Srinagar: On Tuesday, Khushboo Jan, a class 10 student from the uptown Chanpora locality, left home at 10 am to reach the government higher secondary school, Kothibagh, in Lal Chowk, the heart of Srinagar. On the way, she was joined by a group of classmates. They exchanged smiles; a few of them even shook hands. But tension prevailed in the air. Their examination was set to begin at 11 am.
Under normal circumstances, the event would have passed as the culmination of yet another academic calendar without grabbing any attention. But in this season of unrest, when schools have remained closed since July this year, the loss of education and the government’s decision to go ahead with the tests in time were among the most debated issues in the Valley. And as students walked past the entrance of the higher secondary school to take the exams, many of them, hoping that the authorities would have followed the announced “relaxation pattern” while setting the question papers, alluded to the uncertainty that loomed over the tests till Monday.
A majority of the students were accompanied by their parents. For the next three hours, like elsewhere, they waited anxiously outside the Kothibagh centre for the exams to get over. “I did well and wrote all the compulsory questions,” Khushboo told her father, Firdous Ahmad, a government contractor, with a smiling face after the exams ended. But she was critical of the authorities for setting an “easy” paper, terming it an “injustice” for students who work hard.
Like Khushboo, thousands of students on November 15 wrote their class 10 exams amid tight security arrangements. Most of them came out of the centres jubilant, hugging and congratulating each other – a sight that will give much relief to the government. After the state education department’s announcement in September to hold the exams, the government faced sharp criticism from academicians as well as the student community. The protests by students, seeking the deferment of the exams till March 2017, were a regular scene in different districts across the Valley for the past two months. The issue, however, snowballed into a political controversy when Hurriyat leaders led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani backed the students demand, accusing the government of trying to politicise education to give a false sense of normalcy in the region, which witnessed its 129th day of shutdown today.
The ‘bait’ and the results
The government, however, didn’t yield to pressures even though there was no schooling in Kashmir for the past four months. Instead, it made a surprising offer to students: to hold class 10 as well as class 12 exams twice – in November and in March 2017. The offer didn’t end there. The students who were ready to write exams in November were offered a 50% reduction in the syllabus, while those who opted for March got no such offer.
By late Tuesday afternoon when the exams were over, the figures collected by State Board of School Education (BOSE) – the exam conducting body – from all ten districts of Kashmir showed that majority of the students had preferred the November option. Of the total 56,277 students, 98.63% of students (55,500) had appeared in their class 10 examination on Tuesday. Pulwama in South Kashmir, which has been the epicentre of the ongoing unrest, saw the highest percentage of the students (98.87%) taking exams. The overall turnout of the students was 4% higher than those who gave their class 12 exam on Monday – of the 31,964 students who had enrolled for the class 12 exams, 30,213 (94.5%) had taken the test.
Education minister Naem Akhter, who had appealed to the separatists to keep schools out of the ambit of the protests and shutdowns, spoke cautiously about the large participation of students in the exams. “Now is the time to look forward to the future and new possibilities. We should now all ensure that there is no more loss of education,” Akhter told The Wire. When asked whether his department had expected a majority of the students to pick the November option, Akhter said: “We have made the exams easy this time but there is no compromise on the merit. We had given the options and the decision was that of students.”
But many parents came up with a different reason for students deciding to take exams in November. “When the government offered relaxations, it was like bait for the students who couldn’t resist. But in this controversy over exams, education and competence has become a victim and the relaxation in syllabus will fall as a sword on the students who haven’t studied much and hence won’t be able to compete in competitive exams ahead,” said Bashir Hussain who accompanied his son to an examination centre. Likewise, another parent Mushtaq Ahmad gave a different explanation for persuading his daughter, Saika to take the exams though she had resisted initially. “It (exams) had become a battle of egos between government and Hurriyat, and you never know that the students who have opted for March might have to face tougher tests,” said Ahmad.
Meeting the challenges
While there were a few incidents of stone pelting reported on Monday, the whole exercise passed off peacefully on Tuesday as the authorities had imposed section 144 around examination centres, which prohibits an assembly of people in a notified area. “The exams went smoothly today,” said director general police (law & order) S.P. Vaid. A senior police official said there has been a meticulous planning and coordination between the police and district education departments to ensure smooth conduct of the exams. Explaining, he said the police has set up a special control room at its main headquarter in Srinagar, where 30 to 40 men are in constant touch with the in-charge authorities at all the examination centres to get feedback after every 20 minutes. Then there is a separate group of policemen at the headquarters, connected to district police headquarters, police stations and offices of the district chief education officers and district magistrates.
“This entire system keeps a track in and around the exam centres, so that in case of any exigency a decision is taken in no time,” said the police official, adding more than 10,000 personnel from the Jammu and Kashmir police and CRPF have been deployed for the exam duty.