No one quite knows how the fire at the government school for girls in Srinagar’s Goripura neighbourhood started on Monday evening. Residents said dry grass at a nearby graveyard had been set ablaze an hour before the school went up in flames. However, they did not know who set the grass or the school on fire. A few children claimed to have seen two individuals circling the school building moments before the fire but could provide few other details.
By the end of the day, one of the three buildings on campus had suffered massive damage. Countless half-burnt pages of textbooks lay scattered at its entrance while in a room inside, next to the library, the furniture had been reduced to a heap of charred wood. Children from the neighbourhood scoured the rubble for anything of value that may have survived the blaze.
Another building, untouched by the fire, was covered in graffitti and slogans in favour of Burhan Wani – the militant whose killing by security forces on July 8 plunged Kashmir into a cycle of violence and protests – and azadi. There were also threats: “If the school is opened, we will burn it down.”
Yet, the school – which educates over 200 students from financially weak families – had remained open for the last three months. However, students had stayed away, and had started to return to class only in the last few weeks.
Outside, teachers conversed among themselves. A few young men gathered around and neighbourhood boys made a racket.
23 schools in 3 months
The same day, two other schools were set ablaze elsewhere in the Valley.
In the last three months, at least 23 schools – 20 of them government-run, two private and one Jawahar Navodaya Vidyayala – in Kashmir have reported fires, suspected to be the work of arsonists. According to official records, 10 of these were fully damaged and the remaining 13 partially damaged.
In the latest such incident, a government primary school in North Kashmir's Baramulla district was gutted in a fire on Wednesday night.
Education Minister Naeem Akhtar called the incidents unexpected, saying the state government had worked hard over the past year to instil a sense of collective ownership among people. “If it was possible to post security for 20,000 schools, I would gladly do that,” he said. “This is people’s property and society has to rise up to the challenge.”
Aijaz Ahmad Bhat, director of school education in the state, said the damage assessment was still on but added that “losses are not high as only seven schools are fully damaged. The rest are partially damaged as only some doors and windows were burnt down”.
However, the 5,000-odd students who attend these schools would probably feel differently. According to education department officials, the targeted schools cater mostly to children from economically weaker sections. Many of them are also the only educational institutes in their respective areas.
South Kashmir hit hard
Half of the schools that were set on fire are in South Kashmir – which saw some of the most violent protests in the past months.
Within South Kashmir, Kulgam reported fires at six schools, including at the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya on September 7. One of the institutes was robbed before being set ablaze. The area’s chief education officer, Rouf Shahmiri, said “computers seem to have been the focus of the miscreants”.
On September 10, a fire at a high school in Anantnag district gutted seven of its 10 rooms, partially damaging the rest. This is the only high school in the area and has 108 students on its rolls.
Residents pinned the blame on security forces, alleging that teargas cannisters used by them to disperse a mob had started the fire.
Senior Superintendent of Police Zubair Khan, however, rejected the claim, saying, “Tear smoke shells have only gas, they don’t have the substance to cause fires.”
The police said the fire was started by miscreants.
On September 19, another school in Anantnag, the Waqf board-run 113-year-old Islamia Hanfia School, was also burnt down. Khan said investigations were on in both cases.
The same day, a middle school in Shopian was set ablaze, despite the fact that it had remained shut during the period of unrest, said chief education officer Mohammad Sadiq. Teachers and students had come to the school earlier that day to complete student registration formalities, and the fire was reported in the evening.
As the unrest in Kashmir that claimed 86 lives wanes, businesses are gradually resuming, transport is picking up and people are getting back to their routines. But for schools, the threat remains as strong as ever.
Adding to students’ woes, the state government has announced board examinations for Class 10 and Class 12 in November.