Srinagar: In the Kashmir Valley of the late 1990s, there weren’t too many good schools around. There were none affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) run by the Union government, other than some army schools that offered limited access to civilians. One school affiliated to the board, which prescribes the syllabus and conducts examinations, did open but it closed soon after, leaving a few hundred students in limbo.

“The standard of our education was worse than Bihar’s," says Vijay Dhar, founder of Delhi Public School, or DPS, in Srinagar.

It was this scenario, combined with migration of students to other parts of the country, that prompted Dhar to open a DPS in Srinagar in 2003. He now divides his time between Delhi and Srinagar.

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Dhar himself is a Kashmiri Hindu, one of several thousands who left the state in the wake of militancy, but migration isn’t restricted to one community.

Inspiring masses: DPS Srinagar principal K.K. Sharma with students. The CBSE school here educates 3,500 students on a 16-acre campus. Ramesh Pathania / Mint

Muslims account for the majority of the residents in the Kashmir Valley, the heart of Jammu and Kashmir and the setting of a conflict that started in 1947. Soon after the state’s accession to India, it was invaded by Paksitani tribesmen. India and Pakistan have repeatedly fought over Kashmir and an uneasy peace exists around a so-called Line of Control, with neither country willing to accept the international border. Locals have also been clamouring for more autonomy and, since the early 1990s, militancy has been an endemic problem in the state.

While the resulting violence has meant the near-death of commerce and normal life in the state, it has also taken a toll on young people who just want to go to school.

Hoping to keep most of these 150,000 students at home, DPS Srinagar educates 3,500 students on a 16-acre campus near the newly opened railway station. “My children revolted when I planned the school, they wanted something in Delhi....but I wanted a good school with all facilities and a national curriculum and national name for Kashmir," says Dhar.

The DPS Society, which set up its first school in New Delhi in 1949, gradually introduced the franchise system of education. Franchisees pay the society a royalty for the use of the brand and the logo. Thanks to this system, DPS now has 115 schools in India and 13 abroad.

The Srinagar DPS is equipped with modern facilities, including language labs to teach phonetics, art studios, computing facilities and libraries. And it has managed to get its share of unwelcome attention. “We do get threat calls, asking us to shut down. Their (separatists) main problem is that we are a CBSE institution. They think we are propagating Central ideas through this school," says the school’s principal, K.K. Sharma.

“During these protests (separatist leader Syed Ali Shah) Geelani called for the school to be shut down, calling it an imperialist design of India," says Dhar referring to a recent spate of separatist protests. “The parents asked me to talk to Geelani but I refused ...(but) the parents have to be appreciated for their solid support, which kept the school open."

The school remained open until mid-August to comply with CBSE’s requirement of 225 days of classes every year. It worked through several protests, until a school bus was attacked. The school, in the interest of the students’ safety, decided to stay closed on days when there were protests, says Sharma. “But we now work even on Sundays to fulfil the CBSE requirements."

“The instability is unfortunate. You never know if you can open the school on a particular day...we start getting calls from 4 in the morning on strike days from parents who want to know if the school will be open."

Apart from dealing with seperatist sentiments, the school has also had to deal with local customs of separating boys and girls in school, and of girls of a certain age having to cover their hair or wear a veil. “People were ready to kill us in 2003 when the school was set up—it was a co-educational school and that too without veils and hijabs (a cloth used to cover a woman’s hair)," says Sharma.

“When we started, parents used to come and ask where their daughters would sit. I would point to a spot in a classroom and say, there. Then they would ask where the boys would sit, and I would point to the spot right next to where I had pointed earlier and say, there," says Dhar.

“Some of them had objections and I would tell them this is the way things would be and it was their choice. Some went away only to come back later."

Administrator Poonam Bhan says a small number have kept their hijabs and the school is making all efforts to make them feel included. “Less than 50 students wear hijabs, (and) neither do we want to impose our views on the parents nor do we want to deny them their right to education."

“The ratio is not 50:50 yet but every year there are more and more girls coming," Bhan says.

The school is also reaching out to the community in unusual ways. A medical centre, which already serves students, is now being expanded for community use. “The centre will serve students up to 3pm and after that it will open for all," says Bhan. A community centre that is being used for school activities now is also being upgraded for public use. “The idea is to not waste all these facilities, and reach out to the community to associate more people with the institution," says Sharma.

The infrastructure—that includes swimming pools and sports fields—is a major draw for parents; so is training in Arabic. Arabic is compulsory for classes VI, VII and VIII and optional in higher classes. “Only 3-4% of students are non-Kashmiri and find it difficult to cope with local language; (so) we have a different set of activities for them," says Sharma.

“Parents feel happy if their children learn Arabic, it helps their children read the Quran."

It may need a posse of armed security personnel to guard it but the Srinagar DPS has inspired other similar schools in the valley. Similar schools are now being opened in Anantnag, Rajouri and Vaishno Devi. “Earlier it used to be difficult to get a no objection certificate for a CBSE school in the valley, while CBSE schools in Jammu used to get approval easily; the opening of this school has led to the simplification of a lot of procedures," says Dhar.

Parents in Kashmir Valley want their children to get the same education they would elsewhere, says Sharma.

Parents want their children to be able to adjust anywhere in case they have to leave the valley, he says. They see their children are doing so well compared with those of their relatives and they feel happy, he adds.