Mysterious fires keep Kashmir children out of school

Kashmiri Muslim children inspect a torched school building on the outskirts of Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Kashmir, 31 October 2016. Image copyright EPA
Image caption At least 27 schools have been burnt down in the last few weeks

Education has been one of the major casualties in Indian-administered Kashmir since the latest round of unrest began in July following the death of a popular militant leader. Institutions have been shut, and now unknown attackers are targeting government schools. Gowhar Geelani reports from Srinagar.

On Sunday, two more government-run schools went up in flames in Indian-administered Kashmir under mysterious circumstances, taking the number of schools burned down in the region to 27 in the past few weeks.

A top police official told the BBC that schools have been targeted in 10 districts across the region, adding that they were still investigating the incidents.

The state government, a coalition of the regional Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and India's ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), says it is not known who is responsible.

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But the incidents have drawn a lot of comment.

"It is very very sad. I am saddened as a student. Why burn schools? These are our institutions, our assets. What will anyone gain from burning educational institutions?" Gulzar, a student, told the BBC.

"Education is like oxygen to any society. It should have nothing to do with politics. Obviously, those behind the burning of schools and vandalising of educational institutions cannot be called friends of Kashmir," state Education Minister Naeem Akhtar said.

"Kashmiri society also has to take up ownership of educational institutions," Mr Akhtar said, adding that it was impossible to provide security to all 12,000 schools.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Schools in Kashmir have been shut for more than 100 days

A judge in the high court for the state of Jammu and Kashmir agreed, calling for a "collective effort" to save schools because "investment in education is an investment for future generations".

But not everyone is convinced that the government is doing enough.

"Schools are important; they need to be protected. Guard them the way you guard the secretariat, the way you guard VIPs. If there are issues with security, decrease a single layer of security for VIPs and give that cover to schools," Dr Rumana Hamid Makhdoomi, a professor at Srinagar's Sher-i- Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences, wrote on her Facebook page.

The fact that schools have been shut for more than 100 days is also causing frustration, with many saying that education should be exempted from the shutdown call given by separatist groups, following clashes between Indian security forces and protesters after the death of militant Burhan Wani.

The education debate

India has blamed Pakistan for stirring unrest, an allegation Pakistan denies. Both countries claim Kashmir in its entirety, but only rule parts of the disputed region.

Mr Akhtar wrote an open letter on the issue to Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the head of the Hurriyat Conference, a political umbrella of separatist groups in the region.

"And I plead guilty to having the belief that whatever our political future, it will have meaning only if our children receive education and are able to engage with the world on their terms," the letter said.

In his latest statement, Mr Geelani responded, "If the authorities are indeed concerned about education and the future of school children, they should first release all people, particularly students, and withdraw all cases against them to create a conducive and peaceful atmosphere."

Social media is abuzz with commentary on the closure of schools and the recent attacks.

"The incidents of arson took place not in one day or in one go but over several weeks. A failure? Be that as it may, education and educational institutions must not be used as propaganda tool or outwit and defeat political adversaries," veteran Kashmiri journalist Yusuf Jameel wrote on social media.

"No sane person can justify the burning down of educational institutions. But how about the blinding of those kids who used to study in these institutes? Why selective outrage?," wrote another user, Khalid Gul.

Academics are also divided on the issue.

Shazana Andrabi, who teaches international relations at the Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST) in south Kashmir, told the BBC that "saying that education is politics or conflict neutral is a selfish, elitist and silly argument to make".

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Children have missed out on classes for many months now

"Children have been not in schools for nearly four months now. There is merit in the argument that they have suffered immensely in the current turmoil. A particular socio-economic class of students studying in government schools is the worst hit," she added.

Dr Syeda Afshana, who teaches journalism at Kashmir University's Media Education Research Centre (MERC), said the current situation is bleak.

"Education should not be linked to politics by any side. This pattern of thinking to make education a casualty is suicidal and, therefore, must be discouraged," she said.

Meanwhile, students have another cause for concern - examinations.

The state government has indicated that it would like to hold examinations in November as scheduled, but many students are asking that they be postponed for at least two months to allow them time to prepare. Others say allowance needs to be made for the fact that they have not completed even 30% of their syllabus.

"We have not been to school since July. We have only witnessed killings, arrests, daily protests and stone pelting incidents. I studied at home and sometimes took private tuition as well. But not every student has that opportunity. Therefore, the demand for rescheduling exams is genuine," a class 12 student, who wished to remain anonymous, said.