Kashmir educatoin, kashmir rural education, education in Kashmir
Mubeena Bano shows the bag of her son, Muneeb, who dropped out of school to support the family. Photograph by Umer Asif for The Kashmir Walla.

Mubeena Bano’s living room smelt of raw tobacco and the fragrance of mud-plastered walls. In a corner of the dimly lit room, her 16-year-old son’s school bag, covered in dust, and a pink earthen piggy bank besides other household items rested on a dull-colored cupboard.

Ms. Bano is particularly proud of the piggy bank that her son, Muneeb Bhat, brought for her a couple of weeks ago, she couldn’t resist the urge to boast about it. Come winter, her son had told her as he deposited a 500 Rupees note in it, “no one will give us money, this money shall save us then.”

On the brink of a breakdown, Ms. Bano hid her anxiety behind a nervous laugh: “shoor khayal (immaturity)”. Barely a kilometer away from their home in Chak Badri, a hamlet near Drabgam village in south Kashmir, in a cold water stream that passes through the hamlet nestled in the midst of dense orchards, Muneeb loaded sand in a tractor. 

The job paid him not more than a mere 250 rupees a day but it was sufficient to put food on the table for the family of five. For his family, said Muneeb, he had to drop out of school. “Padhai mai to mazza aata tha (I was content in [continuing studying]),” he said. “But nobody helped us [financially].”

It was never all roses for the Bhat family, Ms. Bano said. The hard-earned labor of her husband, Mohammad Aslam Bhat, secured the family financially and ensured that their three children — two sons and a daughter — attended school, until August 2019. 

A patient of hypertension and depression, the senior Mr. Bhat has been on medication since 2014. Sometimes relying on help from a psychiatrist in Pulwama, the nearest town. But when the Government of India clamped down in Kashmir, as it unilaterally revoked the region’s semi-autonomy in August 2019, the assistance halted, and as a result, the Bhat family struggled to keep up with Mr. Bhat’s medication cost. The family drained out of money.

“He [Mr. Bhat] couldn’t keep his mind calm,” said Ms. Bano, as she sat next to him in an orchard, “and consumed pesticides to commit suicide.”

Mr. Bhat survived but has been mentally disturbed since. Simultaneously, Ms. Bano’s life has been restricted to keeping an eye on him; there are nights when he would sneak out in the forest in the middle of the night; he walked to another village or skipped his food as he smoked tobacco from a hookah.

While Muneeb, who sat next to his father for eight days straight in a Srinagar hospital when he was hospitalised after consuming the pesticides, had made his mind: “I’ll leave studies and work as a laborer,” he had told his mother back then. Ms. Bano recalled her spontaneous response: “You are a child! How can you even do it? Go to school.” 

But Muneeb has remained adamant. He dropped out of school after the episode with his father and since then does not intend to, bound by his compulsion, go back to school again.

Aadil Yaseen, a 32-year-old government teacher posted in the Drabgram village who taught Muneeb, was disheartened by this. Dropping out of school was “very common in rural areas”, he said and added that he has tried bringing children back to the schools in the past.

Mr. Yaseen, a teacher since 2006, said that he would do anything “to convince the parents to send their children to school.” He went the extra mile every now and then, sometimes he has left his house at dawn to meet parents of children who drop out of school, in far off villages to donate rice. 

This phenomenon is not exclusive to Drabgam village, or to south Kashmir. At least 37 per cent students of elementary level and 50 per cent students of secondary level quit studies midway in Jammu and Kashmir, according to official government documents accessed by The Kashmir Walla

The documents further stated that the annual average drop-out rate at the secondary level is more than twenty percent in eight districts if J-K that include Budgam in central Kashmir; Bandipora, Baramulla, and Kupwara in north Kashmir; Kulgam in south Kashmir; and Rajouri, Ramban, and Reasi districts in the Jammu division.

However, even when Muneeb left the school, Mr. Yaseen hung onto his younger brother, 14-year-old Abbas Bhat. “His face…,” Mr. Yaseen paused for a moment before he continued further: “I see a KAS [Kashmir Administrative Services, officer] in him. I just [can] see it in his face.”

And the Bhat family’s hamlet agreed. A close neighbor of the Bhat family said that Abbas “is so bright that the master [teacher, Mr. Yaseen] would even come to pick him up and take him to school.

However, the schools in Kashmir have remained closed for nearly a year now as the imposed restrictions to curb any anti-government protest against its unilateral moves in the region continued. And later, a week after school’s reopened in February 2020, the coronavirus pandemic brought everything down to a grinding halt once again. 

Kashmir suffered a huge economic dip as 40,000 crore rupees were lost. But, for the Bhat family, it was a fight against survival; Abbas eventually had to join his elder brother in earning money for the family — as a laborer, working in the orchards–the economic mainstay or rural south Kashmir.

When schools reopen in the future, the family hoped that Abbas would continue with his studies. Mr. Yaseen and the Bhat family’s neighbours in the hamlet, too, want the same. But Muneeb, thinking ahead of his time and for the survival of the family, is aware that it was not possible. “I didn’t want him to leave the studies at all,” said the elder brother. “But we had no money.”

For his father’s medication, the family needs nearly 3,000 rupees a month. “I just bought him the course [of medicines],” said Muneeb, “now, I’m only left with a thousand rupees with me.”

Muneeb and Abbas’s bags have gathered dust in the cupboard; Muneeb’s bag doesn’t even belong to him anymore. Their sister, who attends Degree College in Pulwama, has her Physics notes in it. Muneeb had left his pen and notebooks too. But not the uniform.

“I wear it sometimes,” he said. However, his mother, Ms. Bano has refused to let him wear it to the new work he has found as a painter. “It pays better,” she said. “350 rupees for a day.”

But between loading sand to painting walls, as Muneeb gets his clothes dirty, he breaks down sometimes. “I miss studying when I’m at work,” he said. “I feel very bad. I badly want to study. I’ll study anything — but if I’ll have money.”

Though Muneeb never had a dream job, he said his younger brother’s dream is to become a doctor. As a reason after another keeps children in Kashmir away from the schools, thousands like Muneeb and Abbas dwindle in darkness. Their future? As uncertain as Kashmir’s.

Taking a couple of hard drags from the hookah, the senior Mr. Bhat sneaked out as Ms. Bano busied herself in the kitchen. But nobody is there to tell her he will be far, far gone.  The sun was about to set and darkness would engulf the hamlet but Muneeb wasn’t home.

Does Ms. Bano think that  Muneeb has matured too soon? “He’ll always be a child to me,” she said half-heartedly.

The story was originally published in our 24-30 August 2020 print edition.

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