Batgund, Anantnag: With a heavy heart, Dildar Ahmad Bhat scoured the charred classrooms for any retrievable item. As a way of saying 'thank you' to the society, Bhat had founded Iqra Public School in 2002 with a single agenda: To change the landscape of literacy in this remote village of south Kashmir.
Unlike other days, Bhat won't, however, hear the afternoon giggles of young kids or them reading aloud after their teacher. Instead, the silence of the ruins, school to more than 200 children of this and neighbouring villages, welcomes him.
Last Friday evening, at nearly quarter to eight, neighbours brought the tragic news to Bhat, 46, that his school, located couple of hundred metres away from his home, had caught fire. In less then 30 minutes, massive flames reduced the three-storied building to ashes. Not a pin could be retrieved, Bhat said.
As he walked in a narrow lane, which ends at the gate of the school, Bhat’s hands began to tremble. “We could not get a single file out," he said, pointing his nervous fingers at the school, "It was as if they had sprinkled petrol on it. Everything was reduced to ashes."
Inside the building, Bhat walked into a room full of half-burnt books and desks, smoked window frames and charred tin roof. A half-burnt file lay on a charred desk whose iron base stood intact, like a desk skeleton. “This was the result of years of struggle. I selected chairs and these desks myself. I wanted classrooms to look like perfect spaces for interaction. Everything's gone now,” Bhat said.
Iqra Public School, located some seven kilometres from Anantnag town, was shut for the first 14 days after Burhan Wani was killed and streets began to simmer. But the school administration soon decided to open a 'tuition centre' there.
"Not only our 200 students, children from nearby villages, including those studying in government-run schools, used to attend classes. With the fire, they have nowhere to go now. Their future has been jeopardised,” he said.
I took leave of Bhat. He perhaps wanted privacy. Tears had swollen up in his eyes as he spoke of the incident. As I exited what remains of the main gate of the school, I could hear him cry. “We were preparing them (students) for exams. That was our only fault,” teacher Afaq Ahmad told Firstpost outside the school.
Since the uprising, 27 schools across Kashmir Valley have been burnt by unknown arsonists. The latest casualty of these despicable acts was located at Kaba Marg in Anantnag, some 60 kilometres from capital Srinagar. The school, a huge building adjoining a Sufi shrine, is located on the border between Kulgam and Anantnag districts, which have been at the forefront of the agitation that has left at least 94 civilians and two cops dead in Kashmir.
Although the J&K police has not found any common link so far between these incidents, a war of words has broken out between the separatists, who are spearheading the prevailing agitation, and the state government over the issue with one side blaming the other for destruction of schools. JKLF chief Yasin Malik recently blamed the chief minister Mehbooba Mufti and education minister Naeem Akhtar for the crisis.
“This is a black spot on our face, no matter who does it,” former secretary with the Board of School Education and a noted academician, Bashir Ahmad Dar, said in Srinagar. “We will have to bear its implications for years to come. Although buildings will be reconstructed once again but the idea of educational institutes as non-political and 'Sanctum Santorum' of our identity, will face challenges."
In south Kashmir's Kulgam district, where 14 people have been killed during the ongoing unrest, the government schools started reopening in the first week of October. Although the attendance was minimal, it started picking up. However, as the schools opened their gates, of the 27 across Kashmir, seven were targeted here. And it hasn't ended yet.
One morning, last week, I crossed a blockade on the road leading to the village of Chawalgam to meet Farooq Ahmad Andrabi. A school was set on fire here by unknown people in early September after day-long protests in the area. A short, lean man in early thirties, Andrabi worked in a software company in Bangalore before returning to his native village in 2014 due to the deteriorating health condition of his mother.
He found employment in the state government's education department as a teacher. Now, inside his modest home, he says he wants to return to the world of softwares. After the unrest began, he had started free tuition classes in a nearby building. The village elders appreciated his idea but the younger generation saw motives in it. He was abused and even threatened.
“Our children have got used to sitting at home. They don’t like the idea of going back to schools because there is no luxury superior for than free time. Then there are these radical thoughts that inhabit their mind, that if you don’t agree with them, you are their enemy,” he said.
As we talked over cups of nun chai sitting on a veranda, my host stared at the tall Himalayas glittering in the afternoon sun behind me. “There is no respect left for a teacher now in our society,” Andrabi, whose father was also a government teacher, said.
As he spoke, my attention was seized by a life-size poster overlooking his shoulder inside the room of his father. On it, a poem by a famous Kashmiri Sufi poet, Samad Mir, read:
Alim Gaw Alim-e-Ludni
Tchalim Shakh Aam Badni
Porum Na Kaseh Nish Toosh
Karis Aarasteh Yaari
“Knowledge is, knowledge of Deity,
Doubt I left when I saw my Mursheed
I did not bow for the sake of knowledge
But my beloved (Mursheed) blessed me.”
In Batanag, I was about to finish my brief chat with Afaq, the school teacher, when Bhat emerged from the ruins. He looked sick and I didn't want to bother him more than I had already done by pressing for details. However, I asked who he blamed for burning his school.
“Do you think people from Punjab had come to burn it?” he said, as he took slow, melancholic steps on the way to his home.