Kashmir’s schools are caught in the crossfire

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Education in the Kashmir Valley has suffered several blows in recent months. In addition to mass protests, curfews and separatists’ diktats keeping students from attending school, ‘mysterious arsonists’ are burning down schools.

At least 28 schools have been torched in the last two months, most of them government-run and located in south Kashmir, the hub of the latest wave of protests and violence in the strife-torn Valley. Worryingly, the acts of arson have grown in frequency; nine schools were torched in September and the number went up to 18 in October.

Burning of schools is not a new phenomenon in Kashmir. In the 1990s, when the anti-India militancy was at its height, hundreds of schools were burned down, weakening the region’s already fragile educational infrastructure.

No one has claimed responsibility for the school burnings. Who is behind it and why is unclear. It has set off accusations and counter-accusations in J&K. While Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has blamed the separatist leaders for the arson, the latter rejected her allegations. The All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a coalition of separatist groups, said in a statement that the school burnings were part of a “well-planned strategy to malign the ongoing movement and paint it as violence and anarchy.”

Kashmir, which was in the grip of a powerful insurgency in the 1990s, erupted in angry protests on July 9 this year, following the killing of 22-year-old Burhan Wani who was shot dead by Indian security forces. A Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Wani was an icon among Kashmiri youth; he symbolized the new anti-India militancy that has gathered momentum in the Valley over the last couple of years.

His death set off powerful protests in Kashmir. The Valley has been roiled in unrest since, with thousands of youth protesting and pelting stones on the police. The police have responded with a heavy hand, using pellet guns to disperse the mobs.

Use of pellet guns has added fuel to the fire. At least a hundred people have died and over a thousand been rendered blind or suffered severe damage to the eyes due to the police’s use of these pellet guns.

Kashmiri youth have been the worst hit by the ongoing unrest. They form the bulk of the protesters and have borne the brunt of the police firing. Schools and colleges were shut down on July 9; they are yet to reopen. Some 1.2 million school children are sitting at home. Or out on the streets, pelting stones.

Police officials insist that some of those burning schools were among the stone-pelters. According to a senior police official in Anant Nag who spoke to Asia Times Online, “the leaders of the unrest want to keep the turmoil alive. They do not want normalcy to return.”

The Mufti government has been trying to get schools to start functioning. The Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan backed terrorist group, has warned J&K’s Minister for Education Naeem Akhtar, of “dire consequences” if he continues “to force people to resume normal work.“

Exams are due this month but with schools shut for months on end, much of the curriculum is yet to be completed.

As mysterious as the identity of those behind the schools burnings is the government’s inaction. Over the last several weeks, police made no arrests or take measures to prevent the acts of arson. J&K police claimed they were unable to monitor or provide security to thousands of schools scattered across the state.

It was only early this week, after the J&K High Court took “suo moto cognizance” of the burning of schools and ordered the government to prevent the “enemies of education” from destroying schools and called on it to file a compliance report by November 7 that the J&K government began acting.

After weeks of feigning helplessness it has arrested dozens of people for the school burnings over the last couple of days.

Sections of the Indian media are drawing parallels between Kashmir and Afghanistan. “It’s beginning to look eerily like the Taliban,” a blog in the Times of India observed, drawing attention to “the slippery slope that leads from cancelled classes to burning schools to Talibanized anarchy.”

Such arguments are based on the contention that Kashmir’s separatists, militants and ‘mysterious arsonists’ are opposed to education. There may be some truth to this; as Mufti pointed out recently, destroying schools results in another generation of Kashmiri youth losing out on education. It provides the separatists with an endless stream of stone pelters and the militants with fighters.

But there are other factors too that are making schools the target of anti-India forces. India has rushed in more police and paramilitary personnel to the Valley to quell the unrest. They are being housed in schools. Several schools have been taken over by the security forces for this reason, making schools targets of militant violence.

It is to prevent the security forces from establishing bunkers in villages and towns again, as they did in the 1990s, that the ‘mysterious arsonists’ could be torching schools and other public buildings.

Sudha Ramachandran
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bengaluru, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues.
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