A Costly Recess

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As around 160 thousand students are writing their examinations for three classes, Umar Khurshid revisits the state of education and the schooling in the last 100 days of the crisis that started with August 5, when the special status of Jammu and Kashmir was rolled back and two federally ruled Union Territories were born

Students passing a barricade erected by CRPF personnel during restrictions in Srinagar. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

“Hania, how many times I told you not to lock yourself in the room, open the door quickly,” these are the words Jawahira, 36, of Anantnag, shouts outside her daughter’s room every day.

Every morning, after Hania, 8, finishes her breakfast, she goes back to her room and locks it from inside. Till evening, neither she comes out for food nor does she talk to anyone. “She would either watch TV or sit quietly inside her room,” Jawahira said.

Hania’s unusual behaviour began in the month of September, a month after the Home Minister Amit Shah announced abrogation of Article 370, and stripped Kashmir of its statehood. The days that followed saw Kashmiris seethe with anger in their homes. As a mark of protest all schools and businesses remain shut and the transport is off the roads. Even a normal economical activity became a bone of contention and politicized.

After a month at home, Jawahara witnessed some unusual things in Hania. “Her behaviour has completely changed; she hates anybody touching her and she even skips daily meals,” Jawahira said in voice, indicating frustration.

The family even visited a doctor and was advised to engage her in sports activities. “But my daughter doesn’t like anybody around her,” she regrets.

Jawahira believes that as schools would resume, Hania’s “anxiety” would fade away. “It’s just because Hania stopped going to school and she has to spent her 24 hours in a single room,” Jawahira, who was once heading a local private school in the town,” said.

Earlier when schools were functioning, Hania was her class’s frontline student, smart and serious. Her behaviour at home was also normal.

Gulzar Ahmed, father of Aenaam, 9, believes that his son remains constantly unwell because staying away from school deprived him of education and sports. “At school he would play many games, but at home, he feels laziness,” Ahmed, a resident of Mattan said. “Just because sitting idle at one place diseases like cold and fever often attacks my son.”

PSYCHIATRISTS SAY

Students between 5 to 20 age group formed the major footfall to the clinic of Mudasira, a Clinical Psychologist in Anantnag. “Till now, I attended five to six cases and all of them are stressed as their schooling was stopped,” said Mudasira, who heads the government-run psychiatric hospital and operates from Police Lines in Anantnag.

Students outisde an examination centre . KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

Most of the cases she attended, Mudasira said were the students who feel that they may not secure good marks and even if the annual examinations are not conducted, a precious year would be lost. “The complexities were mostly seen in tenth and twelfth standard students who were scheduled to appear in board exams this year,” Mudasira said.

Unlike the children living in villages who keep themselves busy in playing or other outdoor activities, Mudasira said urban area students are unable to cope up with the enforced idleness. “They feel empty and that anxiety leads them to behave abnormally,” she said.

Dr Mansoor, a practicing psychiatrist at the Government Medical College (GMC) Anantnag received around 30 anxiety cases – all students in last two months. “All of them were depressed because examinations were around and they were not ready,” Dr Mansoor said. “The disappointment led them into severe depression.”

The cases are unprecedented and students in the 16 to 20 age group are most affected. “I used to receive 5 to 8 patients during examination season every year, but this time the numbers have gone up,” he said.

Zubair Ahmed Pala tutioning stuents at his home in Bangi-Nowgam locality of Anantnag. Image by Umar Khurshid

Mansoor believes that any work beyond routine leads people to anxiety, however; most of the students are able to cope-up. “Some students adopt the prevailing situation at one point, but some are being affected in the long run,” he said.

CURRENT SCENARIO

After remaining away from schools for around 100 days now, students are upset as administration released the annual and semester examination date-sheets without any relaxation in the syllabus. Right now, the students of tenth and the twelfth classes are writing their examinations and the eight class students are scheduled to sit for the examination, next week.

Authorities had initiated reopening of schools within the first month of the lockdown. Despite repeated announcements, however, the schools could not open. Parents decided against sending their wards to schools because they lacked communications. “Due to restrictions and deployments on roads we fear if something happens what students like me will do,” a tenth class student, Aaliya, who lives in Lalbazar area of Srinagar said.

Inside view of an examination centre. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

Besides, the private schools asked parents to drive their wards for special classes, an idea they initially resisted but eventually accepted.

Resumption of schools has remained a key ingredient for officials to undo the strikes, voluntary or enforced. This time, however, it failed because cell phone services were jammed. Students mostly resorted to self-study and, in certain cases started taking tuitions locally. Finally, the Jammu and Kashmir Board of School Education announced the examinations and students started appearing.

Nisha, 16, a student from south Kashmir, was one of the estimated 65,000 students who wrote her first examination paper the same day when the 27-member European Parliament delegation landed in Srinagar. A student of a government run school, Nisha said she had completed 70 per cent of her syllabus when her school closed in the first week of August.

For the remaining 30 per cent, Nisha collected notes and visited some of her nearby friends for group studies. “But self-studies won’t help much if one expects to get good marks,” Nisha said.

Post August 5, when Kashmir was locked down with virtually no contact with the outside world, students also lost their contact with each other.

“We are five friends in a class and despite living in the same district we were not in touch with each other,” Tabinda, a twelfth class student said. “I’m hopefully meeting them within few days as our examinations are going to start.”

Tabinda is sceptical about English and Mathematics paper as she lost contact with her friends helping her in studies. “Since I lost my contact with my class mates, I’m not sure whether I would appear in the examinations or not,” Tabina said in a choked voice.

FREE TUITIONS

To deal with the crisis, at a few places like Anantnag, a number of graduate and post-graduate students – who were themselves not attending their colleges or the University, started, what Kashmir knows as ‘curfew classes’ where they would teach school goers free of cost. In Kashmir, tuitions are a costly affair. In most of the well-reputed coaching centres, the parents pay huge sums in advance to avail better tuitions. Some of the coaching centres migrated out of Kashmir and set up their temporary bases in Punjab and Himachal. Most of these centres are coaching students for professional courses. There are around 60,000 students currently enrolled in these centres. Parents did pay the additional costs for boarding and lodging.

In this situation, for some of the students, the free classes came as a blessing.

Weeks after August 5, Zubair Ahmed, 23, of Bangi-Nowgam in Anantnag decided to wait for the situation to get normal. However, when he realized it was akin to 2016, when Kashmir remained paralysed for half of the year, he decided to give free tuitions. He converted part of his home as a tuition centre.

Every morning when Zubair wakes up, the first thing he does is to have a look on his timetable fixed on the inner side of his trunk lid so that he can fit his day-long schedule according to his work.  As Zubair finishes his breakfast around 8 am, the first batch of the students ‘gets in.

Zubair teaches students from primary to twelfth class in his single-storey house located few meters away from Idrah-e-Tehkekaat, a six decade old Dar-ul-Uloom seminary of the district. By 11am, the second batch enters and the process continues till 5 pm.

An elder son of Mohammad Abass, 45, a coppersmith, Zubair is a 3rd year BA Commerce student of state run Boys College of Anantnag. In 2016, Zubair started free tuitions for the first time.

Keeping in view the losses student community is suffering, Zubair began providing free tuitions to 14 students belonging to different places. In order to get familiar with the examination pattern, Zubair has also conducted various tests and trials so that students won’t find any trouble in the annual examination. “I have even prepared a handwritten question paper formatted exactly the way students get on the day of examination,” Zubair said. “It would help them to understand it better way.”

It is not only students who are worried about their studies; the anxiousness can be seen among the parents as well. Around 15 kms away from Anantnag is Salia-Naghbal. In the village, a community named Mir Mohalla requested one of the resident graduates, Shakir Ahmed 22, to teach students for free. Shakir provides free tuitions to 10 under metric students at his under construction single-storey house.

Every morning Shakir receives two batches of students, five in each group and by 1 pm he finishes their coaching. “Then I leave to look after my father’s shop and return in the evening,” Shakir said.

Shakir feels that students have lost most of their school time. “It’s ultimately students’ loss, teachers would barely lose their salary but what students would lose will never be compensated,” Shakir said.

Barely a kilometre away from Shakir’s house is Bunpora- a small hamlet consisting of around 40 households. As one enters into the Mohalla, the first thing that catches one’s attention is a three-storey impressive house on the banks of Shahkol, a rivulet emanating from Pahalgam. It belongs to Mohammad Ismail Sheikh.

Sheikh’s daughter Nighat, 27, a postgraduate in sociology, teaches eight students.

With an athlete figure and broad shoulders, Nighat was once captain of her school’s volley-ball team. But Nighat is not new to the teaching profession as well. Years back she took up a teaching job at a local private school but untimely ended up by resigning. “This year I thought I have gained some experience and I started giving tuitions,” Nighat said.

In her village, there are many tuition centres charging hefty sums. “I know the lifestyle of our village, most of the families belong to lower classes, I don’t need money from them, just their blessings,” Nighat said.

BOARD EXAMS

But every student was not fortunate enough to get tuitions, free or otherwise. By the time, their parents were thinking of doing something for their wards, the examinations were announced. Right now, around 160 thousand students are writing their examinations – 65000 students of tenth class; 48,000 students of twelfth and 47000 candidates of eleventh class.

Unlike past, insiders in the education sector said, the Board is unlikely to offer any concession to the students who spent 100 days out of school.

Gulazar Ahmed 50, of Mattan in Anantnag, said his two sons who were enrolled in the government run local school, are weakest students. Due to his financial constraints, Gulzar couldn’t send them for private education. Unlike other places, the private schools in Kashmir are considered better.

“Now three more months have added to their weakness, what would they do,” Gulzar asked. “Private schools have somehow managed to keep their students engaged by providing study materials and assignments but government schools were completely shut.”

Mushtaq Ahmed, a resident of Pampore said that his son Labeeb, a student of class 1st, has completely forgotten what he studied early this year. “I guess he has to start his basics afresh,” Mushtaq said.

Mushtaq believes that as long as kids remain in touch with books and other extracurricular activities, they remain fit and free. “Three months home stay has made my son lazy and the frustration could be easily seen on his face,” Mushtaq added.

Every time, Iqra, a fourth standard student of a government-run school in Baramulla visits her school she finds it locked. At the same time, her four friends – all enrolled in private schools, have completed their syllabus. “They have even finished annual examinations and are about to join new classes but we are at the same place,” Iqra said. Now, when her school has finally reopened, there are no students!

Iqra’s elder sister Nisha studies in eighth class. Every morning she walks two kilometres to receive tuitions at a nearby village. Nisha is among the four students of her village who receive tuitions. “In normal situation, no one among our classes would have gone for private tuitions. But now we are helpless, we can’t leave our studies midway,” Nisha said.

PRIVATE VERSUS GOVERNMENT

On October 23, as sun was about to set, a group of boys – all secondary level students, wearing green round caps walked out of the local Darsgah in Anantnag. All of them were busy discussing their school life before August 5.

Usually young children hesitate to attend classes on daily basis, but this time three month long stay has made them lazy and dull. “I don’t feel good at home, I want to join back my classes,” said one of the 9th class student, Basit Lone.

Azaan Nayeem is another student who was keen to join his new school, but since August he has been waiting to meet his new classmates. “Are you too joining my school, I’m so excited,” Azaan asked his friend Musaib, while wiping out his flowing nose.

In private schools like St Xain’s, Alserwat Convent School and Rosy Tots School in south Kashmir, students have been asked to collect the study material and prepare for the examinations. “We were told to collect the material and examinations will be conducted soon,” said Arooba, a student of seventh class at St Xain’s. “I’m now preparing for the exams starting from next few days.”

Wasif Ahmed, 16, is among the students taking private tuitions and is not aware of the school’s situation. “We were also told to study at home and the examinations would be conducted at safer places, like residential houses” Wasif said.

Given the fear in south Kashmir, after a number of schools were set afire, many schools decided against resuming work till normalcy returns. It was also decided to conduct the exams at residential houses so that student won’t meet in trouble during their exam hours.

“I don’t know where would the exams take place, but I’m sure it would not be at schools,” said another student, Owais of Rosy Tots school.

Every morning when Pervaiz Ahmed, a local private school teacher wakes up, the first thing that comes into his mind is what he will do today. Pervaiz joined a private school early this year but post August 5; when schools were shut Pervaiz was left moneyless.

A post-graduate in history, Pervaiz was earning Rs 4000, a month. “Since the school stopped paying me, I’m not able to buy books and other material I need for my further studies,” Pervaiz said. He plans to appear in a PhD entrance test this year.

A policeman helps a student to cross a concertina barricade to reach her examination centre in Srinagar. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

Adil Ahmed, 26, is a post-graduate in sociology. He is also an unpaid teacher. Now, he looks after a Xerox shop belonging to one of his acquaintances at Khanabal Anantnag. “He pays me some amount and I am somehow managing with that money,” Adil said.

What surprises the people is that most of the parents, of students who are studying in better private schools, have cleared their dues. Tuition fees apart, the school managements have even charged the transport fee despite the fact that the school vehicles barely moved an inch since August 5. Parents see involvement of the officials in this racket.

COLLEGES, UNIVERSITIES

Like schools, the students pursuing higher studies are also unable to attend colleges and universities. The administration has directed all the higher level students to collect study material from their respective departments sans class work.

Last month, Khursheed Ahmad Ganai, the erstwhile advisor to the erstwhile Governor, directed that all ensuing university examinations should commence before the onset of winter.

“Students often come to university but no classes are being conducted. We do provide them study material to read at home,” a clerk in the University of Kashmir’s English department said.

PG students have been asked to visit the faculty if they need any assistance. “Normally, it takes two years to finish a degree but the last semester (4th) students have already passed three years in the campus and their degree is still incomplete,” a fourth semester student, who had come to inquire about his exam said.

The loss is felt in every category. Sitting idle in her small cabin, Danishta, 27, a third year PhD student at (NIT) is infuriated as her work has come to halt due to the internet blockade. Pursuing her degree in cloud networking, Danishta on routine spends seven to eight hours at the University but ends up with doing nothing.

“My thesis starts and ends with internet, to which I lack access,” Danishta said. “I can’t even open my previous work done months ago.”

Danishta is scheduled to attend a national seminar in Mathura related to the Cloud computing. She has developed cold feet. “Attending a seminar without learning anything about it is equal to a humiliation,” Danishta said.

In October, it was not less than a miracle for Danishta when she got a call from Mathura that she would be given a chance to speak on the stage. “I would term it a golden chance but if the internet blockade continued for two more weeks, I won’t be able to join the conference,” she added.

Barely 200 meters away from NIT is University of Kashmir and varsity’s PhD scholars have the same story to tell.

Adil Ahmed is a Mass Communication scholar. Restless since August, Adil’s research needs internet. “I had already finished 70 per cent of my work but as internet services were barred, I’m not able to do anything.”

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