Srinagar: Empty lawns, deserted corridors and vacant classrooms greeted Riyaz Siddiqui on Thursday morning, his first day at Sri Pratap Higher Secondary School in Srinagar city, a nerve center of student protests that shook the Valley last year. This historic school, like thousands of others in the Valley that were scheduled to open after the two-month-long winter break, is shut following the deaths of four civilians when they were reportedly caught in a crossfire during an encounter between security forces and militants in Shopian on Sunday.
"In academics, we are asked to provide solutions to problems. That is our craft. We have a short academic session in Kashmir already which is further shrunk by public holidays and strike calls. Then there are weekends and summer vacations. Still, we deal with it. What choice do we have?" Siddiqui, the principal of the prestigious school in Srinagar, told Firstpost.
Following the deaths of the civilians in a shootout mired in controversies in Shopian's Pahnoo village, the Jammu and Kashmir government, wary of the turmoil that swept the educational institutions last year, ordered all schools and colleges to remain closed for three more days. As the deadline neared and the situation showed no sign of improvement, the state Education Minister Altaf Bukhari extended the order till Saturday.
The memories of last year's 'student uprising', the raw rage coming out on the roads to fight pitched stone battles with security forces armed with automatic weapons, has put the embattled state government on the back foot. The image of a young girl student with a basketball in one hand and stones in another changed the whole narrative of street protests, something the government doesn't want it to repeat.
‘Peace' under threat
In a dangerous turn of events that took even the security forces by surprise, unknown outsiders believed to be separatist activists, mingled with students of SP Higher Secondary School last year to fight street battles with security forces. The fire sparked by the alleged assault on students of Pulwama Degree College and fanned by the highhandedness of the battle-hardened forces facing the heat travelled far and wide.
"We had inputs from various security agencies that attempts may be made this year too to provoke the students into stone pelting, especially because the wounds of Shopian killings are still fresh. If a delay of seven days in opening the educational institutions can stop the atmosphere from being vitiated further, there is no harm in it. As the saying goes, a stitch in time saves nine," a senior officer in the education department said on condition of anonymity.
But there are other concerns too. The last two years of protests and shutdowns not only dented the economy of the state but they also delayed many developmental projects, including the mega-flyover in the heart of Srinagar. This is something the incumbent government will be looking forward to showcasing before the voters ahead of the Lok Sabha elections next year and Assembly elections the year after.
"With the tourist season set to begin, any disturbance (in the form of civilian killings or student protests) will send a wrong message to people intending to visit Kashmir. One bad week may cast an ugly shadow on the whole year. Last year, a lot of resources and energy have gone into promoting Kashmir as one of the best tourism destinations in the world. We are looking forward to a prosperous year for people involved in the tourism sector," director of tourism, Mehmood Rashid, said.
Education as casualty
Caught between the contesting narratives of turmoil and tourism are the innocuous students and the education sector which has, after the state’s economy, become the new casualty of the nearly three-decade-long turmoil in Kashmir. With schools and colleges shut, even though the winter vacations have ended, students are feeling both angry and frustrated over the choices that are being shoved down their throats, despite their resistance.
"If you combine the number of shutdown calls, curfews, public holidays, summer vacation, this vacation and that vacation, Kashmir, it turns out, remains open for less than 150 days. With more than half of the year gone waste, it is a miracle that students are still interested in studying and are not picking up guns," Zakir Maqbool, a student of Islamic University of Science and Technology, told Firstpost.
Indeed, it is nothing short of a miracle that despite the unending turmoil, the looming political uncertainty, the senseless violence it sparks on an almost daily basis and the trauma that it has produced among people in Kashmir, life still moves on. Resilience, after all, is an offshoot of resistance and Kashmiris never forget to remind themselves about this.
"Earlier, the Hurriyat leaders used to issue diktats through protest calendars asking educational institutions and businesses that they must remain closed," said Jahanzaib, a student of Srinagar's Amar Singh College, who gave only his first name for fear of reprisal by authorities. "Now the government is resorting to same practice by locking down schools and colleges to show the world that Kashmir is peaceful. But is it really?"
Updated Date: Mar 09, 2018 20:58 PM