The burning of schools in Kashmir indicates that a very smart strategist is coordinating the unfolding challenge to the Indian state. The objective is multi-layered.
At the most basic level, this round of arson has raised the ante on whether board examinations can be held, and if schools can function again. A large number of students and parents were eager that exams be held.
The state board has set exam dates beginning from the second week of November. Over the past couple of months, this has become the main battleground in the state’s attempts to restore 'normalcy'. As with so much in Kashmir, perspectives have been polarized — simplistic, contrarian and uni-dimensional.
Education Minister Naeem Akhtar has boldly gone on the front foot, insisting that exams will be held. Three weeks ago, he wrote a moving and erudite open letter to secessionist leader Ali Shah Geelani, citing Islamic traditions and the example of the Prophet.
Geelani responded by first saying that education had 'blossomed' during the shutdown (presumably education on 'occupation' and 'oppression'), and then arguing that barbarity and education could not go hand in hand — an allusion to the horrific cruelty with which some of the youth who have been locked up are said to have been treated.
Schools a battleground of hartal
That the functioning of schools has become so contentious should not be a surprise. A counter-narrative against the shutdown/unrest/uprising by distraught parents of schoolchildren made a telling impact on social media a couple of months ago. That gave the issue a high profile.
Closed schools are now the last major bastion of the 'hartal' (shutdown) which began when militant commander Burhan Wani was killed on 8 July. Colleges and the University are limping back to life; college teachers have been instructed to draw up copious notes and post them where their students can access them.
Other than education, most government departments have functioned over the past month, and tough action (including dismissal) has forced most employees to abandon the paid leave that hartals have come to mean for government employees over the past couple of decades.
Functioning schools would bring a visible measure of 'normalcy' to every village and town. It would involve the movement of hundreds of thousands of students daily.
So, of course, the coordinators of the current uprising must be dismayed at the prospect of schools reopening. They have already taken to such extreme steps as burning vehicles and shops that defy the shutdown. A shop which had remained open through much of the hartal in Shopian town was set on fire in the dark early hours of 31 October.
Tying down security men
Burning schools would not only help to maintain the 'shutdown'. It is a calculated move to tie down a large number of policemen or troops to stand guard at schools at a time when forces are being deployed all over the Valley for the developing war-like situation. Militancy, as well as fresh infiltration, have increased dramatically; the threat is huge.
A side-effect of the deployment of troops at schools is that it leads to harassment (including frisking) and unease for students, particularly women students and teachers. Once a camp is established, troops tend to remain. This happened after a large number of schools were burnt in the 1990s too. Mini-camps, often of the CRPF, remained in the compounds of several schools and colleges.
After an expose by a student journalist in 2007, the then defense minister had ordered troops to vacate all educational institutions. The current round of arson could bring things back to square one.
Over the past few days of arson, during which more than two dozen schools have so far been torched, Kashmir has been rife with whodunit rumours which tend to speculate on everything but the obvious fact that this arson suits those who want the hartal to continue. The list of arson suspects in public discourse is variegated: the government, the opposition, the army, students and teachers, even contractors.
Yes, the rumour mill even speculates that a contractor-bureaucrat nexus is in position for the Centre to send funds for reconstruction. Indeed, after a similar arson in the mid-1990s, large numbers of schools were rebuilt — generally bigger and better than they had been.
However, although Kashmir’s conflict economy is amazingly resilient and innovative, it is hardly likely that those who might be cynically eager for reconstruction funds would actually go so far as to light the ugly fires themselves.
The sad thing is that, amid the swirling whodunit speculation, even those among the public who claim that arson has been foiled and arsonists chased away in certain places, say that they don’t know who the arsonists were.
As for the government, a senior PDP functionary says that some of the arsonists have been identified in south Kashmir. Let’s hope they will be brought to book and details shared publicly. For, contesting the war of narratives is as vital as restoring functionality. Real normalcy will remain elusive unless that battle is transparently engaged.