In the past week, the national media has picked up on the systemic burning down of schools in Kashmir. At least 27 schools have been set on fire during the unrest in the Valley amid attempts by the state government to reopen schools, which have been shut for 115 days during the current turmoil. No one has claimed responsibility for these recent acts of arson, and the state police seem clueless with no viable leads emerging. Reports indicate that the affected schools cater mostly to children from low-income families. Many of them are also the only schools in their respective areas, leaving thousands of children in the lurch. On Monday, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court took cognizance of these incidents and directed the government to take necessary measures for the safety of these schools. In the absence of clear motives, speculation is rife about who is responsible for these acts of arson. The mainstream political class and the separatists have condemned these acts. In their bid to gain moral high ground, both sides have also blamed each other for these incidents. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti held the separatists responsible for these acts, saying that they want a new generation of uneducated youth who can pelt stones and be used as “cannon fodder”. In response, the separatists have alleged that the schools were burnt down under the “watchful eyes of the police”. They have gone on to claim that these acts are being purposely used to “malign” the “movement” against the Indian State. The state administration seems helpless, saying that they cannot provide security to every school. According to the Press Trust of India, SP Vaid, the Director General of police for law and order, said the solution lies in involving the local community and ensuring that every school gets a guard. This position seems reasonable. However, the lack of sufficient leads in the investigation and their seeming lack of confidence in dealing with rising incidents of arson do not augur well for the children, who have suffered the most. However, there is one thing that the state government and Centre can do to mitigate the problem, albeit partially. They should not use schools to accommodate security forces, even if they are empty. Any shelter for the security forces becomes a target of militants.
Who stands to benefit from burning down schools? Although no definitive proof has emerged, it does seem as if these acts of arson are part of a concerted effort to prevent the education system from functioning in a normal way. One of the overwhelming signs of normalcy in the Valley is the reopening of schools. Since the unrest began in July, almost all schools in Kashmir have been shut on the diktat of separatist groups. “Since July 8, government and private schools across the Valley have remained closed for 111 consecutive days, with the Hurriyat refusing to exempt them from its protest calendar,” according to The Indian Express. The government’s recent decision to announce the examination schedule for class 10 and 12 students has irked groups unwilling to deviate from their diktat. However, reports indicate that for the family members or relatives of top separatist leaders, there is always space for a little leeway. The granddaughter of separatist leader and Hurriyat chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani recently wrote her Class 10 exams at the Delhi Public School in Srinagar, amidst high security, as per media reports. Besides teenagers arrested (often without any charge) by the state police during the recent spate of protests, other children have also not attended school for the past three months. They have not even completed half their syllabus due to the lack of school days. Under such circumstances, a call for exams without any consideration to postpone them or modify the curriculum seems unfair to the children, especially those who have not participated in the protests.
Some have suggested that these acts of arson are part of a plan to create another “lost generation” in Kashmir. The “lost generation” refers to those who grew up in a Kashmir ravaged by the preceding two decades of turmoil. At the height of militancy in the 1990s, many had quit school and enlisted with militant groups. There were also those who wanted to continue their studies but could not as a result of the violence and chaos, which was far worse than what one sees today. Many schools were also burnt down in the process. Unlike a lucky few, the vast majority could not leave the state and study elsewhere. Besides the long time taken to rebuild these schools, many grew up with no real ambitions or motivations. They were just preoccupied with survival, remaining idle. The effects of losing an entire generation to the violence and chaos are still being felt today by the people. In the current context, if uninterrupted education is denied to the present generation, it is Kashmiris who stand to lose the most. Even when authorities and separatists work out a way to restart in the school system, many children will not have schools to attend till their burnt classrooms are repaired. Fixing these schools could take months. If these acts of arson are the work of militant groups, once cannot but help smell a whiff of irony, since today’s militants are usually known to be well-qualified. The right to education is a fundamental right. Anyone found trampling upon this right should face the full force of the law.