This story first appeared on The Quint on 15 December 2016.
About five months ago, one fine day, Naira Bilal, 16, realised she may not be able to attend school anytime soon. A significant chunk of the portion remained untouched with the all-important Xth standard exam looming ahead. It seemed like Naira’s school life had come to an abrupt end.
When Hizbul militant Burhan Wani was killed on 8 July, thousands of students in Kashmir Valley experienced similar emotional turmoil. Infuriated Kashmiris thronged the streets protesting against the heavy-handed measures of the Indian government. Schools shut down overnight as the Valley was engulfed with protests.
“It was very disturbing,” Naira said. “When the situation deteriorated in Kashmir, there was no way we could concentrate on our studies. In a hostile atmosphere, we students are hit the most for no fault of ours.”
While thousands of students continued to suffer through the turbulence, a few like Naira found a ray of hope in Srinagar’s Shalimar area located along the now forlorn banks of the majestic Dal Lake. A group of three youngsters – Inam-ul-Rasool, Sheikh Majid and Gazala Ali – decided to start free tuitions for kids in their vicinity missing out on schools due to the unrest. They called it “curfew classes”.
Imparting Education Amidst Unrest
“Within a week’s time, we realised the situation is not going to pacify anytime soon,” said Inam, who is pursuing his PhD in soil and water conservation. “The three of us thought of it as an opportunity to do something good for the people.”
While the idea might have been noble, the execution was complicated. With the Valley shrouded in hostility, Inam and co had to keep the students’ safety in mind, along with curfew hours and Hurriyat chief Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s protest calendars, that are religiously followed by the people.
We could not start our classes from anybody’s homes because that would have jeopardised the safety of the owner of the house. We had to chalk out a holistic plan before we could begin the programme, without which, no parent would have trusted us with their kid.
Inam-ul-Rasool, Research scholar
Five months down the line from mooting the idea, the curfew classes that started in one room with 7-8 students, has now blossomed into a family of 170 students. Inam said they have hired more teachers – 14 to be precise – and now occupy four rooms. Other teachers are pursuing higher education in different streams.
Support From Locals
While Srinagar has been in hibernation mode for months with barren streets, Shalimar area has bustled with activity alongside deserted houseboats and anchored shikaras in Dal Lake.
Inam gratefully said they received critical support at every juncture from the people who came across their initiative. “A respected member of our locality, Fayaz Ahmad, facilitated a hall at the Abu Bakar Masjid in our locality where the very first class transpired,” Inam said. “The three more rooms, that we now occupy, have been provided by a landlord Gulzar Ahmad Bhat free of cost. When you initiate an idea from the bottom of your heart, you come across generous people.”
Respite for Students
Inam said the parents did not require much convincing before they agreed to send their child to curfew classes. Parents had been panic-stricken, he said, worried about the studies of their kids. Curfew classes, in fact, emerged like gushing water in a desert for them.
The initial plan was to keep the classes limited to kids studying from 7-10 standards. But as the word spread, people in the vicinity demanded expansion. “We even teach nursery students now,” Inam said with great élan. “We started with kids from our locality. Steadily, others too joined in.”
As the number of students mushroomed, scheduling of classes got more meticulous.
In accordance with curfew hours, the first batch start coming in at 6 am, going on till 9 am. The second, which starts at 6 pm, goes on for two hours. Students have continued attending despite the reducing temperatures in the Valley. Curfew classes have provided a refuge from the claustrophobic atmosphere prevailing in the area.
Inam said they also organised badminton and painting competitions, so that the students would get a glimpse of normalcy amidst the unrest that has devoured their lives.
The ‘Societal Classes’
Around 15-20 students of curfew classes, along with Naira, appeared for the board exams concluded last month. Inam is confident about their scores. “We made sure they completed their portion before the exams,” he said. “We sat with them after they answered their papers. It has been a mighty spirited effort considering the circumstances.”
Naira said she would not have been able to attend the whole paper if not for curfew classes, which were recently renamed as “Societal Classes” because of the support they received from the society. “I am very happy with the way the exams went,” she said. “This initiative has been a huge morale booster. It has been difficult to see the way educational institutes have been targeted.”
More than 30 schools have been set ablaze in the Valley so far. Some time ago, Education Minister Naeem Akhtar even wrote an imploring letter to Geelani – the man manacled by his own government – seeking permission to reopen schools in the Valley. Following the letter, Akhtar received death threats.
Inam called the school burning instances deplorable, and asked, “Which parent or student would want to see their school up in flames?”
At the Receiving End
While the initiative of curfew classes might have been widely hailed, it has had its fair share of detractors. Inam and co have faced wrath from some people for supposedly disrespecting the sentiment of people protesting against the Indian State. “We have been called government agents and accused of disregarding the protest calendar,” said Inam.
We respect the sentiment of people. Lekin protest apni jagah our education apni jagah. You cannot expect everyone to praise you. The support from kids and their parents matters the most. And when they appreciate you for the efforts you have put in, you know it is worth it.
Inam-ul-Rasool, Research scholar