This was the crucial test. Earlier this week, after around three months of unrest in the Kashmir Valley, the government called for the reopening of schools. This came on the same day that the Centre proposed an eight-point formula to defuse the ongoing wave of unrest.
While relaxations were given in phases, the entire valley hadn’t seen a “no-curfew” day since Id on 11 September. Effectively, schools have remained closed since June, through months of violence that have claimed—in confrontations between the police and stone throwers—109 lives so far. Schools were shut either because of strikes called by separatist leaders or because of curfews imposed by the government that forced shops to shut and cleared traffic off streets.
Students trickled into classrooms on Monday, the first day of the government’s peace initiative. Still, many chose to stay away, some in protest, others out of fear. But the government decided to keep the schools open. Teachers were asked to report to work. Their identity cards and the uniforms of students were considered “curfew passes”.
On Monday, attendance in Srinagar schools was thin; moderate attendance was reported in other parts of the valley. The government claimed rural schools had 80% attendance, while the cities and towns reported 30% attendance.
A majority of private schools in the city, however, chose to remain closed after miscreants pelted stones. Those that opened on Monday reported less attendance on Tuesday.
Separatists, mostly hardliners, had asked parents not to send their children to school on hartal (strike) days. This roused the anger of parents, who feel education has become the new battleground.
“The government has asked us to get our children to school, but how will they ensure their safety if attacked by stone throwers?” says Habibullah, a parent (name changed). Though his sons, students of classes VIII and X in one of the valley’s elite schools, wanted to attend classes, they were forced to stay home on the first two days after schools reopened. “We want to go to school but our parents have kept us under house arrest,” says Inam, Habibullah’s younger son.
The boys say that with everything closed, their video games keep them company. Several studies show that Internet usage has increased. And mobile phone service providers say many teenagers have applied for Internet on their phones. Social networking sites such as Orkut, Facebook and Twitter have also gained popularity.
While schools reported a rise in attendance on Wednesday (around 90%), owing to a “normal day” call from separatists, the rest of the week saw thin attendance again, with curfew reimposed as a precaution owing to Thursday’s verdict on the Ayodhya case.
“Everybody wants to send children to school but the choice should not be between safety and education. I pray to everybody to keep education neutral,” says Samiya (name changed), mother of two school-going children.
Both students and schools are hopeful about the coming week. “We hope it will be better and that we can ply school buses as well,” says Mohammed Iqbal, communication director, Tyndale Biscoe School, the valley’s oldest and most reputed missionary school.