It was a friend’s visit to Kashmir that changed Mushtaq Ahmad Rather’s life forever and landed him in Tihar Jail for seven years. Once freed he set out to change the education system by starting valleys first boarding school. Suhail A Shah reports his journey
During his college days in the Northern Indian state of Bihar, Dr Mushtaq Ahmad Rather brought along a class tenth boy to his home in Kashmir, unaware that the fun filled visit of the naughty teenager was going to change the course of his life.
Forty-seven- year old Mushtaq, eldest son of a small time business man in Islamabad’s Nowgam village in South Kashmir, is credited with establishing the first and only private boarding school of the valley. What makes the feat special however is the fact that Mushtaq served six years in New Delhi’s Tihar jail after being, what he terms, falsely implicated in a militancy related case under Prevention of Terrorism Activities (POTA).
A trained Medical doctor, Mustaq was arrested in New Delhi, days after he completed his degree in Ayurvedic Sciences from the Bihar University. He was travelling back home.
The days, rather years in prison only made him stronger and determined to succeed. More importantly he was able to give something back to the society after being almost written off.
The rather small gate, of the Scholar’s Home School in Natipora locality of Srinagar, leads to the front office. A man, probably in his forties with flowing salt and pepper beard, sits between the desk and a wall displaying trophies.
Another door leads to what looks like a record section and then another one to the Principal’s office.
Mushtaq, a stout man with neatly trimmed white beard occupies the Principal’s chair in the humble but nicely heated office. Printed on ordinary paper a Couplet, about the proper way to pray, from Sir Muhammad Iqbal hangs right behind his chair.
His friendly demeanour makes one instantly feel at ease and the conversation flows effortlessly.
“All through school, back in my village, I was considered to be the brightest,” Mushtaq says, speaking chaste Urdu, “and being a bright student in early 1980’s meant that everybody around you wanted you to be a doctor.”
In his school days, Mushtaq would have never imagined that he will someday become a doctor but ironically the title will remain just a customary prefix to his name.
After passing his matriculation in 1982, with top grades, from the local government school in Nowgam, Mushtaq joined the government Higher Secondary at the Islamabad district headquarter.
However a change in session multiplied with many other factors made his grades fall considerably by the time he completed his higher secondary examination in 1985. The falling of grades those days meant an end to the dream of becoming a doctor for the admission to a Medical college was based on how you performed in the higher secondary examination.
“My father was very upset and so was I,” said Mushtaq, “In the heat of the moment I decided to leave studies and help my father with the business.”
By the time he was 22, his father insisted him to get married and that’s what he did in 1987.
“But destiny had other plans,” says Mushtaq, “One fine day I was reading a local Urdu daily and an advertisement about admissions for Bachelor of Unani Medicine and Surgery (BUMS) at Bihar University caught my eye.”
Mushtaq was already a father, of a baby girl, by then; however immense support from his father and wife helped him take a decision to study further.
“It was 1988 when I finally managed to secure a seat at the Zamiya Medical college of the Bihar University,” said Mushtaq, “My father was sure overburdened with an extra responsibility of my family but my future concerned him more.”
The early days at college were good for Mushtaq. Things however started changing in late 1989, the period when militancy broke out in Kashmir.
No Kashmiri was left untouched by the violent strife in the valley. The repercussions were far reaching and the economic aspect was one of the more striking ones of the conflict.
Things started deteriorating in the Rather household as well. “Fathers business suffered and it meant that he was no longer able to send me the money I needed to sustain in an alien place.”
But Mushtaq was not the one to be bogged down by adverse situations. He found a way to sustain.
“I took along dry fruits and Shawls from home and sold them to my faculty members and friends at the college,” Mustaq said, “The profit I made was just enough to support my education.”
Soon as he completed his third professional at the college, Mushtaq managed to get a job at a local Jamat-e-Islami run, Millat Hospital. He was not paid much but he managed to get accommodation and food from the Hospital administration.
The job not only made him self-reliant for the time being but it also ensured that he picked up experience as far as his professional life was concerned.
“It was a great arrangement and I could see a bright future in medicine unfurling before my eyes,” Mushtaq says, “it brought certain satisfaction that I would be experienced enough by the time I step into the professional world.”
It was during this stint at the Hospital that Mushtaq developed friendship with many people at the hospital and in the vicinity. Many of them visited Kashmir with Mushtaq and he humbly obliged to any request, to visit Kashmir, put forth by his friends.
Among the families, Mushtaq was friends with, was a family from Azamgarh district of the neighbouring Uttar Pradesh.
“It was 1992 when the family’s teenage son, Shahid Azmi, insisted that he wanted to see Kashmir and I brought him along,” Mushtaq said.
By then the strife had intensified in Kashmir and business, including Rather family’s, was rattled. Mushtaq, once home, got busy in helping his father with odd jobs to see the family through the rough patch.
Shahid, in the meantime was on his own during the month long trip. Being an intelligent teenager he managed the sight-seeing for himself, without troubling his host.
The trip was over and both Mushtaq and Shahid went back to their busy schedules. Mushtaq resumed his duties at the Hospital and college, while Shahid moved to Delhi for studies.
“I had almost forgotten about Shahid’s trip to Kashmir but I guess it was not to be,” says Mushtaq.
In 1994, two years after his trip to Kashmir, Shahid Azmi was arrested by police in New Delhi for his alleged link with militants. He was booked under POTA.
Oblivious of the arrest, Mushtaq by then had completed his final year at the college and was on his way back home. He was jubilant. There was reason to be so. Not only had Mushtaq completed his degree but he was finally going to meet his third kid, his youngest daughter.
His daughter was six months old then and he was yet to see her. But he finally got to see her when she was 7 years old.
On 26th of April 1994, he halted mid-journey at a Delhi hotel. “It was from the hotel that Delhi police picked me up.”
Mushtaq was told, during the course of the interrogation, about Shahid’s arrest for his militant links.
“I was framed for introducing Shahid to militants in Kashmir, during his trip here,” said Mushtaq, “the charges were baseless to say the least.”
A case was framed and he was imprisoned at New Delhi’s infamous Tihar Jail.
Lack of exposure and a severe dent in the monetary aspects of the Rather family in Nowgam, prevented Mushtaq’s father to take the legal course.
“He could not afford travelling to Delhi and more importantly a court trial,” Mushtaq said, “So I left it to Allah. Proceedings were meanwhile started in the court.”
Staying true to his character, Mushtaq used the uneventful days at jail to his advantage. He not only studied himself but taught his uneducated inmates as well. Shahid Azmi was also among the inmates.
“I read religion, politics, literature and anything I could lay my hands on,” said Mushtaq, “I was appointed the coordinator of the IGNOU centre meant for prisoners.”
Mushtaq at the same time speaks highly of Kiran Bedi, the then Director General of the Tihar Jail.
“She let us set up a library inside the prison, which was instrumental in my growth as well as of the other inmates,” said Mushtaq.
The court meanwhile convicted Mushtaq along with Azmi and other accused in the case. They were released in 1999 after serving six years in prison.
Azmi had completed his graduation through IGNOU during the course of his confinement and went on to become a renowned lawyer at the Bombay High Court.
Shahid Azmi shot to fame for his tireless work as a Human rights activist. He was known for defending the people falsely implicated in cases of terrorism. At the age of 33, Azmi was shot dead outside his chamber in Mumbai on 11th of February 2010. A film has also been based on his life.
Mushtaq returned home. His eldest daughter had by then reached 7th standard and the youngest one 7.
He plainly, without a trace of emotions, describes his reunion with his family. He talks about the agonies of living in the prison and getting to see his own children after 7 long years, without losing his composure. A testimony to how strong the man he has been and continues to be.
“While in jail I did not give much of a thought to life after it; however once I was freed and came back to Kashmir I realized that my career as a doctor was over,” Mushtaq said.
While he was happy to be back home with his kids and siblings, two things nagged Mushtaq on the back of his mind. A career ruined and the faulty education system in the valley.
His father had by then enrolled all his kids to the best possible, affordable private school in the vicinity. But as he watched his kids study, the realities of education system dawned upon him one by one.
“As I watched my eldest daughter study I realized that how the education system has deteriorated in Kashmir,” said Mushtaq. “When I was in 7th standard I could read books apart from the regular curriculum, even though I studied at a government school.”
In stark contrast he found that his daughter could not do addition and subtraction properly. While the elite class could afford the best of the schools, the middle and the lower middle class sections of the society were left out.
With these priorities on his mind Mushtaq once again packed his bags and came to Srinagar in 2000, along with his family. Not sure what to do he had a few stints at some private run Nursing homes in the capital city. He was managing the family well but did not want to remain confined to the hand to mouth situation he was in. Besides, Mushtaq says, he wanted to contribute to the society somehow.
“I thought of starting a nursing home but the investment was huge,” said Mushtaq.
After a lot of soul searching he finally came to a decision that he thought would be a solution to both his issues at hand. He set off to establish a school, a boarding school.
The school did put an end to both his problems but the way-up was steep and the issues staring at him in the beginning needed sheer grit to be handled and tackled away with.
Such was the cold response from people that some thought Mushtaq has lost his mind in the prison.
“I discussed the idea of a boarding school with one of my teachers, who also happened to be well known educationist,” said Mushtaq. And the response he got from this educationist was, “You need a doctor Mushtaq. You have lost it in prison.”
But Muhstaq had made his mind up and he was adamant that he will establish a school that will be a breakthrough in the education system of Kashmir valley.
What he did to implement his decision was what some will call stupidity and some bravado. He burnt all the bridges with his own hands.
“I sold whatever land and property I had in Nowgam and people were convinced that I have gone crazy,” Mushtaq says, with a triumphant grin on his face.
He leased a building in Natipora, where he was sharing a house with a relative. The building had just been vacated by the Regional Transport Office (RTO) and Mushtaq managed to convince the owner to lease the first floor of the building to him, while the ground floor already housed another school.
“I had not the money to make an advance payment of the rent,” says Mushtaq. What followed was another example of grit and determination.
The house Mushtaq was sharing with his relative was jointly purchased by the two. He tried to convince his relative to be his partner but got a cold shoulder.
Instead, Mushtaq managed to sell his share of the house to his relative for the same amount he had purchased it for and paid the money to the landlord.
Along with his family Mushtaq shifted to the rented accommodation, making a part of it their home.
The first kids to enrol in the school were Mushtaq’s own. Besides he managed to convince some of his relatives to enrol their children into the school.
“This was how the school begun functioning,” Mushtaq said, “but the problem was we were not getting any students apart from the ones we had in the family.”
Short on revenue generation Mushtaq decided to rent some rooms out to students attending coaching classes in the vicinity. He provided them with food as well.
The money was not much, says Mushtaq, but they managed to somehow sustain the school.
Till then however it was an unregistered school, without a name. In late 2001 a lady, running a school in Rajbagh, wanted to wind up the venture and sensing an opportunity Mushtaq bought the school.
Some 20 kids, as per Mushtaq, were transferred to his school from the one in Rajbagh, “It was months later we got our first student admitted to the school.”
The teachers too, Mushtaq maintains, were his relatives who were not paid any salaries for the intial year or so.
Ever since, there has been no looking back for Mushtaq. The school has done exceedingly well and at present the Scholars School has more than 600 students enrolled.
“We have come a long way. We left that rented accommodation and purchased some land here in Natipora,” Mushtaq said.
As the students kept swelling at the school, the administration purchased some 30 Kanals of land in Daara area of Shalimar on the outskirts of Srinagar and a boy’s hostel has been established there.
“We have 300 boys at the hostel, who are studying at the best possible location in the mountains,” Mushtaq says, “An almost equal number of girls are residing here in the Natipoar hostel.”
Moreover they have applied for the recognition to be a Higher Secondary school, a step according to Mushtaq taken on the insistence of the parents.
The school, Mushtaq says, is committed to providing quality education within the meagre means of the middle and lower middle class sections of the society.
The fee that is being charged from the students is lowest possible. At a time when other private schools are charging up to 5000 Rupees per month as tuition fee, the Scholars School is charging a meagre 4000 Rupees for tuition, boarding, lodging and other facilities. Besides two to three kids are fully sponsored by the school every year.
“We, at our school, are laying equal emphasis on modern as well as Moral and religious education,” said Mushtaq, “I have been to the religious seminaries as well as the best of private schools, both have been taking Kashmiri people for a ride.”
Keeping all this in consideration Mushtaq had decided that his school will lay equal emphasis on both aspects of the education.
“That’s what we have been doing all along,” said Mushtaq, “Our kids are at par with the best of the private schools without having to compromise on the religious side of the things.”
It has been just over a decade now since the commencement of the school and Mushtaq has had his share of difficulties and criticism.
Criticism for imparting religious education across sectarian lines and difficulties every Kashmiri has to face in the government offices.
“At our school there are no sectarian lines and some people are calling this a Christian Missionary School for that,” said Mushtaq, “But that only makes me stronger and makes me work harder.”
He believes that the biggest issue the Muslim world is facing right now is the division on sectarian lines. Mushtaq says that he wants to do his bit and to that affect the only religious book being taught at the school is the Holy Quran.
Whatever the adversities be he is braving them all and moving ahead, creating his own niche in the education sector of Kashmir.