In Kashmir, class divide pushes underprivileged students behind amid COVID-19

Other than the digital divide between mainland India and Kashmiris, the move to digital mode has also deepened the existing class divide in Kashmir’s society.

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When Nazir Gillo, a high school teacher, handed out term examination papers at a government-run school in Srinagar this August, he knew that hundreds of thousands of students had been away from classrooms for nearly a year. Hence, the syllabus was slashed and the paper was “very easy”, he said. 

For instance, a passage in the paper mentioned Mahatma Gandhi’s travel to London and asked: when did Gandhi travel to London? But to Mr. Gillo’s shock, many students still failed in the “basic paper”. 

“They were totally, entirely, out of touch from studies,” he said of the nearly twenty students, coming from economically disadvantaged families, in his class. “A poor student — who has no gadgets, no access to schools or teachers, and has no resources available at home — would do in the exam?”

Educational institutions in Kashmir have been shut since before the pandemic hit Kashmir, on 5 August 2019 when New Delhi abrogated the semi-autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir (J-K). As the pandemic continues, the prospects of a safe resumption of academics as usual seems bleak. As such, the world has moved onto the online mode. In India, students from two different political geographies, browsed two parallel internets: one without restrictions in the mainland, and the other restricted-speed and surveillance-marred one in Kashmir. 

But other than the digital divide between mainland India and Kashmiris, the move to digital mode has also deepened the existing class divide in Kashmir’s society. Seven of the about twenty students in Mr. Gillo’s class do not have the resources to access internet based education, he said. “The rest rely on their parents’ phones,” he said. “If the parents are out of home on work, they can’t study.”

A fight against the narrative

Abid Rashid, a student at the government-run high school in south Kashmir’s Pulwama, doesn’t own a smartphone, he said with disappointment, neither do his parents. The only gadget to access e-learning is his elder brother’s smartphone. “But when he is out,” said Abid, “I use someone else’s phone in the neighbourhood.” 

Mr. Rashid, who is a resident of Kellar village in south Kashmir’s Pulwama, has long faced a gaze of privileged people, he said. And therefore, he had made education a tool “to fight the narrative that we were backward”. “Education allows us to compete on the same level as privileged people,” he added. 

You can’t put people down every time. A very dangerous situation can arise. If you deprive people for too long, either you crush them or they will rise up in an undesirable way.

But in these exceptional circumstances across the world, “all the students are continuing their learning and we aren’t able to,” sighed Mr. Rashid. “It will impact us adversely.”

In J-K, the literacy rate drops in rural areas as compared to urban from 77.12 per cent  to 63.18 per cent; while, J-K’s 72.62 per cent of the population resides in rural areas. For many of these students, education was a tool to overcome the class discrimination faced over many years; but this deepening class divide has pushed a large chunk of people — who come from a less-privileged class — behind in the run-up.

Neerja Mattoo, an educationist and a retired principal of a government-run college, had no doubt that the online mode of education has put under-privileged students “at a great disadvantage”.

“It is deeping an already existing class divide between students,” said Ms. Mattoo. However, is it not just e-learning and lack of relevant resources that have made the education inaccessible to the under-priviledged class — with COVID-19 lockdown, the economies have plunged. And Kashmir was already ailing with a year-long lockdown leading to loss in thousands of jobs across various organised and unorganised sectors. 

In August 2020, The Kashmir Walla reported that economic crises have been pushing teenagers out of school – forcing them to manual labor and other means to earn money. Since last year, the number of students in government elementary schools in J-K dropped by 1.75 lakh; the scale was similar in secondary and high school too.

In Kashmir, the government and private school rolls sums up to nearly 9 lakh students — out of them, at least 50,000 students left school mid-way due to various reasons.

According to the New Education Policy 2020, the latest national data of school dropouts reveals that the Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) for 6-8 standards was 90.7 per cent; it dips as one moves up in the classes to 79.3 percent in 9-10 standards and 51.3 percent in 11-12 standards.

Mass promotion is not an option and the exams are here. Whatever syllabus we have completed was in a hurry. It will make things more difficult in our future.

In Mr. Gillo’s class, at least two students didn’t return for the term examinations held in August 2020 after the year-long gap. “We are also losing students. … the parents were already suffering from the economic crisis. The blame is on poverty,” he said. “We don’t have [the dropped out students’] addresses. I can’t even go to their houses.”

“Very dangerous situation can arise”

In Kashmir, even after a student fights off internal divides, the larger impact of internet restrictions remain an undeniable reality for Areesha Malik, a tenth standard student of a private school in the Pulwama town.

When her school moved to online education, she said, many of her classmates had to buy smartphones. “It has created a divide among us (students) as it gets more difficult for [students without means to afford smartphones],” she said. “Almost all the class studies on 2G, including the teacher who gives the lecture, it is very disruptive.” 

Areesha, who owns a Samsung smartphone and a wifi connection at home, too, is struggling to study. By the end of this year, Ms. Malik will have to sit for the most decisive examination of her life so far: the tenth board, she said. “I’ve not been to school in the past fourteen months for more than ten days,” she said. “Mass promotion is not an option and the exams are here. Whatever syllabus we have completed was in a hurry. It will make things more difficult in our future.”

But the Jammu and Kashmir Board of School Education (JKBOSE) is aware of these issues. Its chairperson, Veena Pandita, takes pride in the education department’s efforts to reach out to students amid the novel crisis. “To meet the challenge posed by COVID-19, the education department didn’t leave any stone unturned to reach the students in rural areas via radio, video, and community classes in the farthest areas,” she said. 

However, she didn’t deny the existence of the divide between the students: “When it comes to technology, there is a bit of divide. We cannot say it is about rural or urban education …  but a divide between a class of people who don’t have access to [gadgets] and one who has that.”

The absence of education from the lives of these students have created a void of knowledge — but it won’t impact their results, believe Ms. Pandita. “Kashmiris have learnt to excel even in these situations… they have transformed the adversity into challenges.”

Ms. Mattoo, too, believes in the “resilience of the students” in Kashmir — but in a different context. She states that if the structure of education delivery remains the same, it will further deepen the divide. “You can’t put people down every time. A very dangerous situation can arise,” she claimed, “if you deprive people for too long, either you crush them or they will rise up in an undesirable way.”

The story originally appeared in our 12-18 October 2020 print edition.

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