In Kashmir, a new timetable

IOK - Indian Occupied Kashmir Jammu & Kashmir

The dust kicked up on the football field, the ceaseless chatter in the corridor during recess, new friendships over shared notes and tiffin — children are back in Kashmir’s schools, which have clocked over 200 working days, rare for a region wracked by over three decades of public protests and shutdowns. Naveed Iqbal & Bashaarat Masood on what’s becoming a new normal

Ayesha Ahmad has Severus Snape to thank in some measure. Shy and awkward in her new school, the 17-year-old Class 11 student of Srinagar’s Delhi Public School dressed up as the anti-hero from her favourite Harry Potter series for ‘Character Day’ on October 28 this year. She chose a “simple, DIY look” — an overcoat to go with a long, black dress. “It was a socialising event. We had no classes and we discussed books and characters all day, so it did help break the ice somewhat,” she says.

After three years of online classes, Ayesha joined the school in March this year. “I was in a girls’ convent until Class 10 and moved this year to a co-ed school. I am an introvert and I had a lot of anxiety also because I hadn’t walked into a school building in such a long time, hadn’t met and interacted with so many people,” she says, sitting on a small bench under the winter sun at her school.

For the first time in several years, Kashmir’s children have clocked a happy record, doing what they should be doing anyway — going to school. So far this 2022-23 academic session, most schools in the Valley have registered over 200 working days. Ayesha’s school, for instance, recorded 210.

It’s a cautious start for a region wracked by over three decades of massive public protests, separatist shutdown calls and government curfews. With schools often the first casualties of any such disruption, Kashmir’s children have spent long stints away from the company of friends, books and teachers.

Officials in the Education Department say that while on paper, there have been other years that have recorded around 200 working days, including in 2014, these were simply because teachers and other school staff would keep the school open and mark their attendance even if children stayed away.

But this time, it’s different — the children are in school.

In the summer of 2010, as Kashmir plunged into turmoil amid a cycle of deaths and calls for shutdown, the Srinagar DPS faced a conundrum. The school’s 180 Class 12 students had lost more than five months of classes and the Board exams were worryingly close. “That year, the school had less than 100 working days. Five months were wiped off the academic calendar,” says Vijay Dhar, entrepreneur and chairman of the school.

Dhar arranged for the Class 12 students as well as teachers and support staff to be taken to DPS Society’s Human Resource Development Centre at Dwarka in Delhi. “At first, we secured less than 60 consent letters from the parents of the students. Then a politician made some noise about us taking the children out of Kashmir. Despite that, the parents trusted us with their children and we left the city with 130 of them and the teachers. We threw everything on a bus — blackboards, books and ourselves and left for Delhi,” he says.

That year, the school scored a 100 per cent pass percentage.

While the Valley’s schools have witnessed frequent disruptions since the 1990s, when militancy first erupted in the region, 2010 was one of the worst years as schools shut for more than five months after massive street protests broke out in June over the Machil fake encounter case. This was followed by a tense standoff with the Omar Abdullah-led National Conference government that resulted in the death of over 110 civilians.

By 2013, militancy had started to ebb and there were few takers for shutdown calls by separatists. Schools stayed open for the first part of 2014, but on September 7 that year, massive floods hit the Valley, throwing Srinagar and large parts of the region out of gear. The schools shut again — in some parts of Srinagar, for over three months.

Back-to-school has come with its own set of challenges as teachers realised they had to deal with years of pent-up stress and aggression among children.

The following year, 2015, witnessed the rise of a curious phenomenon. Burhan Wani, the young militant commander of Hizbul Mujahideen, openly took to social media to rally for support and, in a shot span of time, ended up giving a renewed thrust to militancy in Kashmir. Gunfights between militants and the armed forces were back and so were shutdown calls by separatists. Schools, as always, witnessed intermittent shutdowns.

When Wani was killed in July 2016, Kashmir erupted once again. This time, several young school going boys descended on the streets, clashing with the police, paramilitary forces and the Army. In less than a month, several youths were killed and many more injured, among them school children. Schools were shut again, this time for over five months.

Over the next two years, there were more shutdowns and disruptions. Then came August 5, 2019, when the Centre abrogated Jammu and Kashmir’s special status.

That was the last time the Valley’s children attended school until the start of the current session in March this year. A security and communication clampdown following the Centre’s move meant that children had to stay at home. The shutdown was extended for many months as the Valley observed a spontaneous lockdown in protest against the Centre’s move.

Just as the Valley’s schools hoped to reopen in March, following the three-month-long winter vacations, came more disruptions in the form of two successive waves of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Schools shrunk into smartphones and classrooms moved into virtual spaces.

In the face of every such adversity — in 2010, 2014, 2016 and 2019 — Kashmir’s schools have found their own ways to cope. Community schools sprung up in several neighbourhoods, where volunteers and older students taught younger children and ensured they were up to speed with the syllabus.

Now, despite another severe winter spell, with minimum temperatures dropping to nearly minus four degrees Celsius, the children are back in schools — sitting through lectures, some fun, others mind-numbingly boring, kicking the football around during recess, sharing notes, sticking to old friends and making new ones, dealing with breakups and breakdowns.

While the junior classes closed for the winter break on December 1, the senior classes stayed open until December 17.

Acknowledging the gains made this session, especially with the 200-plus working days, Secretary Education Alok Kumar told The Sunday Express, “Yes, it (longer academic session) has helped us to complete the syllabus and we have encouraged students to take part in curricular and co-curricular activities, which are part of the NEP (National Education Policy). We are also giving them vocational training to increase their employability.”

On the department’s plan to bridge the learning gaps that would have arisen from the prolonged disruption, Kumar said, “We have had regular remedial classes. Teachers have been asked to remain available to students on the phone so that they can connect if they have any questions or doubts. As far as how successful we have been in bridging the gap, we can assess that only after the exams in March.”

In October, the J&K administration also changed the November-November academic calendar of the Valley to March-March to align it with Jammu’s schedule.

“This is new for me — going to school without a break,” smiles Midhat Amin, 15, a student of a government school in Sopore, north Kashmir. “I think this is the first time, at least in my life, that schools have remained open for so long. It’s just so special.”

Her father Mohammad Amin, a teacher himself, joins in. “Over the last two years, we noticed changes in Midhat’s behaviour. She seemed withdrawn, would snap and get worked up over small issues. But all that has changed now that she is back to school,” he says, as the father and daughter exchange smiles.

“We have never left anything to chance when it comes to her education. Even when schools were closed, we ensured she got the best education at home. But you can’t replace school with anything else. There are some things that can only be learnt in school,” he says.

Minutes after his school’s dispersal time, Ahtisham Gulzar, 16, and his friends are at the Regal Chowk bus stop in Srinagar. As they wait for a bus to take them home, the Class 10 student says, “We were away from school for three years and I was dying to be among friends. I had lost contact with many of my classmates and teachers. All I wanted was to return to school and play and crack jokes with friends… like we always did. It was during the last three years that I realised what I was missing out by not being in a classroom,” says Ahtisham.

At the Srinagar DPS, sitting on colourful plastic chairs in the junior wing of the school, by a large window that’s streaming in the winter sun, Class 11 students Anusha Iram Javed, Zaira Bashir and a few others say they are glad to be back on campus.

“The 2019 lockdown was the worst because we had no way to communicate. We were completely isolated. There was nothing to do,” says Anusha. With their Class 10 results delayed due to the Covid lockdown, their teachers are in a rush to meet syllabus deadlines.

Describing her first day in school at the start of the new session, Zaira says, “There was a certain anxiety about seeing everyone again. Our sections had been shuffled when we were in Class 9 so we didn’t know each other. We had only seen each other in online classes so when we met at the start of the session, we spent a lot of time trying to put names to faces. So a lot of the first day was about: ‘Are you this person?”

The girls speak of how they had all returned as awkward, self-conscious teens. “There were some in our class who would not take their masks off and were unsure about approaching others. I still wear a mask. But gradually, as people started helping each other, we became comfortable with each other,” says Zaira, turning around to look at her classmates. “They would come up to me and speak… that helped me regain my confidence,” she says.

“Formal schooling is always a different experience,” says Inayat Bashir, 18, a Class 12 student from Srinagar’s Shalteng neighbourhood. “School is not just about education; it is about exposure, it is about meeting friends every day, taking part in sports and other co-curricular activities. We don’t get to do these things in community or informal schooling. When you wear the uniform in the morning, it’s special.”

Mudasir Ahmad, a lecturer at the Government Higher Secondary School at Sheeri in the border town of Uri in Baramulla, says the uninterrupted schooling session has been a great help to the teachers as well. “After a long time, we managed to complete our syllabus. The longer academic session this year has helped, too. In the past, teachers would be short of their syllabus by at least 30 per cent. This time, we have completed around 90 per cent of our syllabus,” he says.

Back-to-school has come with its own set of challenges as teachers realised they had to deal with years of pent-up stress and aggression among children.

“They have been home for over three years, during which they have rarely interacted with people their age. Even the adults at home have had their issues to tackle. So the first thing we had to do was recognise their individual needs and find methodologies to address them. The school has four counsellors and with their help, the first few classes were conducted as group discussions. Once we recognised aggression as a major factor, we also involved the parents,” says principal Shafaq Afshan.

Another issue that drew the school’s attention were instances of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) among students. Apart from the professionals on campus, the school decided that they had to find a way to channel the energies of students in a “constructive manner”. The school ensured 100 per cent enrolment for all co-curricular activities — Sports Day, Annual Day and Character Day, where the students were encouraged to dress up as a character from one of their favourite books.

For Character Day, Zaira dressed up as Sophie Foster from The Keeper of the Lost Cities. “I am no longer anxious about meeting new people now. Being with friends helped me regain my confidence. I now feel like Sophie Foster — fierce and brave,” she says.

School Shutdowns

2008: Schools remained shut for almost three months as the Valley witnessed violent street protests over land allotment to the Amarnath Shrine Board.

2010: Schools remained shut for over five months as the Machil fake encounter triggered street protests and clashes in which over 110 civilians were killed.

2014: Schools remained shut for up to three months as floods submerged Kashmir, especially Srinagar city.

2016: Schools remained shut for five months as the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani triggered massive protests across Kashmir. Eighty nine civilians were killed and over 11,000 were injured, many of them school children.

2019: Schools remained shut for over five months as the Centre abrogated Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and imposed curfew across the Valley. The curfew was followed by a spontaneous shutdown for several months.

2020, 2021: Schools stayed open for only two weeks as the Covid-19 pandemic forced closure of schools across India. __The Indian Express