As the school session in Jammu and Kashmir comes to an end this month, the state government has said board examinations for Class 10 and Class 12 will be held in November, much to the confusion and anger of students and teachers. The announcement has come despite all educational institutions in the Valley being shut for close to three months now because of the ongoing unrest.
This leaves students with just a little over a month not only to prepare for the examinations, which begin on November 14, but also to complete their syllabus. Many want the tests postponed, saying they are traumatised by the mounting human cost of the violence, and that the government has done little to facilitate their studies.
High school students across the Valley have protested against the examination schedule, some asserting that exams be deferred till Kashmir issue is resolved.
Schools have been shut since the summer break in July, which was the time violence erupted after the killing of militant Burhan Wani by the security forces.
More recently, the government has been criticised for allowing the forces to occupy schools. Seven institutions are still occupied by troops as the government has failed to find accommodation for them elsewhere.
This is happening even as the government expresses concern over the education of children. Education minister Naeem Akhtar recently lashed out at pro-Pakistan separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, accusing him of crippling the state’s economy and education. Later, Pakistan-based terrorist organisation Lashkar-e-Toiba warned Akhtar of “dire consequences if he continues to force people to resume normal work”, while claiming that “the present struggle is not against the education system but against Indian occupation”.
On October 1, Srinagar district had the lowest attendance of students in government schools with just 169 out of a total of 39,951 coming to class, according to government data. Kupwara in North Kashmir recorded the highest number of students (39,273 out of 1,23,823) and teachers (8,581) reporting to schools that day.
No time to prepare
The situation today is worse than it was during the unrest in 2008 and 2010, said Shagufta Parveen, who was director of school education in the state during that period. She said schools had been open back then as the entire Valley was not shut down as it is today. “Today, schools across districts are closed and students and teachers cannot move around due to restrictions and lack of transport,” she added.
Apart from the restrictions, schools have faced the ire of stone-pelting mobs in these past months. In August a school principal was assaulted by protesters for keeping the school open during the separatist sponsored strike. The protesters vandalised the school and the principal had to be treated in hospital, according to Greater Kashmir.
In September, a school was set ablaze in South Kashmir’s Yaripora, days later in another incident another school was gutted in Anantnag town. According to a press release by the police a middle school in south Kashmir’s Shopian was set ablaze on September 19. On October 11 a school was set ablaze in north Kashmir’s Pattan.
Areef Mushtaq, a class 10 student, who participated in a protest near Srinagar's Lal Chowk earlier this month said that because of the hostile environment over the last few months "children have come to hate studies." Another protestor student, Hina Yusuf, said that students were unable to even to tuition classes because they risked getting hit with pellets in the streets. "We could have studied over the Internet, but that too has been shut by the government," she said. "So what will we do?"
According to KNS, a local news gathering agency, the chairman of the state board of school education, Zahoor Ahmad Chart, has taken note of the protests and has conveyed this willingness to give the students some concessions, as was the case n 2008 and 2010.
But others have called for the board examinations to be deferred till March. “Students are not mentally prepared to give exams right now and a March session would be better," said Yawar Abbas, a teacher and volunteer at a community school.
However, Shagufta Parveen pointed out that shifting the session like this would be disadvantageous as students would have less time to prepare for competitive exams.
The academic session in Kashmir begins in March and ends in October, giving students plenty of time before the competitive tests.
“It is better to hold the exams right now,” agreed Rehana Shakeel, a student of Class 12. “It will let us focus on the entrance exams. Otherwise, our focus would be divided between studying for the boards and the entrance exams.”
Coaching centres targeted
Shakeel pointed out that many students such as herself had covered most of their syllabus by joining coaching centres. “We had continuous classes between January and July and covered more than half of our syllabus,” she said. “Now, recently, we have started going for coaching again and will complete the syllabus in time.”
But coaching centres have also been targeted of late.
“We had private coaching centres that remained open even during hartals and students could go there and study,” said a government school teacher on condition of anonymity. “But today, these have also come under attack and been closed.”
The teacher added, “It is not as if parents do not want their children to go to school. If they did, why would they send their children for tuitions discreetly at 6 am in the morning?”
Shakeel said her classes were interrupted twice as the coaching centre was pelted with stones. Even when the centre shifted to another area in Srinagar, the stone throwers turned up to disrupt classes.
A prominent private school in the capital city had decided to hold its semester exams, originally scheduled for July, at the homes of its teachers to facilitate the students. But it had to drop the idea as “some people sent a warning against such conduct of exams”, said a teacher from the school who did not wish to be identified.
In the absence of formal schooling, volunteers across Kashmir have set up community schools. Though such schools may not cater to a majority, they have come as a reprieve to parents and students.
One such school in the Hassanabad locality of Rainawari in Srinagar has been running since August. Around 30 volunteers coach 200 students from Class 1 to Class 12 every day between 9 am and 1 pm. The classes are held at a school building and a shrine located in the calm of a residential colony, away from the tense main road.
At the shrine that doubles up as a school, students gather around mentors to form study groups. Among them is Maleeha Mushtaq, a Class 11 student who moved into her maternal uncle's home to attend classes here as there were none closer to where she lived. Class 10 student Zainab came all the way from Baramulla in North Kashmir after hearing about the school from her uncle.
The primary classes are held at the school building and have a more formal setting with white boards and individual classrooms where students sit in neat rows and columns on the furnished floor. The hallways are full of playful chatter.
For students at the school, “90% of the syllabus has been covered and the rest will be done in a week”, said Khalid Hussain, a volunteer.
While the community schools do their bit to help students, the state of formal education in Kashmir remains in the balance. “Education is the direct casualty” is a statement frequently made in reference to the toll political disturbances take on students here. It started when the Valley plunged into militancy in 1990. Over the years, schools were burnt down by militants or occupied by security forces, and corruption took root.
Mass copying, the use of fraudulent means to pass exams and the intimidation of invigilators by militants was believed to be widespread. Lastly, mass promotions through the early 1990s made way for an entire generation of students known as namath pass (’90s pass).
Decades on, political disturbances are still disrupting school and college routines. They not only cause short-term damage in the form of poor results but also impact the future prospects of students.
Sadaf Munshi, a Kashmiri academic based in the United States, said repeated political disturbances “impact [students’] productivity in using their creative abilities and critical thinking to their full potential. It also puts immense psychological pressure on them, which reflects in the form of increased insecurity about their academic pursuits and their career prospects in a highly competitive world”.
Nasir Mirza, a professor at Kashmir University, said academic delays result in batches exceeding the stipulated time of their courses, which in turn hurts job prospects. “All those prospects are being killed," he said. "It is a difficult and depressing situation.”