Difficult Lessons

  • Haroon Mirani
  • Publish Date: Jun 16 2017 8:53PM
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  • Updated Date: Jun 16 2017 8:53PM
Difficult Lessons

                                                      Illustration by Suhail Naqshbandi/KI

As student protests continue, Kashmir's education system is facing a crisis


Last year, as the uprising sparked by Burhan Wani's killing effectively locked Kashmir shut, the state government pinned its hope on schools and colleges. “Once they start functioning everything will be normal,” was the thinking of its top leaders. Accordingly, they used a carrot and stick policy to get educational institutions to reopen.

This year, as incessant protests by school and college students threaten to push the valley into another spiral of violence, the government's thinking has undergone a complete reversal. It has ordered schools and colleges to close, apparently in the hope that this would keep the unrest from spiralling out of control.

What started as a protest against the army's raid on Pulwama Degree College in early April has morphed into a full-scale anti-India agitation, which the state is now struggling to control. How this confrontation plays out will have far-reaching implications, political analysts say.

"The Pulwama incident was a trigger that unleashed pent-up frustration and crushed aspirations,” said Sheikh Showkat, professor of law at the Central University of Kashmir. “Student protests are nothing new, they have a part and parcel of our society since before 1947. But they not happening in the last few decades because everything was taken over by the militancy. But now the situation seems to be changing.”

The use of brute force and pressure tactics to curb such protests has a long history, too. "In the 1950s, when the Dixon commission arrived in Kashmir and they are were taken to the SP College for interaction with students, protests and pro-Pakistan sloganeering erupted instantaneously, embarrassing the government,” Showkat pointed out. “The government suspended five professors, including Prof Hajini and Yousuf Jandgur, for provoking the students. Just like they removed the principal of Degree College Pulwama after the raid on his college.”

The participation of girls in the student protests in particular grabbed headlines in India and abroad, but this too is not a new phenomenon. In 1973, the government proposed to name Government College for Women, Srinagar, after Kamla Nehru. The students were enraged, and both boys and girls hit the streets in protest. They saw the proposed renaming of the college as an assault on Kashmiri identity. The government backed down. 

But whatever the reason for student protests, the government's response has almost always been the same. Today's students are routinely met with lathis, teargas and pellets; in the 60s and 70s too student protesters were met with brute force and fatalities were not unheard of. “I remember two protesting students were killed in 1967 when the security forces fired them and one student was killed in firing on a protest at SP College in 1970,” Showkat recalled.

It is common knowledge that the latest phase of student protests were triggered by the Pulwama raid, but there are deeper reasons as well. “Students are part of the society, they suffer as much as anyone, perhaps more. And the current environment is also suffocating them, resulting in an outburst,” said Showkat. 

Prof Gul Wani, who teaches political science at Kashmir University said, "In the first place, there has been an awakening among youth. They have gained autonomy in their thinking, which is rooted in past experience of dealing with India and Pakistan during the last thirty years,” said Wani. “Secondly, this autonomy has been met with the sudden emergence of the religious far-right. Now they know everything they want to take action, but there is no space to express.”

It's this conflict that has led some to protest, others to pelt stones and a few to take up the gun, whichever  suits the individual.

State of despair 

On May 24, addressing a gathering at the SKICC, Srinagar, Education Minister Altaf Bukhari said students have a right to protest for their rights on the campus, "but when they take to streets it becomes a law and order issue". In effect, he suggested that it was for the security forces to deal with them, not the political leadership.

Bukhari admitted that excesses were committed by security forces during the raid on the Pulwama college and assured that the guilty officers were punished (read transferred). The minister also assured that no protesting student would be arrested under the draconian Public Safety Act.

Bukhari said he was ready to talk to students and appealed them to resume classes.“I won't allow anyone to harm students. I will get all arrested students released. But the students should not take their protests outside campus,” he said. “I again appeal students to resume classes as this is taking us away from academic work."

His appeal has been fruitless so far. Schools and colleges remain shut for the most part, leaving students staring at an uncertain future. 

Students have been having it especially hard over the last year. Several of them were killed, blinded, maimed and arrested last summer, and, of course, all of them, lost pretty much an entire academic year. According to a recent media report, since July 8, 2016, "educational institutions have stayed open 80 out of the 197 working days, meaning they have remained closed on 59.39% of working days". Two years previously, schools and colleges were closed for an extended period because of the floods. 

In 2017 so far, it has not been much different. Starting April 18, the administration has frequently closed all schools and colleges as a "precautionary measure" to thwart "anticipated student protests". In the 34 working days until the end of May, the schools and colleges functioned for only 17 days.


Uncertain future

Experts say until the Kashmir dispute is not resolved, protests, including by students, will continue in one form or another.

This isn't ideal because education must in no way be disrupted because it would cause irreparable damage to our society. “As a teacher and student of political science, I would say students in no way should afford to let go of education,” said Wani. “Definitely there are aspirations, dreams about Kashmir which students want to carve out and be part of it. But everyone knows that students alone cannot make any change and it has to come from negotiations, talks and involvement of leaders. For that, there are enough leaders on Indian, Pakistani and Kashmiri side. Let us leave the resolution to them.”

Wani said an emerging society like Kashmir cannot afford to make even a small mistake in today's circumstances. "Jobs are scare, education is competitive, population is increasing, humans skills have to match those of computers and above all resources are dwindling. In such a scenario, if our youth don’t get that level of education we will fail as a society,” said Wani. “It will be journey towards re-tribalism.” 

“Human resource is the buzzword in this era and if Kashmir doesn’t produce human resource of exceptional skill, it will be pushed to the margins as talent from other places will take its place,” Wani warned.

Already, the concern about the quality of education has been trumped by the desperation to complete the degree. 

GN Var, who heads the Private Schools Association in Kashmir, says the situation is "very scary". "In almost every school, we are receiving angry parents complaining that their wards are not doing well in school. They blame schools for failing to provide quality education,” said Var. “But they don’t realise that their children couldn’t come to school for 60 per cent of the time. We are faced with a huge challenge and we don’t know how to handle it.”

Var added, “Impact on education takes years to show. Last year and this year, academics has been the worst hit and its impact will be seen after 5-10 years when we will have no more achievers,” said Var. “Only the rich and affluent will face no problem as they will move out to study and come back to take prime jobs, resources and avenues. The middle class will have no such luxury and will continue as second class citizens.”

Wani has advice for students: “I don’t doubt the integrity of our students but reality is often bitter. Our students must go through the history of failed states. Those states had freedom but they never grew up to the expectations because they didn’t realise the importance of education. Similarly those who seek freedom or autonomy here cannot undermine the importance of education. Where will our future leaders, strategists, thinkers come from. We must produce quality human capital otherwise we will head towards dark times."