Anxious and Cooped Up, 1.5 Million Kashmiri Children Are Still Out of School

kashmir

With soldiers and militants claiming the streets, and most schools simply shuttered, education has been on hold through months of crisis in Kashmir.

By Sameer
hasir, Jeffre Gettleman

KAPRAN,
Kashmir  Every day, Aliya Khan, a
fifth-grader in Kashmir, steps out of her house and walks down a dirt lane
lined by tall maple trees to check on what’s happening at her school.

And every
day, a few minutes later, she walks back to her house with her head hanging
down, totally dejected. It has been nearly three months, and no one knows when
her school, like so many others in Kashmir, will reopen.

“I’ve told
you, the school is shut,” her mother, Rubeena Khan, scolded her the other day
as Aliya walked inside. “Why do you keep going to look?”

Thirteen
weeks after India unilaterally revoked Kashmir’s autonomy, education stands as
one of the crisis’s most glaring casualties.

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At least
1.5 million Kashmiri students remain out of school. Virtually all private
schools are closed, and most government schools are shut  one of the clearest signs of the fear that
has gripped Kashmir since the Indian government locked down the disputed
territory and separatist militants began carrying out attacks to disrupt its
control.

The Indian
government wants students to return, and teachers at the few open schools are
reporting for duty. But their students are not: Officials estimate attendance
at those schools to be around three percent.

Parents in
the Kashmir Valley say they are terrified of sending their children out with
troops everywhere and separatist militants on the prowl for trouble. The
militants are demanding that civilians boycott work and school, and they have
killed several people to assert their resistance to tightening Indian rule.

This week,
militants dragged construction workers onto the street and shot them, witnesses
said, leaving five dead and one wounded. It was the deadliest single attack on
civilians since Kashmir’s autonomy was stripped.

“What if
the school or a bus carrying children is attacked?” asked Saqib Mushtaq Bhat, a
father worried about violence by Indian troops or militants. “What if there are
protests and their faces get shot by pellets?”

He would
never forgive himself, he said, so he keeps his three children home.

The result
is fear, bewilderment, sullenness and boredom. Some of the older students worry
that their dreams of becoming professionals were ruined. And many children said
they were lonely and depressed, relegated to watching television for hours a
day.

“There’s
nothing else to do,” said Reyan Sofi, a fourth grader.

The dispute
between India and Pakistan over Kashmir has smoldered for decades, at times
flaring into major disruption to life in the valley.

This
generation of Kashmiri children has been among the hardest hit. They have known
nothing but conflict. For the past 10 years, huge protests and clashes keep
erupting. Many young people have seen friends killed, maimed or hauled off by
security forces. Their schools are constantly closing, sometimes for months at
a time.

“The long
school closures in the valley are causing major disruptions in young people’s
educational and professional development, producing feelings of insecurity,
helplessness, and demoralization,” said Haley Duschinski, an anthropologist at
Ohio University specializing in Kashmir.

This latest
round of trouble has felt particularly ominous, many Kashmiris say.

The Indian
government’s move in August to strip statehood away from Jammu and Kashmir
became official on Thursday, turning what was once an Indian state into
federally controlled enclaves. People are angry and scared that India’s move
could lead to another war with Pakistan, which also claims the area, or to
pitched combat with an intensifying militant movement. No one knows what will
happen next.

Indian-backed
officials insist it is now safe for children to go to school, and blame parents
for not sending them back.

“It’s a big
loss,” said Younis Malik, Kashmir’s director of school education.

But many
here blame the government for creating this crisis and say that officials are
not serious about guaranteeing the children’s safety or resuming education.

The
children, meanwhile, are desperate to get out of the house and go back to
school. They want to see their friends. They want to learn new things. They
know their futures depend on it.

“You should
either burn my books and my uniform or send me to school,” Reyan, the fourth
grader, grumbled to his father on a recent day as they sat in their house in
Baramulla, a town in northern Kashmir.

His father,
Pervaiz Ahmad Sofi, a forestry professor, threw open a window and pointed
toward a group of soldiers in riot gear, stationed just outside their house,
guarding a highway.

“Now tell
me, do you still want to go to school?” he said. Reyan looked down and walked
away, back to the TV.

Indian
schools are intensely competitive. Mehak Javid Bhat, an 18-year-old, was
preparing for medical school when her high school shut. With just four months
to go before her make-or-break exam, she can’t compare study notes with her
friends because none of their phones work. She can’t get on the internet to
look things up she doesn’t understand. She can’t get in touch with her
teachers.

“My dream
of becoming a doctor is ruined,” she said. “Sometimes I wonder why was I even
born here.”

Her father,
Javid Ahmad Bhat, feels helpless. He had been tucking away a little money from
his apple orchards each year to help pay for medical school.

“It’s like
my 10 years of savings are being destroyed every day when I see her suffer,” he
said.

“You need a
guide, a teacher and a friend  but she
has none these days to solve her problems,” he said.

Some
Kashmiri educators refuse to give up. Mufeed Ahmad Malik, a high school
physical education teacher, walks through villages in south Kashmir like a
letter carrier, delivering homework assignments door to door.

“Read it
and prepare yourself,” Mr. Malik repeated at each door, his shoulder bag
bulging with papers. “And come to school on the day of the exam.”

The nearby
government school, where he teaches, keeps its gates shut. The teachers arrive
in the morning and sit in a courtyard savoring the fading sun  winter is on its way.

Some have
taken up knitting, and as they talk about the situation and how it affects
their lives, they make woolen sweaters. Then they leave in different directions
to deliver homework. They were not confident that many children would show up
for exams.

Mr. Malik
fears that if the schools don’t reopen soon, some children will go down the
wrong path. In southern Kashmir, many boys revere the militants. They have
grown up playing games in which they dress up as militants or Indian soldiers,
hiding behind apple trees, firing wooden guns at each other.

“If they
don’t even sit for exams,” Mr. Malik said of his male students, “they will end
up becoming militants.”

The
security forces already assume that is happening, focusing their suspicions
intensely on teen boys or young men. Many have been jailed, at times hauled off
without process or explanation, and that number is only increasing.

Other young
people are being put to work, like Musaib Amin, 15, who now helps his
grandmother in the fields, picking tomatoes. In August, one young man who
should have been in college (colleges and universities are empty, too) died
after he was bit by a snake while herding sheep. His bite was treatable. But
his family could not call an ambulance or find the antivenin.

Aliya, the
fifth grader who keeps checking on her school, hasn’t given up hope. The other
day, she opened her closet and stared at her white and gray uniform. It remains
crisply ironed, untouched since August.

“I miss
wearing it,” she said.

She ran
outside to play in the yard, by herself.

Sameer
Yasir reported from Kapran, Kashmir, and Jeffrey Gettleman from New Delhi.
Iqbal Kirmani contributed reporting from Srinagar, Kashmir.

(Source:  The New York Times)

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