Srinagar, India-administered Kashmir – They screamed and cried as they watched the fire spread in the darkness. Residents of three neighbouring villages rushed from their homes with buckets of water. But they couldn’t save the school. All that was left was ash. The benches and chairs were charred. The windows were shattered.
“When the firemen finally arrived, there was nothing left, just smoke,” Tahseen Ali, a 31-year-old teacher at the Government Boys Middle School in Budgam, in India-administered Kashmir, says of the school that burned down on October 30.
Even the school’s pupils, boys aged between eight and 14, had tried to put out the flames, says another teacher, Tasleem Arif. “They tried to save the school but couldn’t. Some were injured, others had their hands burnt.”
“I could see the gloom in their eyes,” adds 35-year-old Arif. “It takes years to build a school. You have to fight a lot to get a school in villages. We [teachers] are also restless now.”
The school, which taught 88 students from the villages surrounding Budgam, was the 25th school in India-administered Kashmir to be set alight in the past three months.
On October 31, the Kabarmarg High Secondary School in Anantnag, in south Kashmir, became the 26th. Three hundred and forty-one students study there.
According to officials from the state education department, 12 schools have been completely destroyed, while the others have suffered partial damage.
The department says some 4,000 students are affected and there has been at least $750,000 worth of damage caused.
“I have not slept for two days or eaten anything. This is a tragedy,” says Showkat Hussain Shah, the principal of Kabarmarg Higher Secondary School. “We had maintained the school very beautifully. It is the property of [the] community and its students.
“People really tried hard to save the school and they were successful in saving records, [the] library and [the] laboratory but eight rooms have been totally gutted,” he adds.
With no one having claimed responsibility for the arson and the police refusing to reveal details of their investigation, understanding who may be behind the attacks has been left to speculation.
Schools: The latest casualty
The schools are the latest casualty in the nearly four-month-long anti-India uprising in Kashmir.
Mass protests erupted in July after Indian troops killed rebel fighter Burhan Wani.
At least 90 people have been killed, more than 12,000 others injured, including hundreds maimed and blinded by lead-based pellets fired by the Indian security forces to quell one of the biggest protests in two decades.
Government officials have claimed that by calling for prolonged protests, the pro-independence movement has indirectly encouraged attacks on symbols of normality, such as schools.
The region has been under intermittent curfew since the latest uprising began, with internet and mobile access regulated at times and movement curtailed. As a result of the curfew and the protests, most children have not been attending school, and the government officials allege that the pro-independence movement would prefer for it to remain that way.
Nirmal Singh, the deputy chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, told local reporters that pro-independence leaders were “encouraging … elements to burn schools”.
Likewise, Aijaz Ahmed, the director of the Department of School Education in Kashmir, blamed the arson on “anti-social” elements, telling Al Jazeera that the perpetrators “don’t want children to study”.
But pro-independence leaders deny that they are responsible.
Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a pro-independence leader of a faction of the Hurriyat party, a coalition of pro-independence parties, said in a statement that the attacks were “mischievous acts [that] are part of the diversionary plan to shift the focus from dealing with the actual issue on the ground and [to] further harass and distress people”.
‘Burning away our children’s futures’
But as each side points at the other, parents such as Basir Ahmad Bhat, whose daughter Shariqa Bashir was a student at the Government Higher Secondary School in Kabarmag, which was partially destroyed, are left feeling that the fires are an attack on their children’s future.
The fires are burning away our children's future
Kashmir has long been plagued by conflict. More than 500,000 troops are stationed in the Muslim-majority region and fighting between armed groups, sponsored in part by Pakistan, has resulted in more than 60,000 deaths over the past two decades. For many, education was the only way to escape this seemingly unending conflict.
“It leaves a never-ending impact on the minds of children. My daughter feels traumatised,” says Bhat of the fire at the Anantnag school on October 31. “The fires are burning away our children’s future.”
Bhat, who graduated from the same school in 1976, says his daughter Shaista and son Shakir also completed their schooling there, and are now earning their medical and engineering degrees respectively.
He recalls how, when the school was attacked by arsonists in the 1990s, villagers managed to put out the flames before too much damage was caused.
“It is the oldest school in our district. Students come from more than two dozen villages to study here,” he says, adding that the latest fire was “a real surprise”.
Teacher Tahseen Ali is concerned that if the children who attended his school aren’t able to return to classes soon, they may lose interest in studying altogether and, instead, “get involved in some other work to earn [money].
“In this village 90 percent of people are labourers or small time farmers,” he explains.
And with the uprising and curfew, life is becoming tougher for them by the day, Ali says.
“The poor villagers have nowhere to go. Their children were able to eat their midday meals at school and that meant a lot for them,” he says. “They can’t think of admitting them into a private school. Their education was this school.”
Even when the protests were at their height in July and August, teachers at the school in Budgam would try to offer early-morning lessons so that the students wouldn’t forget what they had learned or lose interest in pursuing their education.
But now, without a school building, Ali says: “We cannot help them.”
Wajahat Ahmad, a lecturer in sociology at OP Jindal Global University in New Delhi, says education has long been a contested space in Kashmir. The state government has used “people’s desperation for education” as a form of leverage against the pro-independence movement, he says.
And the burning of schools is not new.
“At the height of the armed rebellion in the 1990s, many schools were burned down, because the Indian army used them as camps. The occupation of schools by troops would often mean harassment for the residents. Young boys, girls, male and female teachers would need to be frisked, their every move watched by the army,” Ahmad explains.
The state is trying to use education as a tool
“Whoever is doing it, there is a memory of burning schools. The intentionality of the actors is still unknown. They are playing out within the backdrop of the past and the present context,” he adds.
“There are thousands of people in prison. Where does this concern for education come from suddenly? The state is trying to use education as a tool. No one really cares about the poor who are at the forefront of the resistance.”
Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a political analyst based in Srinagar, the summer capital of India-administered Kashmir, says that the return of soldiers to schools may be one of the reasons for the attacks.
“Many school buildings have been again occupied by [the] army [and] it can be one reason for the attacks,” he says.
Still, he adds, he can’t rule out the possibility that some of the attacks on schools may have been an attempt to malign “the peaceful uprising of the people”.
‘Schools should be safe spaces’
Human rights group Amnesty International India has condemned the attacks on schools and said in a statement that the “presence of security forces in schools can increase the risk of them being attacked, and the long-term occupation of schools can increase dropouts and lower student enrolment and teacher recruitment”.
“Schools should be safe spaces under all circumstances. The vicious arson attacks on schools end up denying children in Kashmir their right to education,” said Aakar Patel, the executive director of Amnesty International India.
Annual exams usually take place in Kashmir between October and December, but this year they are expected to be affected by the ongoing political turmoil as well as the arson attacks.
For many, it may be too late to salvage the academic year.
“My son is in class XII, my daughter is in class X. They haven’t been to school for the last four months,” says Srinagar resident Gulzar Ahmad.
“The way the situation is unfolding, I don’t think schools can open any time soon. The careers of hundreds of thousands of children is at stake. But I think that’s the price we pay for living in a conflict zone,” Ahmad says.