Schools in flames

November 5, 2016


LAST week the Principal’s office in JawaharNavodayaVidyala at Aishmuqam went up in flames. The school is located at the foot of a mountain in the middle of a sun-beaten rocky plain. It was previously made for the Geological Survey of India for explorations in Kashmir. Later with the condition turning bad, the buildings were used to host students of the newly conceived Vidyalaya. On almost three sides of the school is an army installation, whose size has only expanded since the armed rebellion began in Kashmir. Like the Elasticnagar in Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown it got new land under its control from which to launch operations. I know the school like the palm of my hand because that is where I had the opportunity to study.

These schools, one in each district, built after the Nehruvian idea of a sylvan setting for schooling of children, away from the noise, hectic and demanding life of the urban areas, remained mostly removed from the disordered conditions of the 1990s. While most of the valley remained under recurrent curfew or shutdown, and civil life had been warped beyond all appearances of normality, the school activities continued to remain largely undisturbed. Occasionally we would witness rockets being fired at the camp and teachers asking us to lie flat on the floor until the cross-fire stopped; or random people being arrested, put in washrooms converted into interrogation centers and their screams reaching our hostel rooms in the dead of night.

We would sometimes see the army men mourning after an encounter and their gun-shot salutes before sending away the dead body of soldiers away to their native places. There is one incident which remains etched in my memory when a teacher of our school, a well-known scholar now, was slapped by an army man in front of his students and the entire school rallied round him. His words ring in my ear even now; “this is not a slap on my face but on the face of the nation.” It was only after some discussion between the school authorities and the army that some degree of calm was restored but the tense underpinning in the relationship never went away. The school main gate was manned by army men and permission to go inside was restricted to students and the parents when the latter came to visit their children on Sundays and other holidays. Since my departure from school its infrastructure has increased and teachers from outside Kashmir are also teaching there. The fire was enough to advise the students to leave for their homes, stopping all academic activities which had been resumed for a few classes just some time ago.

This is not the first time a school has been hit in Kashmir. Some twenty five schools have been either partially or fully burnt, including another JawaharNavodayaVidyalaya in Kulgam. Everyone has condemned the actions of these unidentified people who are out to gut the educational infrastructure. Even the separatist Hurriyat which criticises the government’s use of education as a weapon to delegitimize the uprising also called for action against the miscreants who are burning schools. The “mainstream” political leadership has, for once, joined the chorus of condemnation creating an ironical situation of putting the enemies on the same page. The ersatz condemnations though come with chary caveats; distinctive hints are made that the opponent is handling the incineration of schools. As usual, to the boredom and pointlessness of onlookers here, the leadership in Delhi is seeing a “foreign hand” in the current phenomenon, and connecting the ashes of schools with the Islamism and ISIS and Wahabism. A narrative which easily seeks to draw sympathy for the “victim” democratic India at the hands of the religious extremists. Amid the allegations and accusations, schools remain potential targets and there is no guarantee that more will not be cast to flames.

It will never be easy to find out who is burning the schools. One of the theories I heard is that India like the Russians in Afghanistan and Indonesian in East Timor, will bring down all infrastructure before saying a final goodbye to the “ungrateful” people of Kashmir. No doubt this is far-fetched. The events, especially the spectacular events, happening in the mystery of the night defy easy mechanistic answers. Instead of looking for the accused who are burning the schools to keep them closed and deprive children of the universal right of education, it is more important to understand the context in which these schools are going up in flames. The burning of schools is a symptom and not the disease, it is a consequence and not the cause. The fact is that Kashmir as a whole is burning since July, the eyes of young children have been burnt with pellets, the border is burning with mortar shells and the whole region seems to be sliding into a war cauldron. The crops of people have been burnt and the empty roads are burning with clashes between security agencies and the people. Since nothing has been done to douse the initial flames, the conflagration is just spreading from one area of life to another.

It is fruitless to state the obvious for the umpteenth time. The flames of different varieties can be doused with the water of conversation and dialogue with all the stakeholders. Instead of using the option of dialogue to resolve the problem, what we are witnessing is the constant intensification of war rhetoric which is fuelling more uncertainty and disquiet, more speculations and dangerous rumours.

The aim of the Government right now seems to be to enforce fatigue and weariness on the population by ignoring to listen to a deepening consternation. What is purported to be Track II diplomacy has also been disowned by the BJP led Government. What is left in this situation is darkness for miscreants of unknown colour and shades to play foul. And when you close all doors on dialogue you cannot blame the miscreants to operate on their own terms and conditions, and at a time and place of their choice. In the absence of a tangible dialogue there is every reason to believe that space is open for all kinds of activities which put Kashmir and the whole region on the cliff of uncertainty.

—Courtesy: GK

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