Fearing ‘radicalisation’, the Indian Army chief recently asked for control in Kashmir’s schools. But beyond this military talk, the Valley-based schools do need some control to shed off their ‘herd-mentality-producing image’ and emerge as creative endeavours.
As the Lala Sheikh restaurant’s unwashed walls match with the color of his skull-cap, Nawaz Zehgir keenly observes the people sitting around him. In this crammed tea shop at Srinagar’s Polo View (once graced by the likes of Jinnah), he is cooling his heels to have an interactive session with his friends.
This 19-year-old youth often turns up in this smoke-filled restaurant to articulate his views on varied topics and subjects. His wait lasts till a ‘hippie bunch’ of young boys and a girl walk in. For the day, they’re to talk about the prevailing education system in Kashmir.
It’s depressing, Nawaz begins, as the commotion inside grows. “I believe the real education comes from here – from the tea shops and streets,” he says, turning chirpy. “I find more interesting talks and lessons in a tea shop than in the classes.”
Much of this ‘worldview’ has been shaped by his regular hangouts with his street-smart friends, who discuss almost everything under the sun – at the shop-fronts, rather than in classrooms.
“The spaces determine who you are,” he continues, as the others sip tea and play the role of a captivated audience. “If they suppress, restrict and control us, then it’s bound to cull one’s creative acumen. I see our classrooms to be no different.”
The opinionated youngster reckons that one just needs to travel across the length and breadth Kashmir to understand the dismal state of education here. “But such controlled spaces can only produce ‘literates’, instead of actually educating us,” he says.
He takes calculated pauses to veer the conversation towards the Indian Army chief’s latest talk. Addressing the media on the eve of Army Day, General Rawat had said, “In the schools in Jammu and Kashmir, what teachers are teaching should not be taught. In schools in J&K, there can be seen two maps, one of India, another of J&K. Why do we need a separate map for J&K? What does it teach the children? Most misguided youth come from schools where they are being radicalised.”
Nawaz takes a dig at the General’s remark to the delight of his friends. “Here is this General making us believe that our schools have become ‘radicalised’ centres,” he says to the rapt attention of his friends. “Somebody should tell him that our schools aren’t even inspiring us to think critically, let alone radicalising us!”
The existing system of learning, Nawaz continues, has only reduced our campuses into ‘time-pass spaces’ – “where we only clear the futile exercise of exams and acquire those meaningless degrees.”
Much of these remarks resonate in the restaurant hosting different crowds of people from different backgrounds, seeking different directions in life. Perhaps, these informal chat-spaces do play their part in building narratives – which is otherwise hardly being encouraged in formal spaces like classrooms and educational campuses, where even student activism is often banned.
“Memorising is considered to be learning,” a 20-year-old medical student joins in. “Most of our teachers make no effort to develop soft skills in the students,” Haris Khan thumps the table with his clenched fist.
Most of these students who call themselves wanderers, seekers, and learners speak quite loudly – thus frequently grabbing the attention of the others in the restaurant. But the boys don’t seem to mind stirring what many probably dismiss as ‘the storm in a teacup’.
With his animated facial expressions, Haris expresses regret about his school days. “The focus there remained only on scoring big marks,” he says.
“The even bigger menace concerns how successive governments have failed to address the students’ problems,” says Ifra Malik. Every student is exceptionally gifted in particular ways, reckons this class 11 student. “But then the omnipresent teacher-student communication gap often wastes the potential of the students.”
As a girl, even though she cannot participate in discussions at shop-fronts, she compensates it by discussing matters with her friend circle in cafes and tea shops. For her, the entire education system is an oppressive unit.
“At times,” she says, “even my parents thought of ‘de-schooling’ to save me from becoming a lost and confused soul. They equate education with pure business. And they were quite disheartened to see how students were being punished for every single mistake rather than being groomed into well-meaning people with polished skills and talents.”
For much of the mess, they blame the Kashmiri society’s illusion of creating a ‘settled-future job image’ of a government school-teacher.
“So,” says Nawaz, “once you’re a government school-teacher, you’re hardly accountable, though lately they tried to stop the promotions of some teachers for producing poor results. So, in a way, for many of these teachers, teaching is merely the act of securing a ‘settled job’, rather than being a service to help the young minds grow.”
“As long as teaching is a desperate ’employment-seeking’ option (rather than a matter of conviction), till then, we poor souls will continue to suffer.”
Such outspoken concern simply defies the image of the Valley, which for centuries, has been the home of great scholars, and those who visited it in search of learning and knowledge. Education was imparted in the madrasas, maktabas, khanqas and patshalas. Even during the medieval period, Kashmir was a pioneer of progress and a beacon of enlightenment for the other parts of the world.
“Teachers at school need to foster and facilitate the process of interaction between students,” says Hadi Wani. This 17-year-old student believes that until and unless students are not provided a platform where they can interact and share their ideas, the system is not going to change.
The friends nod their heads in agreement.
The author is a student and freelance journalist from Srinagar, Kashmir.
A version of this article was first published here.
Featured image used for representative purposes only.