Exams, Eyes & Politics

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With ‘dead eyes’ in background and at the peak of a debate over education when parents drove more than 80,000 students to the examination halls amid strike, it was a commoner finally taking his own decision. Those writing examination included many rendered one-eyed by the situation. Part of media and the right-wingers in government projected it as a setback to the separatist triumvirate spearheading now nine-fortnight old unrest. But using education as a tool is no way-forward for either side, reports Masood Hussain

Students appearing class XII in examination amid tight security in kashmir Srinagar on Monday 14 November 2016.Over one lakh students are scheduled to take secondary school exams beginning in Kashmir on Monday following adequate security arrangements in the valley. PHOTO BY BILAL BAHADUR

Students appearing class XII in examination amid tight security in kashmir Srinagar on November 14 , 2016. (Photo: Bilal Bahadur/KL)

After writing his science paper in Pulwama’s Women’s College on November 15, Athar Hussain told a reporter that education is a continuous process. “We have to study before and after Azadi,” he told Tribune newspaper.

Sounding more knowledgeable than most of the leaders on the importance of education, Hussain is just 16. He was hit by a lead pellet in his left eye on August 24, during protests in his Prechoo village, Hussain has already undergone two major surgeries at the Ophthalmology Department of SMHS Hospital in Srinagar. He was scheduled to go for another surgery but he wanted to write his examination first.

Skipping the facility of seeking a writing assistant for writing his papers, Hussain struggled to write and eventually wrote. He only eye pained so did his head. Writing in a straight line was difficult as the entire pressure was on his right eye. Even though Hussain, in his all-black dress, was calm and composed in his examination centre, hiding his bruised eyes behind the goggles, he was in sharp focus of his examiners and the fellow students. Glasses apart, he needs to use cap as an additional gear to protect his only eye from the irritating light of winter sun and dust.

Students closed their one eye as a mark of solidarity with pellet hit victims in Pantha Chowk area of Srinagar on Sep 29, 2016. (KL Image: Bilal Bahadur)

Students closed their one eye as a mark of solidarity with pellet hit victims in Pantha Chowk area of Srinagar on Sep 29, 2016. (KL Image: Bilal Bahadur)

Blinding of students by pellets was a key argument that for cancellation of the examinations for tenth and the twelfth standards. Government forces that managed the unrest 2016 comprised mainly the state police and the paramilitary CRPF. Pump guns that normally are used for bird hunting were the main weapon in their arsenal to manage the protests. In the last more than 18 weeks, they have fired millions of pellets on the Azaadi-seeking protesting groups across Kashmir.

Of around 1600 people who were hit by pellets in their faces, more than 1100 received injuries in their eyes. Technically only six have been completely blinded but there are nearly 50 cases in which pellets have hit both eyes. Reports suggest that there are 33 pellet hit individuals having “no perception of light in at least one eye” and “there are many who are not being termed blind because they can tell if a light is shined on their injured eyes; although nothing more than that.”

The pellet blindings gave the 2016 unrest a distinct projection within and outside India. “But 2016 will almost certainly be remembered as the year of dead eyes,” Ellen Barry reported in the New York Times. Afroz Khan, a doctor who had operated upon a child, hit by the birdshot, as pellets are known in US, had told her: “That 8-year-old boy, he will live for 70 or 80 years.. The history remains there, even if it is not in the books.”

“As none of the powerful men who run Kashmir from Delhi expressed qualms about the blinding of children, it became clear that in its hubris the Indian state had decided that snatching vision from a few hundred young people was a fair price to pay for keeping Kashmir in check,” The Collaborator author novelist Waheed Mirza wrote in The Guardian. “There is no other recorded instance of a modern democracy systematically and willfully shooting at people to blind them.”

Police blinding 31 alleged criminals and charge-sheeters in Bagalpur (Bihar) in 1979-80 by pouring acid into their eyes is part of criminal jurisprudence. In comparison to the scale and legal sanction associated with the use of pump guns in Kashmir, it seemed too small a precedence.

That is perhaps why; the pellets triggered a rare competition within the artistic fraternity. Everybody jumped in. Everybody wanted to offer the best expressions indicative of the crisis Kashmir was confronted with. Masood Hussain, Kashmir ace artist created a real sensation when he painted Gandhi trying to give his stick to a Kashmiri boy blinded by the pellets trying to walk. Another of his work mixed Nehru’s rose-giving to pellet-blinded kids which pressed the sensitive nerve in the establishment. Finally when a college teacher in city periphery was beaten to death, a cartoonist draw blind students offering funeral prayers to the teacher as the Education Minister was seeking their attendance in the schools!

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Forces stationed outside the examination centres.

But the people opposing the examinations avoided applying mind on few crucial things. Firstly, even if students will skip the examinations in autumn, they still have to sit for the same early spring. Secondly, most of the students demonstrating against the conduct of examinations were actually seeking some sort of concession because they had not gone to school since June. Thirdly, most of the parents were against the idea of delay because it would hit the career graph. Fourthly, the influential private education sector was desperate to see an opening. This was despite the “promises” some of their leaders were making for continuation of the strike.

“At one point of time, we were so frustrated because everybody was against the examinations – from Dr Farooq Abdullah to Tarigami to even Yeshwant  Sinha in addition to the Hurriyat,” one key officer in the education department said. “Then even we could feel problems within our own department.”

Officials associated with the exercise said there were two crucial decisions that helped turn the tide. “The first decision that disarmed the opponents was when we announced the option – November versus March and they lost the argument,” one official said. “Quickly, when we offered better options genuinely on basis of the syllabus that was taught, we could feel the change on ground.”

The school burning incidents added to the crisis. Nearly 32 schools went up in smoke in less than a month. By then, state’s education ministry was frequented by “mourners” who were indicating that Education Minister is being axed for politicizing education and complicating the mess further.

When examinations finally started on November 14, the attendance was 94 percent as only 1749 of the 31964 candidates were absent. A day later when the tenth standard examinations started, attendance was 98 percent plus as only 777 of the 56277 did not report to their examination centre.

The examinations continue to be a massive security drill. Examination centres are literally impregnable and in most of the cases, parents wait for their wards outside. Massive security presence could be a reason why, barring a few negligible instances of tension, the process remained incident free.

“I tried to do my duty and God helped,” Akhter said. “I am thankful to students, their parents, teachers and the larger society that they could respond to my desperation to save one year of the students. I hope the students are not pushed to such a trauma gain in future.”

But modern governing coalitions are the old chour-sipahi legends, a good cop-bad cop games. Akhter held the examination and went to offer prayers to thank God. His allies were praying for all these months for a breakthrough so that they could sell the examination. So they did.

“I’m proud of those children and their parents who are the strength of India. Education is the way to progress. They have understood and given this befitting reply. We have seen the surgical strike of the army, but this reply given by students is also a powerful surgical strike,” Union Education Minister Prakash Javadekar said. “In Kashmir Valley, for the past several months, schools were shut, over 30 had been burnt. But students from Jammu and Kashmir, Leh and Ladakh have given a befitting reply to terrorists with a presence of 95 per cent in the board exam held yesterday.”

“Those who gave the continuous bandh calls in Valley and forced the closure of educational institutions after sending their own children to best schools in other parts of country and abroad have now been exposed fully,” Dr Jitendra Singh, a minister in the PMO, reacted after 95 percent students showed up in the examination halls. “We cannot wait for the last gun to fall silent; we have no time to waste at least for the children’s career and future.”

What added to the alleged politicization of education was government’s decision to avail mass promotion for all others classes, up to eleventh. “If the policymakers believed in the importance of examinations then why they conducted examination of merely 110 thousand students and promoted more than ninety percent?” asked Ghulam Nabi, a private school teacher.  “Now it is much clear that they used examination as a tool against the resistance.”

Students leaving examination centre after appearing in their first paper.

Students leaving examination centre after appearing in their first paper.

But the impression that the youth who were part of the Azaadi-seeking summer protests were against the idea of examinations is untrue. That they were professional stone pelters getting Rs 500 notes as daily-wage which stopped after the twin currency notes were demonetized, is also not correct.

Suhaib Nazir Parray is a resident of Pulwama’s Uzrampathri village. A pellet has hit his right eye on July 29, smearing his vision. He also appeared in the tenth class examination at Mahjoor Memorial Government Higher Secondary Institute in Pulwama. Doctors have assured him that he will get his eyesight back after a surgery. He has already undergone a surgical procedure.

“Doctors advised me second surgery but I told them I will first sit in exams and then I will go for surgery,” Parray told a news channel reporter. “I didn’t ask for any help. Despite difficulties I wrote my paper.”

Parray’s problem is not different from Hussain. “I can’t write in a straight line,” Parray told another reporter. “I am struggling to keep my words within the lines.”

These brave-hearts are the new models of the new generation.

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Cop guarding the examination centre.

Under the existing rules, the examiners have to offer assistants to students for writing their papers. Once the hospitals issue certificates of disability to them, assistants can accompany them to the examination halls and take their dictations.

Hospital sources said around 50 students had sought certificates and were issued. Officials in the J&K State Board of School Education said as many as 18 injured students including three pellet victims had applied for assistants and were given. Informed Prof Zahoor A Chat, the Board chairman: “We provided helpers to them on basis of medical certificates issued by hospitals. Of them two pellet victims were from Srinagar and one from Pulwama.”

But not every student having been ‘pelleted’ was fortunate or mustered courage to sit in the examination hall, this fall.

The last pellet rain was reported in Pulwama’s Rohmoo village which became distinct because three teenage girls received pellets in their eyes – an eighth grader, a tenth grader and another who had dropped out. They were rushed to hospital for basic surgery and then shifted home. Their doctors said they will gradually regain their sight and gave them dates for undergoing surgical procedures.

One of them is Shabrooza Mir who was admitted to the hospital for a surgery. She got pellets in her eye when she was studying in her room because she had to appear in the examination. Since then, she feels her life is changed.

“My friends sat in the examination centre while I was in the operation theatre,” Shabrooza told Rising Kashmir. “This hurts. I was a good student at school, and never thought that I cannot write my examination paper.” A student in love with mathematics and geometry, Shabrooza told the reporter how she wanted to make her farmer father proud. “Now I will never be able to solve the puzzles which gave me sleepless nights.”

On day one of the tenth standard examination, when parents rushed their wards to the examination halls in such a panic that traffic jams were reports across most of urban areas across Kashmir, Greater Kashmir met Faisal Ahmad in Karimabad. A half-blind carrying pellets in both of his eyes since August 24, Ahmad had no option other than staying home. His one eye has lost 85 percent vision and another one 15 percent as a result of which he is unable to study. He has already undergone two surgeries.

“Today’s science paper was my favorite but I am the most unlucky person because I could not attend the exams,” Ahmad was quoted saying. “I wept today morning when my friends went for exams but I was sitting at home.”

Son of a labourer, tragically, Ahmad elder brother, a handcraft trader, is already in jail. He has been booked under Public Safety Act.

There are scores of students in jails, police stations and other detention centres who seemingly have missed their examinations. Quite a few like Pandan’s Abdul Wahid Dar were lucky.

Arrested for stone pelting, the police charged him for various offences in FIR 99 at Nowhatta. His family rushed to the court and by 5 pm, they had got a bail. Many hours were taken in requesting police to honour the order. He was finally set free and many hours were consumed by making him comfortable at home. Next day he went to write his examination. Nobody is hopeful of his performance, probably not even him.

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