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Far From Normal: Kashmir’s Forgotten Students

Since 2014, Kashmiri students have lost over two school years to floods, protests, curfew and violence. Amir (name changed), one of several young people I have come to know and teach in Srinagar, is now in class XII. He hopes to be an engineer and clear the IIT-JEE. Since Class 6, he has been promoted without exams twice. Amir hasn’t gone to school for the past two months, and has had no access to the internet, depriving him of even YouTube videos or lectures. The book shops are out of reference books and past year test papers are being sold by a local Xerox shop at ₹15 a piece.

The JEE is now online – there is no clarity on whether he will be able to register for the exam, let alone take it at an online testing centre. Coaching centres in Srinagar are now charging an additional ₹2 lakh to move students to Chandigarh. If you have the money, there’s still hope. In its absence, students like Amir have no choice but to sit and wait – the uncertainty is something that seems normal to them now.

Amir’s family owns the hotel I stayed in on my most recent visit. He was excited to know that I teach Physics. He was even happier that I was willing to try to teach him some Math and Chemistry too. He brought out an array of photo-copied books, cobbled together from friends and family shops.

“Is this book any good?”

“Have they written the answers on the pattern of the board?”

“Take a look at my notes – is this how I am supposed to write them in the exam?”

Trivial questions that his teachers in school could have answered, should have answered, would have answered – if they could meet in school.

In 2015, Avanti – a non-profit I helped start in 2010 – set up two coaching centres for Kashmiri students in Kupwara and Handwara in partnership with the J&K government. In 2016, we had to close them after months of my colleagues hiding from protesters and police alike, conducting late night classes in mosques and fearing for their well-being. We then spent two years helping the CHINAR International Foundation and the J&K government start a government teacher-led program to run “Super 50” batches in the winter to help students prepare for the IIT-JEE and NEET. We were able to help over 240 students clear these exams each year for two years in a row. This program is now in limbo along with the Kashmiri Government. And ours was a relatively niche, small program.

Students appearing for the Avanti Selection Test in October 2015. Over 5000 students (2500 girls) took our selection test – aspiring to gain admission to the IITs and NITs. (Photo provided by author)

Over 30 lakh students in Kashmir have lost access to every single state-run educational scheme during this most recent transition. And as I travel through empty streets with shuttered shops, the repeated declaration of several Prime Minister’s scholarships is welcome. However, after close to a decade working on systemic government change in education, I know that it will be multiple years before any of these new schemes even reach a meaningful number of students.

Like most people who will read this, I lead a comfortable life in an Indian metro. It is easy to see normalcy in Kashmir through the narrow lens of protest-no protest, unrest-no unrest, 370-no 370, 35A-no 35A. What is easy to miss is that each time these transitions happen and ‘normalcy’ is restored – it takes months if not years for true normalcy to be restored in schools, colleges and the lives of young people. India has now undertaken a massive overhaul of the Kashmiri bureaucracy – there is little to no precedent that will allow us to understand the time it will take for true normalcy to return for the students in Kashmir.

In the interim, over 10 lakh students have graduated school in Kashmir over the past six years. Most with inadequate academic achievement and all of them at a significant disadvantage to their competition across India.

“Yahan Geelani band hai, yahan Shah Faesal band hai, yahan saare MP aur yahan Farooq Abdullah. In sab ki nigrani main rakhta hoon,” (that’s where Geelani is under house arrest, that’s where Shah Faesal is placed, over there more MPs and right there is Farooq Abdullah. I keep a watch on all of them) says Amir as he looks up from his books and points across the Dal Lake at the hotels and homes where Kashmiri’s local leaders are under house arrest. There is a smile in his voice. He has the ability to laugh at the absurdity of his life. This gives me hope. There isn’t vitriol, there isn’t any anger – just confusion, frustration and resignation.

Like most Kashmiri students, Amir hopes to move to Delhi to study further. Amir wants to go to school, to have Instagram and TikTok back, and to build himself a life that is secure and normal.

Healing in the valley must begin soon. For its over 30 lakh school-going children healing could begin with the simplest of first steps, the restoration of confidence in being able to attend school, the conduction of the board exams, scholarships and the ability to prepare for competitive exams in Srinagar. These children are the most important constituent in the integration with India our politicians publicly desire. Many of these children will settle for very little. They aren’t angry yet.

The writer is the founder of Avanti Learning Centres and Avanti Fellows, Physics teacher and an Ashoka Fellow, Echoing Green Fellow, Draper Richard Kaplan Fellow.

Featured image provided by author.
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