When Zeeshan Basheer, then 18, qualified twelfth grade in 2016 with commerce subjects – he was driven by passion, aspirations, and confidence. The success of a small-town boy from Lethpora, Pulwama – who would graduate in business administration – would have made a great story in the neighbourhood.

Today, four years down the line – unlike anything he had thought – he is giving up on education – calling it a quit. “I am done with this,” he says in a cracking voice, frustratingly. “Earlier, it was 2016 shutdown and now it is the clampdown. I just don’t want to study anymore.”

On 5 August 2019, the Central government stripped Jammu and Kashmir’s (J-K) semi-autonomous governing status; in response, the months-long restrictions-turned-shutdown wasted the academic year and delayed the degrees of hundreds of students like Mr. Basheer.

When the country is going through the worst unemployment phase in the last forty-five years, including J-K – higher education taking a backseat pushes the youth of Kashmir to the wall.

As per data available in the report, Unemployment in India, by Centre of Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), the national average for the unemployment rate among male remained 5.6 per cent, whereas it stood at 9.4 per cent for J-K.

Sidiq Wahid, who has a Ph.D. in History from Harvard University and is an ex-Vice Chancellor at Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST), calls it an “important issue”. “To not distribute degrees in time is to deny them their right to being rewarded for their hard work,” he notices. “It reduces their confidence and thereby pushes them at a disadvantage in a competitive job market.”

If one thinks how the youth in Kashmir copes up with irregular and uncertain nature of education, and functioning of educational institutes, then most of them unanimously say, “We are used to it.”

“Sitting at home – absolutely nothing to do”

In April 2016, while enrolling in IUST, Awantipora, Mr. Basheer had dreamt of finishing his degree in Bachelor in Business Administration (BBA), by April 2019. Though, when the government forces killed a popular militant commander, Burhan Wani, in July 2016 – Kashmir witnessed a civilian uprising and months-long shutdown; stretching Mr. Basheer’s first semester for a year.

For the next couple of years, Kashmir passed through its own kind of phase – relatively calm. It includes non-rhythmic protests in sync with normal life routine and Mr. Basheer went on with his studies.

In January 2019 – six months away from earning a degree in the time he signed up for – Mr. Basheer and his batch-mates reached out to the university administration, making sure they will earn the degree in time. Following the university’s assurance, Mr. Basheer appeared in Common Management Admission Test (CMAT) 2019; he scored 150 out of 400, which would have possibly landed him a seat in University of Kashmir (KU).

“I wanted to join a masters course in Marketing and Human Resource,” he says. “But, neither my university [IUST] stood by its words nor I could pursue my education.”

He lost an academic opportunity and by July 2019, he had only enrolled in the fifth semester of his course.

On 4 August 2019, he was at a filling-station nearby his neighbourhood in Lethpora to secure fuel. “I had heard the rumors and from my experience of 2016 [civilian uprising], I knew that this time – whatever happens – consequence will be prolonged,” he says. “Here, my future, as well as of Kashmir’s, is uncertain.”

Since then, he is sitting at his home doing nothing. “We had no classes at the university and no internet facility anywhere,” he says. “I didn’t study anything for the last five months.”

After finding no institutional support, he studied on his own and appeared in the examination for the fifth semester in November 2019 and sixth semester in December 2019. He is pissed that neither has he learnt anything nor he could complete his degree on time. Currently, he has no idea of the whereabouts of his results.

However, when the college of Zenaira Baksh offered the students that – due to the developments after August 2019 – the evaluation of both semesters of final years would be held in consecutive weeks, she was happy. She wanted her degree to be over.

“But, they [University administration] are not doing it,” she says. “We are sitting at home with absolutely nothing to do and it takes a toll on my mental health.”

After finishing her high school, she had shifted from medical science to humanities for bachelors in 2017 – “to explore and for better exposure.” Aiming to become a broadcast journalist, Ms. Baksh, 22, had enrolled in Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Mass Communication in Women’s College, Srinagar – under Cluster University, Kashmir.

A couple of months prior to August 2019, she had started attending fifth semester classes. Before she could meld in, on 3 August, the college announced summer vacations; then, 5 August happened.

Her initial response to the development was fear for her classes, career, and degree. Being a Kashmiri, she says, she could read the nature of the situation. “Look, that’s what happened.”

“I went on summer vacation – today, I’m at home for winter vacation,” she says. “It has been winter from summer – I have not attended my college.”

If the university had continued as per schedule, Ms. Baksh should have been preparing for her sixth semester examinations. Noticing the university running late on schedule, Ms. Baksh, with her batch-mates, reached out to their Head of Department (HoD).

“We begged [the] HoD to conduct our examinations,” Ms. Baksh says. To do something in her career, she believes that she needs to do an internship – right now. “I wanted to go outside Kashmir for better opportunities in broadcast journalism,” she says. Now, she is stuck here – owing to uncertain schedule of examinations, she says she cannot move ahead with her life.

Though, last week, Ms. Baksh appeared in one of her papers for fifth semester – however, still no word on the examinations of sixth semester.

Lack of student representation: absence of elected student bodies

Since Ms. Baksh is studying in a government college, she believes that the government couldn’t care any lesser. “I feel there is a huge lack of our representation,” she says, addressing the absence of any student body in the government colleges. “At top, we can reach out to the HoD in personal capacity but they express helplessness.”

Students feel absence of a student body. After making several rounds to administration office in several pockets during government imposed restrictions, Waseem Mushtaq, 22, understood the need of a student body. “Taking your voice ahead in an organised manner builds more pressure and makes a difference,” he says. “In individualism, there is no consistency.”

There are no official students’ bodies in educational institutes operating around Kashmir Valley. Nasir Khuehami, spokesperson of J-K Student Association (JKSA) – a student body which operates with help of volunteers across the country, but not in Kashmir – calls an elected student body in Kashmir “a need of the hour.”

“Why don’t students in Kashmir have the same rights as other students across the country?” he wonders. “If you call it an integral part, then give the equal rights.”

Mr. Khuehami agrees to Mr. Mushtaq’s claim of inconsistency in individualism’. “At most, a student can either go alone or in a group – but, a student body can take their voice forward.”

Dr. Wahid, too, thinks of student unions and councils not just as a need, but “a necessity and [a] critical part of higher education. “The banning of the bodies has deeply damaged the students’ ability to articulate grievances, debate issues, and protest [against] inaction on the part of the authorities,” he explains, “the absence of these bodies is the beginning of discrimination for young adults.”

Mr. Mushtaq believes his rough journey with higher education would have been much easier in the presence of an elected student body. After completing his high school in 2015, he says KU couldn’t take entrance examinations in August 2016 due to the on-going civilian uprising.

It was only after losing one academic year, when in February 2017, he could enrol in KU for an integrated course – Bachelor in Arts, LLB. By December 2019, he should have been done with six semesters of his course – currently, he is about one and a half year backward in the run.

“When I joined the course, I was very optimistic. Becoming a lawyer was my childhood dream,” says Mr. Mushtaq. “Now, when my degree has been delayed and I saw lawlessness around me in Kashmir, I feel disappointed.”

Recalling the semesters – wondering of ifs and buts – he loses the track and forgets the count. His narration cracks and voice fumbles; he sounds frustrated and fatigued. “It has affected my mental health,” he replies.

Mr. Mushtaq’s understanding of Kashmir convinces him that in a “conflict-zone, education suffers.” Now his focus is not on studies, he says, but on earning degree at soonest. If today he isn’t learning but just clearing exams – by hook or crook – he understands that he will lack in knowledge tomorrow. “It will have a long term impact on my career,” he says.

“Loss of a student is loss of a nation. India is neglecting our future,” he believes. “I don’t understand why India claims us as their integral part?”

He does not look up to the government with any hope. Anyone who believes in the government’s words is a fool, he believes. “Is there any justice for the time I lost?” he wonders. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

This year, 35,454 students qualified their high school and most of them would be heading out for colleges. Not long ago, Mr. Mushtaq, Ms. Baksh, and Mr. Basheer were in the shoes of these students.

The contemporary educational construct and the government’s way of dealing with the issues have thrown thousands of young students in troubled waters; Ms. Baksh cannot make sense of either applying for masters or going for an internship; Mr. Basheer has given up on his dreams of higher education and is thinking of establishing a business “not dependent on the uncertain situation for survival”; Mr. Mushtaq will complete his five years degree in six-and-a-half-year, only if the next rumour doesn’t turn out to be true.

Cover Photograph by Bhat Burhan for The Kashmir Walla.

Yashraj Sharma is a Features Writer at The Kashmir Walla.

The story appeared in our 3-9 February 2020 print edition.

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