At 16, Qasim (name changed) is quiet but very talented. He has a mind of his own. During the first few weeks of the agitations following militant commander Burhan Wani’s killing on 8 July, Qasim sometimes walked down to the main road, curious about the stone-pelting, tear-gas and other sorts of commotion.
It’s possible he threw a stone or two, to join the fun. Make no mistake, it was fun for many of the boys who paralysed Kashmir with their demonstrations of youth power. But his stern mother kept him indoors most of the time, with loud warnings against him getting hurt or getting into trouble.
Qasim has been studying in his room through most of the past four months of unrest. Daily, he says. He was often joined by one or two friends. They would study together before working out in the attic with weights, or play music or watch TV or the few films they had downloaded before internet was suspended.
Today, Qasim is studying harder than ever as the Jammu and Kashmir board exams are round the corner, and Qasim is in Class 10 — a 'board year'. But he is frustrated and upset. Exams are basically a competition, he points out, and the advantage that he and others like him who studied hard had, is now lost.
The state government has announced that students will only have to attempt 50 percent of the questions in the exams. They can choose any half of the questions, not necessarily from each of the sections — pertaining to different portions of the syllabus.
The government’s argument apparently is that schools had only covered half the syllabus before they were closed.
For Qasim, the point is that, "even those who didn’t study, wasted their time and threw stones, will score 450. What’s the point?"
This decision is indeed flawed. On the one hand, with this sort of thing Kashmir could end up with another generation that has degrees and certificates obtained by mass copying and promotions, a 'zero year' and days, months and years of not being able to attend regular classes, like in the 1990s.
On the other hand, this decision gives a message to young men like Qasim that throwing stones would not only have been more fun (not to speak of the joys of macho preening in the neighbourhood) than studying, his months of hard work was pretty much pointless in terms of competing for marks, future admissions or the job market.
The more insidious flaw is that this decision signals to stone-pelters and others who have held the population at large to ransom that the government can be depended upon to bail them out. Remember, most of those manning barricades with stones have been school students.
Given the coercive efficiency that those intent on disruption have shown this year, I expect that what passes for 'normalcy' in Kashmir will be elusive again next year. I fervently hope I am wrong but, in case that happens (next year or even in the more distant future), those who urge students to take to the streets will be able to credibly assure them that they will not risk much damage to their academic records. The government will make sure they are at no great competitive disadvantage.
More immediately, this has given an oblique stamp of governmental approval to those who instigated and participated in this year’s disruptions. After the first few days following Burhan’s death, most common people either sat on the fence or actually wanted to get back to what they call 'normalcy'.
They could not, partly because the state government waited for more than two months to assert its authority in many parts of the valley. Agents provocateurs were well entrenched by then. If the government initially hoped that the agitations would lose steam on their own, that hope was obviously misplaced.
Governments can’t thrive on hope. This government owes Qasim an explanation.