to move through the city they call home. “What kind of freedom is this? It is really a dictatorship,” says Jehan.

Between the fear and paranoia that accompanies an important examination, is an acute sense of helplessness. “These clashes are between these people, and a lot of pressure is coming on us. Our future is at stake. Our careers are at stake. Every two years we are facing this,” says Nazir. “Imagine a mother who lost her child or had a child who lost her eyesight but had to appear in the boards. What must she be thinking? What must she think when she sees a 94 per cent turn out in the exams?” asks Arshid.

Studying for anything between four and 20 hours a day, students in the Valley have different diversions to blow off steam in between. The crackdown has ensured movement outdoors is restricted, the internet ban has curbed communication with friends and made free-time as much of a burden as the hours spent with reference books. But accumstomed to a life in a conflict zone, they make do.

“We couldn’t go out during our relaxation time, since there were strikes and the situation outside was so bad. We would just sit around at home, chill out with our cousins,” says Samia, a class 12 student. Nazir, on the other hand listened to music to both calm him down and motivate him. “When I take a break I listen to music to make myself calm. The song I like is called "Cold". It makes me feel sad but also makes me confident of myself,” he said. Nazir also turns to rap star Drake when he needs a push. "The lyrics like 'I got enemies, got a lot of enemies – got a lot of people trying to drain me of my energy'" – these make me strong,” he said.

There are students, however, who braved the curfew and, though fearful, used the shutdown to their advantage. “We have been given 50 per cent concession, but we will not do only that much. I studied thoroughly, I studied each and every chapter," said Syed Rounaq of Presentation Convent as she strutted confidently out of her examination centre, Government Girls Higher Secondary School, Kothibagh after completing the Chemistry paper.

“We are grown ups. We can manage. I just used my textbooks. It was enough for me. I could also call my tuition teachers and they helped me,” said Rounaq, who wants to grow up to be a pilot.

Though the November leg of the board examinations saw a turn out of over 95 per cent students, a minority which includes students such as Ullah, 18, from Jawaharnagar Higher Secondary School opted to take the exam in March. “I wanted to do it in such a way where when I take my exams I am completely prepared. I didn’t want to do this half syllabus thing. Internal satisfaction isn’t there in such a situation,” he explained.

Ullah’s parents urged him to appear in November, since they noticed a sizeable chunk of his peers had so decided. But he was adamant. “I explained to them that I want to do the full syllabus. I’ve never studied half the syllabus for any exam, it’s not satisfying. During the winter months, we are mostly at home so I’ll be able to prepare,” adds the BBA aspirant.

The parents

As parents gathered in hundreds outside examination centres for the entire duration of the test, there seemed to be a hushed drone of both worry and anxiety. Mothers compared notes about how their sons and daughters managed to prepare, they flung furious words across at each other over the unrest and with a heavy heart, and discussed friends and family who had been injured, killed or arrested.

“This morning, we looked around outside. One family came out, we saw another come out and then another. This is when we started getting our children ready to go for the exam,” says Hameedah [name changed] as she waited for her son outside SP College.

kashmir_examination__120616091709.jpg Can India give Kashmir peace - and the power of a balanced equation? Credit: Abid Bhat

“The government thinks these are grown up kids. They’re in class 12, they are still children. They should have given them at least a month or two more.”

Mothers complain that private schools have demanded tuition fees for the four months during which the schools were shut down before students would be given their admit cards and roll numbers.

“We had to deposit the fees. We had no time to even protest this. It’s our child’s professional year. Whether we had the money or not, it had to be arranged,” says Shabnam, a mother sitting outside Government Girls Higher Secondary School, Kothibagh.

Hum chahe adhi roti khaye, hum apne bachchon ko padhayenge!” screamed another parent. Worried frowns soon turned to forlorn expressions, revealing a resentment that never quite had an outlet.

“We are here so nothing happens. There may be gun pointing, tear gas, shelling. So we need to be here. We are so scared,” mumbles Hameedah. Sitting next to her, a visibly upset parent reveals that she fears for her younger daughter, who is in class 7, and has not allowed her to lock her summer uniform away, in the hope that one day schools will reopen and she will have the opportunity to visit her friends and attend classes. “She keeps asking, ‘Humara kuch likha hai newspaper mein? Humare school ka kuch likha hai?’”

Outside SP College, perturbed parents also lament the quality of education being imparted to this generation, or the lack thereof. “Where is the education? There is no quality of education. They haven’t been taught anything,” adds the lady quoted previously. “Jab bhi baat karo, army ki baat karo. This is the atmosphere in Kashmir,” she says.

Through the months of intermittent curfews and continuous shutdown, aside from providing their children with all the moral support they physically could, parents have been extremely distressed at the thought of sending their children out of the house.

Their fear is that, like the children of so many of their neighbours, their sons too will be rounded up by the armed forces or be at the receiving end of a pellet gun. “They [the police and armed forces] come to the boys, strip them and see if they have any marks on them. If they do, they take them away,” says Hameedah. “My son got hurt on his toe while playing cricket. He bandaged it. I swear to god I told him remove the bandage so the army wouldn’t take him away,” she adds. Other parents, however, are spending their time at home trying to create a structured educational environment for their children.

Arshad Kashani, a marketing professional and his wife, Samina Bashir, a primary school teacher, have a schedule chalked out, according to which their daughters study. “I teach them myself,” says Bashir.

“It’s not school, there’s a lot of difference - the discipline, the timing and whatnot, but I’m trying to cover the syllabus,” she adds. Since winter is around the corner and the mornings have begun to hit biting temperatures, the girls only begin their studies at 10am. “So 10 to 1 they study, then they take a break for lunch and then begin again from 6 to 8.”

Kashani, who was himself a student during the conflict in the '90s, claims there is little to no difference between then and now. The only distinction he can draw between his days in Kashmir University in the early '90s and the present unrest was that institutions were not officially shut down back then. “But it was impossible to go. On and off there would be grenade attacks, cross firing and all that. If you go down memory lane to the '90s, you’ll find victims trapped between the firing of armed rebels and security,” he says.

Meanwhile, back outside the exam centres, mothers wait impatiently for their sons to come out of SP College. “Don’t ask about boys. They also loved school. After months they have finally met their friends. Phones have been off, the internet has been off. They didn’t know if they were all right or alive,” says Hameedah, always giving the towering gate of the school and the armed officers a cursory glance.

“No one listens to us. The government, the media, no one. Our children are not safe. Look at the atmosphere in which our children are taking the exams. There are forces all over, she adds.” Almost fittingly, as she desperately mumbles an afterthought, “It’s only in god’s hands,” the afternoon azaan fills the air, piercing through the flood of worry temporarily from a nearby mosque. 

The teachers

Though formal schooling has been closed through the duration of the unrest, most teaching staff has been attending school in order to fulfil their administrative duties. Whenever possible, and for those who live in the vicinity, students have had the option to visit their teachers in case they need to clear any doubts, need assistance with understanding relevant topics and subjects, or just need a boost in confidence.

School teachers have also found ways to help students in ways other than tangible class room set ups. As teachers gather in principal Romana Qazi's office at the Government Girls Higher Secondary School, Kothibagh, during the first board examination of class 10 students, there is a calm bustle in the room.

General English teacher Nusrat Bukhari scrolls through her WhatsApp contact list, revealing scores of students she has helped over the instant messaging app, when broadband became available. “Through broadband I guided almost 50 students on WhatsApp itself. I managed the time and did it.

It is compulsory since we had not completed the syllabus and students had lost a lot of time,” she adds. Bukhari also helped the six or seven students who would come to her home, or send back notes with their mothers. Hailing Bukhari as a tremendously qualified and very popular teacher, Qazi bursts with pride at how she, near prophetically knew in her heart that the students would appear in thousands for the board examinations this time around.

“I was the only principal in favour of having exams in the month of November,” she says. Qazi explains that through an odd coincidence, the students were made to complete examination formalities by May this year, a procedure, which would ordinarily be undertaken in July or August.

“We got a little annoyed. What happens when children fill forms is that they get this notion that now it's exam time, now they have to stay home and we have to study,” she explains. However, Qazi believes that in spite of her strict and effective means of bringing students back to school, they had long begun their preparation.

And helping students set this presumed preparation in motion was a makeshift, informal arrangement, where teachers and elders in different mohallas and communities taught children in the vicinity in their own homes. One such teacher was Mubashir Bhat of Solina, who gathered up four or five boys from the colony almost everyday and helped them with their studies.

“We gathered all the mohalla people at the afternoon prayers in a big ground and we decided that I would teach the students in the mohalla so they do not lose touch with their books,” said Bhat. Though Bhat taught them for free for close to two hours everyday, he stands firm on the belief that this is definitely not something that could ever replace or be considered as effective as formal schooling.

Huzaif, Razee, Sumair and Bhat would all meet at the former’s home - huddled around in a large carpeted lobby which is a recurring feature in all Kashmiri homes, with cushions and blankets, tea and biscuits - for classes at a time that suited them.

“His mother would get tea for me,” says Bhat. “She knows me well and she knew my family background and that’s why she allowed me to come in. In those circumstances you can’t just allow any one to come into your home. It’s not safe,” he adds. Due to the time constraint, Bhat has devised his own teaching techniques in order to impart the maximum effective and functional education in the limited period students were allotted for preparation. He remembers his time as a masters student in English when he read The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. “All 600 pages.”

But soon after, he downloaded the film to get a clear idea of the story. “Almost everyone has the story of DDLJ in their mind. When did SRK come home? When his father said ‘jaa mere liye bahu leke aa’. I similarly explained the stories to the students and then made them understand the difficult words, synonyms and antonyms,” he laughs.

In Downtown, one of Srinagar's most intemperate areas, several tuition centres have also opened their doors to students once again. In narrow by-lanes created by graffiti-laden walls, these centres in Bohri Kadal and Hawal, see a rush of boys and headscarf-clad girls arrive and leave on unsteady scooties.

mubashir_students_-1_120616092353.jpg In Chinar's shadows, another generation of Kashmiris' future hangs in the balance. Credit: Abid Bhat

It’s the brief period in the morning and the afternoon, in this otherwise tempestuous locale, when there are laughs instead of loud noises, books instead of bullets, studies instead of stones. One of the teachers running these tuition centres is 24-year-old Rufeen, an engineer by qualification and a teacher by passion. He presently teaches over 200 students physics everyday. The students, who are packed into a spacious room composed of dilapidated walls, comprising one rickety wooden table, sitting cross-legged with Rufeen at the helm with chalk and blackboard, pay a fees of Rs 3,500 per year for the entire syllabus.

“The centre was shut for 3 months, but I was taking tuitions at home. The students who lived nearby would come there and I would teach them,” says Rufeen. But they were cautious. He would allow students to leave his home in instalments and not continuously.

“There was trouble, but a teacher has to manage. The students were facing the brunt, so we need to take the initiative for our future generations and make it happen.” Rufeen, whose passion for teaching was fuelled in his college days recalls how times were difficult in 2008, when he studied engineering. “That was the start of this turmoil. The students here in Kashmir, they have it in them, that they study on their own. So we managed,” he remembers.

“There is a psychological impact though. In 2008, there was no unrest like this, it was new for us at that time. But at the end of the day your career is at stake. That’s what struck us and we kept going,” he says. While Rufeen had little trouble reopening his tuition centre by October 1, a teacher who did not wish to be named at a nearby tuition centre has a different story to tell. “A militant organisation sent me a threat in a letter, telling me to close down my tuitions or ‘bohot galat hoga’,” he says.

But, with a pinch of fear obliterated by a dollop of resilience, he re-opened his tuition centre on October 12. As another chapter of violent confrontations in the Valley appears to draw to a close, doubts and questions seem to linger. The deciding examinations for the Valley’s students may have been successfully conducted, but the people of the Valley still await their final assessment.

Their chance to shine and move forward. The test that is Kashmir, has never had a structured system of resolution either. The unrest has always been settled through make shift, knee-jerk institutional tactics, akin to the temporary community schools, which will never be any match to a formal, structured approach.

As another generation of Kashmiris makes progress through mass promotions, showing resilience by turning to their curriculum even in conflict, they deserve more than a marksheet for their effort. They deserve more than burned schools and a college form. Students of mathematics deserve an answer to more than a question on calculus. Students of commerce need answers to more than problems they confront in their accountancy papers.

And, it's time that more than chemistry, Kashmir's students learned about the peace and power of a balanced equation.

Writer

Asmita Bakshi Asmita Bakshi @asmitabee

The writer is a law graduate and ball of rage. She tweets @asmitabee and eats everywhere

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