Srinagar: With the academic session in Kashmir drawing to a close, the state government’s decision to hold exams for students in classes ten and twelve next month – despite schools having been shut for over 100 days amid the complete lockdown in the Valley – has enraged the student community. The anger has now manifested into protests, with students saying the exams should be postponed since they did not get adequate time to complete the syllabus let alone prepare for the tests. According to the students, the human cost of the ongoing unrest has traumatised them, making it difficult for them to concentrate on their studies.
The trigger for the students’ protests was an announcement by the State Board of School Education – the exam conducting body – that the tests will be held starting the second week of November.
Government politicising education?
Since the announcement, the students, who are now left with less than a month to prepare, have been on the warpath, accusing the government of politicising education at a tense time in the state. Students carrying placards reading, ‘Boycott, boycott, examination boycott, don’t make us scapegoats, government is blind to situation’ are a common sight in different parts of Kashmir these days.
The government has also come under fire from academicians and the opposition for using exams as a pretext to provide a “false sense” of normalcy in the Valley, that too at the cost of students’ safety. Members of the J&K Students Welfare Association met chief minister Mehbooba Mufti on October 18 to discuss the issue but left disappointed as they were told that the tests will be held according to schedule. “The government is exploring options to ensure the students have more options and their academic year is not lost,” Mehbooba told the students’ delegation.
The state minister for education, Naeem Akhter, has also encouraged students to prepare for the tests. “Can a year be deferred? Can we defer 2016 in the calendar and can we give it a pause till boycott calendar supersedes all other calendars?” asked the minister, who received a threat from Lashkar-e-Taiba on September 27 for “forcing people to resume normal work”. Akhter has also regularly requested separatist organisations, who release weekly protests programmes, to exclude educational institutions from their protest plans.
The government has not only stood by its decision to hold the exams as scheduled for high school students but will also hold exams for middle school students. This is likely to further enrage the protesting students. “The unnecessary haste shown by the government over the exams shows a clear design behind the move,” Danish Bhat, president of the students’ body, told The Wire, referring to the ongoing unrest in Kashmir. Clashes between protesting youth and personnel from the security forces continue across the Valley and the police have been conducting raids to arrest youths involved in stone pelting. “Can students be expected to concentrate on studies in this kind of environment?” asked Bhat, who along with scores of students, staged a protest in Srinagar’s Press Colony after the students’ failed meeting with Mehbooba.
The unrest in Kashmir – which has now in the 16th week after springing up following the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani on July 8 – has so far resulted in the deaths of 94 civilians, including several students, who were killed in clashes with security forces. Additionally, over 13000 civilians have been injured, including over 1000 persons blinded by the pellets that security personnel fire at protesters. The unrest has also, according to government information, seen over 4000 men from the security forces get injured.
“The students are facing mental trauma. We demand postponement of exams until March 2017,” Bhat said, adding the government was ignoring the plight of the students who have either been injured in the unrest or have been blinded due to the pellets.
After schools were shut on July 8 and the ensuing unrest stretched from days into weeks, some educated youth in different localities across Kashmir volunteered to teach students in “community schools” – an initiative which started from south Kashmir, the epicentre of the ongoing conflict. While these schools have been beneficial, the formal education system has undoubtedly taken a hit. As students continue to struggle against the state’s administration, psychologists and experts have come out in defence of the students, warning the government against pushing them to prepare for these tests.
According to A.G. Madhosh, a prominent educational psychologist, examinations are meant to assess what students have learned. But since schools have been shut for 100 days, what will the scheduled exams really be testing, he wondered. Madhosh, however, asserted that not holding exams was not a solution and instead advised that the state authorities should give students three months to prepare for the tests. “The situation around created uncertainty in the minds of students … the need is to first get the schooling pattern back among them,” Madhosh told The Wire.
The fact that the government has failed to re-open schools in itself explains the situation on the ground. Besides, some isolated incidents of schools being set on fire in southern Kashmir have also put teachers, students and parents on the edge. “If the government has described the present situation as non-conducive for elections, how can they hold examinations then?” asked G.N. Var, president of the Private Schools Association. He was referring to the fact that the government has asked the election commission to postpone polls in Anantnag to fill the seat that Mehbooba vacated after she was elected to the state legislature earlier this year.
He added, “The government wants to exploit students to show normalcy in Kashmir.”
Apart from government-run schools, where over 65% of Kashmir’s total student population is enrolled, private schools and coaching centres have also remained shut during the ongoing unrest. Parents have been talking about the loss of time suffered by the students, but students’ safety has also been a cause of concern for them. “No parents can see their children losing the precious time. But who will guarantee the safety of our children when even the government employees are not going to work,” said Firdous Ahmad Shah, a chemist from the Safa Kadal locality of downtown Srinagar which was under curfew for 52 days after July 8. Shah’s son Ubaid Firdous, a class 12th student, has only resumed taking tuitions this month after the situation in the Valley improved a little.
A clinical psychologist talked about a universal “baseline” for students worldwide expressing a fear of exams regardless of how prepared they may be. “We usually counsel to confront the fear instead of running away from it. The stress level in students goes up when exam dates are announced. The students have been witness to the ongoing situation in Kashmir and it has left an impact on their mind. How can [the] government pressurise them to sit in exams when they should be given a breather?” asked the psychologist.
The opposition has also put its weight behind the students’ warning to the government against “using education and students” to enforce normalcy in the state. “What kind of examinations are they talking about when the schools have remained shut for almost four months now?” asked National Conference president Farooq Abdullah last week, after chairing a meeting of opposition party leaders to review the situation in Kashmir, “The exams have been delayed in the past too. What is the big deal about it now,” he noted.