By: Khursheed Wani
The student protests in Kashmir, triggered by the avoidable ingress of government forces into Pulwama Degree College on April 15, have entered into second month. Every day a new and unexpected area is in deadlines for student protests and the response from the police and paramilitaries. From Governor and XV corps commander to education minister and his battery of chief education officers, everyone is engrossed in finding ways and means to calm down the agitated youngsters. The pro-freedom groups and leaders, on the other hand, are buoyed up to see this “unprecedented phase in the movement”.
It would be naïve to de-link the current student uprising or unrest (depending on the diverse perceptions) with the political issue that is Kashmir. The students have perpetually been targeted in Kashmir for expressing their political views, and more effectively in the post-1996 period when the ‘democratically elected’ governments took over the government in Kashmir. I have covered a number of convocations at Kashmir University during this period, which every time turned out to be a police exercise rather than a salient and cherished academic event. At one such convocation, presided over by the President of India, I was surprised to see a policeman in convocation robe sitting beside me. On inquiry he told me that many of his colleagues have been deployed in this fashion in the convocation hall to strangulate students if they did something objectionable. Needless to mention, a select group of students allowed to be present in the hall, had been thoroughly scrutinized and virtually taken into ‘custody’ before they received medals and certificates from the chief guest.
From Kashmir University to the cluster of colleges across the Valley and the secondary level schools, both in the public and private sector, the conflict of Kashmir remains a topic for the students and the teachers to discuss. Even in the schools, started under former Chief Minister Mufti Muhammad Sayeed’s “catch them young” doctrine, the conflict of Kashmir does not leave the functioning unaffected. The prestigious Delhi Public School at Pantha Chowk, one of the best institutions in terms of infrastructure, faculty and import, has been in news quite often for such issues. From dress code of the staff to the observance of shutdown calls from the pro-freedom groups or appearance in exams of a student related to a top separatist leader, the school has remained in news in the recent past. These issues are not de-linked with the Kashmir conflict.
It is difficult to keep the educational institutions insulated. The academically best educational institutions in the world are at the most peaceful places. The peace and stability in Kashmir is directly linked to the dispute unresolved.
Therefore, it is impossible to create an ideal situation for the schools and educational institutions to function in Kashmir in the present circumstances. During the past 27 years, we have understood this fact. From free promotions to mass copying and abject disturbance of the academic calendar, the education sector gradually got derailed. During some intermittent periods of peace, there were efforts to bring the system back on rails, but they did not yield the desired results.
It is quite astonishing that the larger and perpetual conflict in Kashmir has created sub-conflicts within the educational institutions. The quality of education is abysmally low, the faculty is generally nervous and clueless and the organizational management is far from being professional. There has been a sluggish internal movement to safeguard the sector from some negative impacts of the instability. A class of people managed to migrate their children to other places for education at various levels but the majority remained confined to the Valley.
On the positive side, the yearning for quality education has never diminished in Kashmir. Most of the parents have prioritized education of their children over many other personal or family affairs. However, they are not getting a better deal from the educational institutions. During this sordid state of affairs, a huge population of youngsters has not been prepared to relish education and strive for higher options in the competing world. These youngsters, despite possessing degree certificates, are not able to assert themselves on the actual ground. During the recent entrance tests, a Kashmir University faculty told me, many students aspiring to join the postgraduate courses, were not able to fill up forms before writing answer sheets.
The education reforms initiated by the previous minister went topsy-turvy both due to the situational constraints and the inherent flaws in the initiatives. The minister inherited the mess from the 2014 floods and rushed into ‘reforms’ without a genuine thought process. The commotion that followed did not have a good impact on the sector.
It is absurd that Indian defence minister Arun Jaitley during his recent visit to Kashmir has asked the army to arrange larger tours of Kashmiri students to the Indian mainland. This time around he has suggested escorting groups of more than 300 students together, as a response to the students’ anger. The army has been doing these ‘motivational tours’ for more than two decades but it has not changed the ground realities. For a sustaining change on the ground, the larger aspect has to be looked into and in the meantime, the sub-conflicts that have arisen have to be tackled. These conflicts vary from one educational institution to the other. It requires a holistic review rather than a casual approach to restore what is called normalcy in the educational institutions.