Children living and pursuing education in conflict zones are among the worst sufferers of daily violence in their lives. They, too, have aspirations, but do they have the luxury of following their dreams? At least, not in Kashmir, one of the world’s top militarised zones..
Basit (name changed) has lived a life of turmoil. Born into a middle-class family, he is a resident of North Kashmir’s Baramulla district, and had dreamt of becoming a storyteller. In March 2016, he secured admission for a Bachelor’s degree in journalism.
Basit would attend college regularly ,as he was focused on preparing to appear for the first-semester exams that were to be held after six months.
But, just a month before his exams, on July 9, 2016, Burhan Wani, one of the top and youngest commander of militant outfit Hizbul Mujahideen, was killed in an encounter which triggered one of the most widespread protests in Kashmir. While curfew imposed by the authorities stretched to seven months, all mobile networks were banned, except BSNL.
Colleges and educational institutes were closed. As a result, Kashmir University has been running one-and-a-half years behind schedule.
In these seven months, more than 100 people, mostly youth, were killed by government forces. The perpetual presence of the forces and the killings that continue unabated in Kashmir have made a deep impact on students.
His dreams almost shattered, Basit, who was preparing to appear in the exams, was forced to sit at home and do nothing. “Books related to our course aren’t available in the market nor in the college library. The internet was the only source for me but that was banned as well,” said Basit.
During this period, all Basit would constantly hear is loud explosions of tear gas canisters outside his gate. He never participated in any sort of protest.
“I was eagerly waiting to be able to see the streets again and meet my friends in the classroom,” recalls Basit.
His wait came to an end after seven months when the curfew was lifted. Basit recalls the first day when he entered college after such a long break, he noticed a change in his fellow students. They were now constantly talking about politics, killings, justice, human rights violation and the history of Kashmir.
After a month, the University of Kashmir rescheduled the exams. “I was happy, but at the same time, I was sad too, as I had to study the same course again for which I had prepared a few months ago,” he said.
Basit appeared in the first-semester exams in January 2017, which resulted in a gap of six months in every semester exam. The excitement of studying had disappeared. “No doubt we had the best teachers in college, but they were all trying to complete the syllabus. They taught us 50% of the syllabus and asked us to finish the rest ourselves,” he said.
Basit recalls another incident which changed his life completely.
On April 17, 2017, government forces conducted a raid in the Government Degree College, Pulwama. This was the first time, government forces had entered had a college. The students protested and demanded the evacuation of the forces, which triggered clashes, leaving more than 70 students injured.
On April 18, when students from all colleges took to the streets in protest, Baramulla college was also part of it. Basit and his friends were sitting in the college canteen when they heard loud explosions outside. “ I called my friend and asked him what is going on,” he said, adding that his friend told him that they were protesting. Within no time, police along with CRPF started throwing teargas canisters to disperse the protestors. Students responded by pelting stones.
Basit said he decided to remain inside the canteen and asked his friends to do the same. “A few students ran to the classrooms and were hiding from the police,” recalls Basit.
The college authorities had locked the gate to save students, but the police forced its way inside and fired teargas shells. A few canisters also landed in the classrooms. One of the professors (who wished to remain anonymous) told Newsclick about the incident recalling that many female students had fainted due to the smoke in and around the college, adding that the forces also beat up people in the college.
Basit had been watching all this from the canteen window and was trying to figure out a safe exit when a few policemen barged inside. “They held me and others who were in the canteen and started beating us and took us out of the canteen,” he recalls.
Basit and six other students were arrested and slapped with “attempt to murder” charges.
Some students wishing anonymity told NewsClick that the way students are living in Kashmir and still continue to study is nothing less than a miracle. One student said “My mother calls me 10 times a day until I reach home. We live in fear of being killed anytime.”
Since the incident in Pulwama, the authorities have shut all the educational institutions to prevent student protests in Kashmir. Due to suspension of classes, universities are not able to conduct exams on time which, in turn, is delaying the graduation process.
Students like Basit, who were supposed to finish their degree in 2018,will have to wait for another one-and-a-half years to complete their course, stretching a three-year course to 4- ½ years. This has also reduced the job prospects of these students.
Since the 1990s, the conflict in Kashmir has affected education outcomes in schools and colleges . After the killing of the main breadwinner of a family, most children stay at home or get involved in earning for their families. This has affected literacy outcomes in the troubled valley.
Dr Aslam Wani, a psychiatrist, who has treated many students, said due to the delay in getting degrees and the overload of studies, a large number of them are suffering from depression. Students in Kashmir aren’t able to enjoy student life like students in other places. Almost every student has a suicidal tendency, he claimed.
Parents have a different story to tell. Mushtaq Wani, a resident of Srinagar who is a government employee, has a nine-year-old son, Zain. Mushtaq recalls an incident when Zain asked him “who was Burhan Wani.” “I tried to avoid the question but he kept asking me,” he said.
At the parent-teachers meet, teachers told Mushtaq that Zain and other students play a game in which one group acts as Burhan’s cadre and another group acts as government forces. “It is very clear why this is happening. Kids absorb what they see around,” said Mushtaq.
On September 20, 2018, the Chinar youth festival took place in Sher-i-Kashmir International Conference Centre (SKICC) in Srinagar which was organised by the Army’s 15 Corps. One of the events of the festival was a painting competition in which school students participated.
One paintings grabbed everyone’s attention. The child had made a drawing merging the flags of India and Pakistan and under the flag was written “we don’t want bloodshed” “we want freedom”.
Using a metaphoric style, another participant’s painting depicted the transformation of Kashmir from a valley to a battlefield. One more painting depicted a blood-soaked Kashmir with the words "stone pelting" written over it. When reporters asked an army official about the incident, he told them there can be diverse views as hundreds of students participated in the event.
The president of the Private School Association, GN Var, told NewsClick said that the Army was meant for a particular job. It is very hard to understand why the government is allowing the Army to conduct such kind of programmes, he added.
Talking about classwork in Kashmir, Var said schools hardly get more than 80 to 90 working days a year. So, in this time period, it is impossible for a student and teacher to finish the syllabus.
He said they tried to approach Microsoft for intranet by which they could disseminate the study material among students even after the internet ban. “We tried our best to get this service for the students, but the government didn’t approve despite multiple requests,” Var said.
Var said they aren’t able to provide quality education to students due to suspension of classes. “When a student can’t get the best education in school how will he/she will perform well in higher education,” he adds.