Every night before falling asleep, 18-year-old Faizan Ahmad Lone, a class twelfth student had been promising himself to study rigorously ahead of the annual examination but with every new day he continues to break the promise. Living on the main road in Chanapora area of Srinagar, Faizan hasn’t found any inspiration to study for the last ten weeks since the government revoked the special status of the Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) and divided it into two Union Territories – Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh.

In the backdrop of occasional honking from the vehicles plying on the road, his father, Mohammad Akram Lone – a wedding photographer, continues to insist him on preparing for the upcoming examination. For Faizan, his father’s words add to his “distress and anger,” while he suffers trauma.

Like thousands of parents in the Kashmir Valley, Mr. Lone too wants his son, who is the eldest among the three siblings, to prosper with bright career. But the decision of the revocation on 5 August has shattered many such dreams.

On August 5, over eight million people in Kashmir woke up to the curfew and no communication medium – phones, landlines and internet were all snapped. To avoid any resistance from the people or the political leaders, the government also arrested several youth, and put political leaders, elected and non-elected, in detention. Since then the schools, colleges, shops, public transport and most business establishments have been off.

Ten weeks later, when the government has restored landline phones, lifted curfew, and ordered schools and colleges to be functional, life for students like Faizan continues to be at halt. 

When will it end and what will happen to our studies?

Two years ago, after qualifying his annual tenth board examination with 90 per cent grades, Faizan’s dream to become a doctor had got wings.  He followed it by choosing to study science – prepare for the upcoming medical entry tests.

“It was very strange for me to see the happiness and pride for me in my parents’ eyes,” says Faizan, recalling the day his results were declared. “It felt like I had achieved something big for them. Back then, all my relatives and family friends would tell me, Now, you should be the same hardworking student in future also.’”

It has all changed now – in these two years, and the last few weeks. In the aftermath of 5 August, Faizan has found himself caught between his studies and the political uncertainty around him. “When I heard that the Article 370 was removed, I knew there will be a long shutdown,” he adds. “In past such times, I would follow the news but not anymore. Now, I play games or watch movies.”

In the last few weeks, when schools and colleges turned deserted, hundreds of thousands students, trapped at home, had nothing to do. But only feel the sense of loss, seeing politics shadowing their dream of a bright career.

The only question their minds are filled with is: “When will it end and what will happen to our studies?”

Growing trauma amid uncertainty

Education 2 Kashmir
An empty corridor of a private school in downtown Srinagar. Photograph by Bhat Burhan for The Kashmir Walla

Unable to find any answers to this question, students in Kashmir have been slowly suffering mental trauma, which has only been escalated by the recent uncertainty. Psychologists and doctors note that the students, like Faizan, are prone to mental distress when they are unable to study properly.

“There is uncertainty among students,” says a clinical psychologist at the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) hospital’s mental clinic, who wished not to be named. “Students are worried if they can compete in future when they have lost important lectures, and are unable to finish syllabus. This uncertainty leads to persistent anxiety that could shape into a mental illness.”

The stress turns intense, especially, for those students who aim to qualify any competitive examinations. Even Faizan says that it has been this stress that makes it difficult for him to focus on studies despite repeated calls from his father. “I feel frustrated and bored when I’m trying to concentrate on a certain book because I’m unable to understand its contents. Earlier, I would browse internet to clear my confusions, or ask a friend about it. But right now phones or internet are not working, how can I do such things?” asks Faizan, with disappointment.

Before the 5 August, Faizan was taking coaching classes at the Aakash Institute in Srinagar but all the non-local “teachers went back to Delhi when they were told to leave the Valley.” It was a government order passed days before the revocation, telling tourists and the pilgrims to leave the Valley. Many non-state employees and workers too left.

Faizan had covered only 40 per cent syllabus. A few weeks ago, the Institute provided them online lectures in pen drives, “but it is not that impactful than a classroom lecture.” Like him, Mohsin Ali, a tenth grade student of the Shaheen Public School in Hawal area of Srinagar expresses the same feeling.

“I was doing nothing at home,” says Ali. “A few days ago, they [government] announced that they will conduct examination but what will we do? All these months, we would have studied at the school and tuitions also but we could not.” 

Ali even missed the date for submission of the examination form for his annual test as he couldn’t see the notification or any news, so his uncle Nazir Ahmad Tantray accompanied him to the Jammu and Kashmir Board of School Education (JKBOSE) to submit his form.

Shattered dreams of parents

For a parent, there is one thing that is worrying them most; safety. There is no safety here. When you feel unsafe in these times, how can you expect anything else?

Following 5 August, the government has been promising that the move would bring prosperity and development to the conflict ridden region. However, over a dozen parents that The Kashmir Walla spoke to opine contrary. The parents say that the communication blockade and restrictions not only destroyed the students’ but also shattered dreams of thousands of parents.

“Along with the future of children, parents’ dreams were shattered too,” says Mr. Tantray, outside the JKBOSE office in Srinagar. “For a parent, there is one thing that is worrying them most; safety. There is no safety here. When you feel unsafe in these times, how can you expect anything else?”

On 17 August, the J-K administration spokesperson, Rohit Kansal, had announced opening of primary schools from 19 August. On 23 August, the government asked the middle schools to open. A couple of days later, during an evening press briefing in Srinagar, Mr. Kansal and the Director of School Education, Mohammad Younis Malik had no answer to “if schools had opened – and if everything was normal – why was the attendance of students low or zero at larger levels?”

The administration has now issued schedule for the tenth and twelfth grade examinations – to begin from 29 October. All college principals have been asked to provide study material for the uncovered portion of syllabus to the students by 15 October. The Deputy Commissioners have been asked to facilitate the transport and internet facilities for time-bound completion of the degree of the students. 

However, for parents “uncertainty and communication blockade” can’t ensure the safety of their children. “There are no favourable circumstances for the exams here,” says Mohammad Ibrahim Akhoon, a resident of Nishat area in Srinagar, whose son is appearing for twelfth grade. “Children have studied for only a few months after winter vacations. What could they complete in these few months, nothing more than 40 percent of their total syllabus.”

According to Mr. Akhoon, his son, Mohammad Muneeb, has not been able to concentrate on his studies without the internet. “Most of the students are studying from internet now. Everything was easy for them but now what is left is stress,” complains Mr. Akhoon.

Questioning the government orders and the decision of issuing examination schedule, Showkat Ahmad Dar, a resident of Tangmarg area of North Kashmir says, “It is easy for them [administration] to pass such orders but don’t they notice that students are not attending schools?”

Mr. Dar adds that it is hard for any parent to allow his or her children  to attend school in the current atmosphere. “How can anyone send them to school or for exams without communication? Anything can happen outside and as a parent we would be worried for the security of our children.”

In the decades long conflict, education has been the major casualty in Kashmir, where children first face the stress of studies amid uncertainty and then grow up into a bleak future. Parents like Mr. Tantray and Mr. Akram believe that there is no future for children in Kashmir. “Every parent aims that his or her children will live a peaceful life to see a brighter future. But the circumstances are such that we only get sleepless nights,” says Mr. Akram.

 Similar past, bitter experience

In 2016, when Kashmir was recovering from previous unrests of 2008 and 2010 and then 2014 devastating floods, another spell made its entry on 8 July 2016. It was the killing of the Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani. Soon after his killing, a civil uprising engulfed the Valley, resulting into multiple civilian killings and injuries. The shutdown ended after more than four months and like other sectors and always, all educational activity remained shut during the period.

In the same year, 18-year-old Tawqeer Aijaz, a twelfth grade student from Pakharpora area of central Kashmir’s Budgam district, was concerned about his future. Being a topper with 92 per cent score in tenth grade from the Government Higher Secondary school, Pakharpora, Mr. Aijaz received uplifting reaction from parents – similar to Faizan’s.

But as the schools and colleges remained shut for months, Mr. Aijaz found himself on the verge of darkness as he was not fully prepared for the academic tests. Soon, the then government declared fifty per cent relaxation in syllabus and gave choices to the students appearing in the examinations.

Qualifying the twelfth grade with the help of this relaxation, Mr. Aijaz scored 89 per cent marks. Being a science student he began his preparation for the National Entrance Eligibility Test (NEET) – which could give him entry into medicine.

I was sad and disheartened but I did not lose hope and continued my preparations. Abu did not react but I was sure he was upset.

“Soon after a few months, I realised I could not qualify the test as I had missed basic concepts from my previous classes,” recalls Mr. Aijaz. “The moment I told my father that I will not appear in the test so he got angry. For him, I was making excuses but it was not the case.”

According to him, the attitude from his 48-year-old father, Aijaz Ahmad Sofi, a government teacher, was hurting him most and that pushed him to smoking cigarettes.

After missing his classes due to the shutdown, Mr. Aijaz had joined an academy only to study further and found himself among hundreds like him who had opted for the same. In 2017, Mr. Aijaz failed in his first attempt at NEET. “I was sad and disheartened but I did not lose hope and continued my preparations. Abu did not react but I was sure he was upset,” he says, with a laugh.

After almost two and a half years later, Mr. Aijaz qualified the 2019 NEET entrance and ten days before the 5 August joined the Jammu Medical College.

According to him, the month’s long break from the education culture during 2016 changed his pace. “Idleness is like a sweet venom that automatically changes your behaviour. It wasted three years of my life, it is not a little time – imagine,” he recollects the lost time.

 Creates educational vacuum in society

According to a principal of a leading private school in Srinagar, who requested not to be named fearing reprisals, the government is forcing them to make schools functional by issuing different orders like, conducting of  practical examinations and giving assignments. But, he believes that such steps will not help in restoring educational activity in the Valley.

“It is a normal protocol, life is always a first priority for everyone,” says the school principal. “When you have no communication, how can you expect normalcy. Everything in schools are controlled via internet and communication, when that is missing, these are all useless steps until they will not restore communication.”

Adding to the woes, 33-year-old Jahangir Aziz Khan – a Government High School teacher,  from Boniyar area of Baramulla district, says, “What would happen to a human being if he is told to eat one month’s food at once? He will not be able to digest it. Similarly, how can one expect a student to learn the lessons that he was supposed to study in two months in just a few days.”

“Learning is a gradual process and as a teacher, we need to feed education among students slowly,” Khan adds. “Concepts should be clear and a student after finding such circumstances around cannot compete in competitive exams in future. As a result, in the long run he finds it difficult to adjust himself in the fast growing society.”

Student in Kashmir
Student walking in the lanes of downtown Srinagar. Photograph by Bhat Burhan for The Kashmir Walla

Mr. Khan, who has a ten years of teaching experience, says that the students will try to qualify exams but that degrades quality of their education. With the degradation, it develops “a vacuum in the society and is at last a universal loss.”

Following the reorganisation of the state into the two Union Territories, many like Mr. Khan believe that there will be tough competition at all levels and it will be hard for students with the “incomplete knowledge.”

The data, as given here, also suggests that the dropout rates in Kashmir has been growing after the political instability. It further shows that many have been opting to study in other cities. Dr. Arif Ahmad, a teacher from Pulwama who has a Ph.D. in Environmental Studies, says that if a nation has to be destroyed, one doesn’t need a nuclear bomb. “But snatch education from them and you have destroyed them forever. Other losses can be filled, but not education.”

This story originally appeared in the 14 – 20 October 2019 print edition of The Kashmir Walla.

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