Srinagar: Gowher is a skinny, gaunt-faced boy of 16. Of late, he has been frequenting Srinagar’s SMHS hospital. In August 2016, he was part of a protest in his village in south Kashmir’s Kulgam when it “rained pellets”, and his left eye was injured leaving him blind in one eye. Now, with board exam dates announced for standard 10 and 12 students, he finds himself ill-equipped to sit for them.
Gowher is not alone in fearing exams. The past few months have seen stone pelting , a stand-off with security forces, the blinding of scores of protesting youth, deaths of many of them and no end to curfew, thousands of students all over the Kashmir Valley now are staring at the approaching exams with apprehension.
The exam fears have again pushed the Valley into a fresh wave of protests after the state government led by Mehbooba Mufti announced that it was going ahead with them in November.
The students have termed the decision as a desperate move of the government to send out signals that life in Kashmir was back to “normal”.
“I don’t fear exams,” said Gowher, “My concern is, how would those students – detained and/or completely blinded – be able to write the exams?”
The state government, however, is determined to hold exams. It has spoken of turning jails and police stations, packed with young dissenters, into examination centres. That move seems to have backfired with the students continuing to protest.
Naeem Akhtar, state education minister, defending the decision to hold exams in jails, told that there is lot of emphasis to turn jails into reformation centers.
“The moment I came to know that some of the arrested youth are students…I quietly ordered the posting of teachers who were teaching them in the detention centres,” Akhtar said. “This was done to positively engage them in studies.”
The students however are not impressed, saying their “survival is at stake” all over the state.
“What will we do with education? Who will protect us? There should be at least a semblance of safety in the Valley,” said Yamin Manzoor, a class 10 student from downtown Srinagar. “Let the government first assure us that all our detained batch-mates will be released, and all those injured won’t be harassed and they will be given help in treatment, we would happily appear in the examinations.”
The anti-exam protests have seen students carrying placards saying “Blood and Ink cannot flow together,” a parody of the government of India’s statement to Pakistan that ‘blood and talks cannot flow together’.
Meanwhile, all educational institutions in the Valley remain shut ever since the killing of Hibzul Mujahideen commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani on July 8. Besides government-run schools, in which over 65% of Kashmir’s student population is enrolled, private schools and coaching centres are also shut.
With no signs of let up in protests, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti said she would take a “holistic view ” on class 10 and class 12 examinations. But after a delegation of students from several schools called on her, Mehbooba announced that the board exams would be held as per schedule.
“The government is exploring various options in consultation with the Education Department, the Board of School Education (BOSE) and other stakeholders to ensure that you have more options and your academic year is not lost,” the chief minister told the students.
Apart from the physical injuries sustained, those participating in the agitation for ‘azaadi’ feel that their demands and cause cannot simply be set aside because exams are round the corner.
The students want a deferment of examinations till March next year. “Right now we are not in a state of mind to write an exam,” said Rufiah, a class 12 student of Baramulla. “It is frustrating to behave as if nothing has happened.”
Most of these students, who have been confined to their homes since July 8, have a simple question: “Why is the government pitching education against politics?”
Parents are no less troubled. “Our children are in a state of shock and I am sure any psychiatric examination will disqualify them all from sitting exams,” said Muhammad Younis, whose daughter studies in a leading missionary school in Srinagar. “Our children should be educated and be not just literate. Let this be the opportunity to rethink on our outdated system of examination.”
Amid all this commotion, minister Naeem Akhtar wrote an open letter to senior separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani, who has been opening and closing the Valley at will with his protest calendars.
The letter dated October 11, 2016, sought Geelani’s intervention to restore the crippled educational set up in the Valley.
“Please don’t mistake this letter as a plea for clemency,” Akhtar wrote. “Sir, I am praying for education, for we don’t have it though we do well in most other fields…I wish every child of Kashmir outperforms my children who are very well placed in life. Education saved them and many others from the fate of Insha and Junaid.”
The minister’s letter drew flak, with many commentators accusing him of twisting facts regarding Insha and Junaid, two teens who were fired upon with shotgun pellets despite not being part of any protest.
“If they cannot conduct by-polls for two Lok Sabha seat because ministers cannot visit their constituencies or even hold a small gathering, how can they expect children to appear in exams in such an atmosphere,” said Mushtaq, a government school teacher.
Syed Ali Geelani for his part has termed holding exams, especially in police stations, an “irresponsible, callous” decision.
“Our so-called education minister is so educated that without using his mental acumen he can go to any extent to gratify his personal ego or obey the diktats of his masters,” Geelani said in a statement. “It must be the only ministry in the world to convert police barracks and interrogation centres into examination halls. The mortgaged minds and sold out souls can yield only such illogical affirmation which even a low thinking soul would not joke about,” Geelani said.
Along with this statement, Geelani also released some damning figures: “9000 youth, mostly students have been arrested, 5500 are wanted and 2300 FIRs have already been registered against them in the last about four months”.
Besides at least 40 students are reportedly serving detention under the “draconian” Public Safety Act.
In the face of the mounting controversy, the state education department has done a volte face and said that “it is impossible to hold exams for students detained in police stations and jails.”
The students meanwhile continue to be in a state of anxiety. “We have been sitting idle for the last three months,” said Fatima, a class 12 student of Sopore. “It has been difficult to concentrate on studies in an atmosphere of killings, curfew and violence. We are not ready for examinations. It will only add to our stress.”
Many of the students said that before the protests broke out, they had covered only 40% of the syllabus. “We had no practical sessions and didn’t cover some tough chapters. There were no teachers to help us. The internet blockade also took away an opportunity to self-study,” said the student from Sopore.
The students’ sentiment is backed by a Srinagar-based school principal, who questioned the rationale of the state government to hold examinations, and lamented that all private schools have been put in a tight spot.
“In the prevailing situation,” he said. “It is unthinkable for us to conduct exams — not that we don’t want it, but we worry for the safety of our students at a time when schools are being set on fire.”
The principal refers to the torching of schools across the Valley, especially in South Kashmir—the epicentre of 2016 Kashmir protests.
The “militarised school campuses” have discouraged many parents from sending their wards to school.
“Exam in times of war is stupidity,” said Zameer Khan, a private school teacher of Sopore. “If exam is a sign of normalcy, then holding them in schools-turned-garrisons is provocation.”
To ‘encourage’ the students to sit the exams, Minister Naeem Akhter argues: “Do we give exams/ education a pause and allow the the boycott calendar to supersede all other calendars?”
Students, however, accuse him of being “blind to the situation” and asked him to think of those students who have been rendered blind because of pellet injuries — students like Gowher who frequent SMHS hospital these days.
Safeena Wani is a Srinagar based independent journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.