As Kashmir Remains on Edge, School Arson Attacks Rob Students of Chance at Normalcy

Twenty-eight schools have been set on fire in less than two months. The government and the separatists continue to trade blame for the attacks, with little effort to prevent them.

The Batagund Middle School, seen after the arson attack. Credit: Wasim Ashraf

The Batagund Middle School, seen after the arson attack. Credit: Wasim Ashraf

Batagund (Anantnag): October 28 was another “normal day” at the Batagund middle school in this south Kashmir village. Classes went on for two-and-a-half hours, a schedule followed by the school administration since July this year, with the faculty having agreed to start early the next day in light of the upcoming exams.

But as the night went on, arsonists dealt another blow to the Valley’s education system. Muhammad Ayoub Bhat watched helplessly as the school, where he has been serving as principal since 2006, went up in flames. “I couldn’t control my tears seeing my school being reduced to ashes. Before we could do anything everything was lost,” Bhat told The Wire at his house, at a small distance from the school. Bhat’s school is now the fifth educational institute to have been burned down in Anantnag district since September.

When Kashmir erupted in protests almost four months ago, the school, which had 190 students on its rolls, opened its doors to students from adjoining villages. Around 400 students found solace in the school to resume their studies.

On the morning on October 30 (Sunday), however, amid the autumn chill in Kashmir, many of these students, some  joined by their parents, left their homes to visit the school for the last time – to mourn the loss. “How can somebody benefit from burning down schools,” sighed Muhammad Sonaullah, a villager.

By the time the students arrived, the smouldering walls holding the frames of the half-burnt windows were crumbling. “That was my class there,” Zaker Maqbool, a fourth standard student from the village told his father, pointing towards one of the burnt classrooms on the ground floor of the building.

The blaze is spreading

Nobody knows who burnt the school and there are no answers about why educational institutions across Kashmir are being targeted. The Batagund middle school was one among 28 schools and the second non-governmental school torched in less than two months. These incidents have come amid attempts by the state government to reopen schools, which have been shut for 115 days during the unrest that followed the killing of rebel commander Burhan Wani on July 8 this year.

What has been worrying is that the incidents of schools being burned have risen. While nine schools were torched in September, the number went up to 18 in October. In the past four days, six schools have been set on fire across the Valley, two in a single day on October 30.

“I was destroyed to see the three floors of the building engulfed in flames simultaneously. Plumes of smokes were coming out from all sides. It seemed as if somebody had spread combustible material inside the building before setting it on fire,” mourned the principal.

South Kashmir, which has been the epicentre of the ongoing unrest, has born the brunt of the arson. Of the 28 schools burnt, 15 were in south Kashmir, which is spread over four districts.

“The schools are our national assets and burning them is not only tragic but a huge loss,” said Aijaz Ahmad Bhat, director of school education in Kashmir, adding that the concern was that every schools can’t be provided with round-the -clock security.

Although the education department has directed the chief education officers in every district to hire watch and ward staff for every school, Ahmad Bhat said the support of local population was a must to prevent further loss.

“Such tragic incidents didn’t happen even in 2008 and 2010,” he said, referring to the months of the unrest that was witnessed during the two successive years in Kashmir.

Since most of these schools were torched during the night, it is being seen as a pattern adopted by the miscreants to indulge in arson during the hours when the chances  were lesser chances of them getting caught.

Ghulam Rasool Shah, chief education officer of Anantnag district, said the police had questioned a few people, including staff members, of the torched schools but no culprit has been arrested so far.

For Shah, the worry is that the students of the schools that have attacked will suffer as it would take long time for reconstructing the buildings. While Anantnag has seen four schools burnt to ground, in the nearby Kulgam district, seven schools were torched by the arsonists, the highest in any district across Kashmir.

The Islamia Hanfia School at Anantnag. Credit: Wasim Ashraf

The Islamia Hanfia School at Anantnag. Credit: Wasim Ashraf

Blame game

On October 27, three members from the Yashwant Sinha-led delegation to the state called on Hurriyat Conference leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani for the second time and appealed to him that the schools, which have remained shut since July 9 this year, should be exempted from the protest programs. The meeting, however, failed to break the ice. Both the mainstream parties and the separatists have been condemning the burning of schools but have also blamed each other for these incidents.

During a passing out parade of police officers in Jammu, chief minister Mehbooba Mufti laid the blame on the separatists, saying they (the separatists) want a new generation of uneducated youth who can pelt stones and be used as “cannon fodder”.

“If the youth gets education they won’t pelt stones for them. The (separatist) leadership wants a generation of uneducated youth who can pelt stones for them,” Mehbooba said.

The separatists, however, hit back, alleging that the schools were being burnt under the “watchful eyes of police”. “This is being done in the vicinity of the police and under their watchful eyes,” said the Hurriyat Conference in a statement on Sunday, “Those involved in such acts can never be well-wishers of the society, not to talk of the movement, and these acts are purposely used to malign the movement.”

As the issue has hogged the headlines, the state police have started investigations but has said that providing security to every school is not possible. S.P. Vaid, director general of police for law and order, said the solution lies in involving the local community and ensuring that every school gets a chowkidar (guard). “Police can’t be expected to guard every school,” said the DGP.

While the state government continues to be clueless, the loss in some cases has been irreparable; for instance, among the schools attacked, the Wakf Board-run 113-year-old Islamia Hanfia School at Lal Chowk Anantnag that was set on fire on September 19.

“Whosoever are burning schools in Kashmir are evil. This evil needs to be identified and condemned unequivocally. All Kashmiris who believe in the light of education and enlightenment bringing the ultimate justice to the land must speak up,” said columnist Arjimand Hussain Talib in a post on Facebook.

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