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The year: 1991 or 1992 or 1993 or 1994.
The place: An examination hall somewhere in the Kashmir valley.
For this child, and the tens of thousands like him in Jammu and Kashmir, education is a path to peace. Unfortunately, some 600,000 Kashmiri children do not attend school.
Photo: Lynette Menezes
The boy is smug at his desk. Like most of his classmates, he has carried his textbook inside.
The examiner hands him the question paper. The boy spreads out his textbook in plain view, turns it to the relevant page, and starts writing out the answers unhurriedly.
Around him, others follow suit. Some equally brazen, some less so. Most examiners busily ignore what is going on. They look out of the windows. A few walk out of the hall.
A little later, out of the corner of his eye the boy sees an examiner watching him. That doesn't bother him. He has protection; one of his relatives is a militant. In any case, copying en masse is more or less the norm since Kashmiris started their Pakistan-backed armed conflict for separation from India.
A shadow falls over the boy's desk. He doesn't bother looking up. A hand snatches away his textbook.
The boy jumps up. Give me that book, he hisses.
The examiner looks at him without a word. Give me that book, the boy says again, or we will burn this school down.
The examiner glares at him for a few seconds. Then he hands the textbook back and walks away.
The details, except for the exchange between the boy and the examiner, may not be entirely accurate, but similar scenes have played out in many schools throughout the valley many times over. And thousands of ill-educated have become matriculates and graduates in those four years when the Kashmir conflict was at its peak, with enviable grades.
"Oh, that was universal then," said the examiner, a schoolteacher still in service. "Everyone copied, and we could do nothing about it."
A small withered man approaching retirement age, he is seated on the first floor of his under-construction house. He takes his role as a host very seriously, as any true-blue Kashmiri would, and plies you with cup after cup of too-sweet tea, assorted biscuits and dry fruits. He is more than willing to talk, but doesn't want his identity revealed.
"The government used to pay me Rs 30 per day as allowance -- and I wasn't going to risk my life for that," he said. "There were fathers appearing for their sons, mothers for their daughters. I am ashamed to admit it, but we could only look on... We were not worried about saving our pride then, only about saving our lives."
Don't even for a minute, though, think copying was the biggest fallout of militancy on Kashmir's educational system. It certainly was among the more sensational ones. But in no way can it be compared to the torching of educational institutions, or the death threat faced by more than 30,000 Kashmiri Pandit17 teachers and their exodus to safer lands beyond the Jawahar tunnel18.
A cross-section of Kashmir observers, including educationists and administrators, summed up militancy's impact on education in the valley thus: Severe disruption of the academic calendar, destruction of infrastructure including school buildings, deterioration in quality of instructors and instruction, discontinuation of extra-curricular activities, and, also, other fallouts of violence like 'constant, free-floating anxiety' among students that lower their performance, higher number of dropouts, and pessimism.
"A crucial indicator of the severe impairment education suffered is the academic calendar," said Professor A G Madhosh, dean and head of faculty of education, University of Kashmir, Srinagar. "And this still continues, though the intensity has decreased."
The University Grants Commission, which governs higher education in India, requires that an educational institution be open for a minimum of 180 days a year.
"But in all institutions including schools, during the peak of militancy from 1990 to 1994 we got somewhere between 30 and 40 working days," said Professor Madhosh. "Even these could hardly be utilised, as not many students or teachers would turn up."
Things began changing for the better after 1994, observers say, when government troops gained the upper hand in the Kashmir conflict. In the eight years since, they add, the academic calendar has looked up, there has been very little destruction of infrastructure, mass copying stopped19, extra-curricular activities picked up, the quality of education improved... in short, education is on the road to normalcy -- but it is one very long road.
Even before militancy contributed its violent mite from the late 1980s, Kashmiris were on an uneven footing educationally.
Ancient Kashmir was a seat of learning, but it continued so only till the end of the 17th century. After the Mughals, Kashmir fell 'under the tyrannies and extortions of subsequent rulers, until, by the early years of the 19th century, the cultural glories of its past had disappeared, and it was known abroad chiefly for the desolation of its land and the misery of its people' -- this, as per Irish linguist Sir George Abraham Grierson, under whom the famous Linguistic Survey of India was compiled.
"The state was very backward in education," elaborated Kashmiri historian Professor Mohammad Ishaq Khan. "Till the advent of Christian missionaries, all that Kashmiris had were the patshalas of the Hindu Pandits, where they were taught Sanskrit to enable them to read sacred books, and the madrasas of the Muslims, where the students were taught Arabic for the same reason."
Formal education started, Professor Khan continues, in the 1880s with the CMS School in Srinagar. It was the minority Hindu community that was the first to take to learning. The Muslims followed suit, though much slowly and with considerably less enthusiasm.
Professor Khan has written several books on Kashmir, including Kashmir's transition to Islam and Perspectives on Kashmir. He teaches at the Kashmir University, Srinagar.
Photo: Mohammad Shafi
Over the next century, Kashmiris made good progress in education, but not near enough to regain their past glory in the field when, according to Sir George, '...this valley have issued masterpieces of history, poetry, romance, fable and philosophy.'
Historians and academicians say there were many impediments in the path of learning. Among them, the many conflicts and agitations the state saw (including the India-Pakistan wars) and the initial reluctance of the majority community to be 'influenced by modern education.'
'There were many factors which prevented Muslims from taking to modern education,' Professor Khan wrote in his book, History of Srinagar. Namely: their occupation (the bulk of the population were artisans who were not interested in education), poverty, discouragement by the Muslim clergy, indifference of the state authorities, and also 'the unsympathetic and cruel treatment' which the Muslim population received at the hands of Hindu teachers.
The result was that by the 1980s there was a notable gap, educationally, between the majority and minority communities. While the Hindus were well qualified and consequently employed in coveted government jobs, the Muslims, who constitute over 90 per cent of the population in the valley, remained backward.
Page 8: Education Is An Activity of Peace. Not Turmoil
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This article is part of Chindu Sreedharan's study on the Impact of Militancy on the Children of Kashmir, as a National Foundation for India Fellow for 2000-2001.
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