The ‘Secret School’ That Braved J&K Unrest to Continue Teaching

This story first appeared on The Quint on 7 January 2017

For almost five months, Mohammad Yasin Bhat, 32, avoided the main road to commute to his workplace. He would instead take a longer route that made him walk through the fields that were full of mud.

Bhat’s colleague, Mohammad Rafique, 29, would walk for 12 kilometres when he could get there in 6 or 7 by taking the main road.

Both of them are teachers at the Government Boys High School in Paller village of Budgam district, around 25 kilometres south of Srinagar. It is one of the rarest of rare schools in the Kashmir Valley, which was operational throughout the unrest and perhaps the only one to have completed the entire syllabus.

After Hizbul militant Burhan Wani was killed on 8 July last year, Kashmiri citizens deluged the streets to protest the ham-handed measures of the Indian state. Violent agitations ensured the Valley was enveloped in turmoil, leading to educational institutes indefinitely shutting down.

Reaching the School Like ‘Undercover Agents’

However, in Budgam’s Paller village, a group of teachers decided they would not let the mayhem affect the education of their students. “The 10th standard exams were looming,” said Bhat, who did his PhD in mass communication and journalism from University of Hyderabad. He came back to the Valley because of his father’s death in 2009 and became a teacher. “We could not think of shunning our responsibility towards the kids.”

A week after Wani’s killing, Bhat said, they held a test and then conveyed their idea of keeping the school clandestinely functional. “Students were keen to study,” he said. “We explained the importance of board exams and how they are likely to shape their future. Once the 10th standard students agreed, others too joined hands. We had instructed them on how we could pull it off.”

Out of the 120 enrolled students, around 80 lapped up the idea. For the several weeks that followed, 80 students and 15 staff members of the school channelised their inner undercover agents. On a daily basis, they surreptitiously walked through farmlands, crossed rivers and whatnot to get to the school, for students or teachers travelling on the main road could easily be spotted amidst a curfew, evoking suspicion.

If anybody questioned, they had a range of reasons from “meeting a relative” to “buying ration” ready at their disposal. Bhat said they simultaneously appealed to the village for cooperation and received unconditional support.

Living With Paranoia

Ashiq Hussain Mir, a ninth standard student, said he was petrified throughout the period but not at any point did he think of backing off. “We were all in it together,” he said. “Refusing to participate in it would have meant abandoning my schoolmates and teachers. We took the hurdles in our stride.”

Mir said they shelved their school uniforms and started attending school in regular clothes. Instead of traveling in a group, “we walked in small numbers, keeping a safe distance from other students”, he said. “We timed our departures from our respective homes accordingly.”

Some of the students even carried a bat as a precautionary measure. In case someone inquired, the kids would say they are heading out to play cricket.

However, it was an arduous task to sustain the classes with so many students without anyone noticing. The fact that the school is located up the hill with no houses in a 100-metre radius helped. Also, the staff fixed broken windows of the school, and conducted classes with closed doors and windows, preventing any noise from penetrating the school premises.

In spite of the precautions, students and teachers lived through the time with extreme paranoia. “I would constantly fear the school would suddenly come under attack while I attended class,” said Mir. “I would frequently look over my shoulder while furtively walking towards the school with racing heartbeats.”

‘Irrespective of Azaadi, Will Continue to Teach Kids’

When the unrest intensified and more than 30 schools were set ablaze one after the other, the tensions in the village of Paller intensified in direct proportion. The headmaster prepared a roster and teachers began guarding the school round the clock in rotation.

They arranged to sleep, eat and bathe at the school. “We had second thoughts about persisting with keeping the school going,” said Bhat. “Even our families were ambivalent about our endeavour. But teaching is not just a job for us, it is our passion. You cannot achieve anything without taking risks. Irrespective of whether we get azaadi or not, we would still be teaching and the kids would still be studying.”

Soon, the hushed voices in the locality started praising the audacious initiative, following which around 30 students studying in private schools that had been shut around Paller approached the headmaster. “They also joined our classes and studied with our kids,” said Rafique. “We made sure their entire syllabus was covered before the exams.”

‘Expecting 100 percent’

In November, the students across the Valley appeared for their board exams. They had to prepare on their own, for when the schools had shut down, they had only covered half the syllabus. But students of Paller walked into the examination hall with their chest pumped up. “We are expecting a 100 percent result,” said Bhat. “The kids put in a lot of hard work. We are confident of their performance.”

Post the conclusion of the exams, the situation in the Valley has been relatively better. 94 percent of the students took the board exams. The agitations are no longer as intense as they had been. The fatigue seems to be setting in. Mass protests, or hartals, are much less frequent than they used to be. Shops open up at flexible hours. The streets are busier. And more importantly, teachers and students at the Government Boys High School in Paller no longer walk through the fields to get to their school.

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