Around 34 schools have been burnt in Kashmir Valley over the past six weeks but none in Kashmir is wiser as to the identity of the perpetrators. All political and social actors in Kashmir have condemned and dissociated from the arson. The Government has even arrested around 30 persons who are allegedly responsible for these incidents but it has stayed short of identifying them. The result is that the mystery continues to reign and schools continue to burn, one after another and across the Valley. Sixteen schools alone have been burnt in four districts of South Kashmir — Kulgam, Anantnag, Pulwama, Shopian — and the rest in central and North Kashmir.
Is there a context to these burnings? There is. It began with the state government announcing the dates of the annual school examinations in October. It triggered a sudden student backlash against the decision. The youth demanded that the exams be deferred to March as they had lost more than half the academic calendar to the ongoing upsurge. But Government stood its ground. Separatists soon waded into this tussle by siding with the students even while refusing to give their own opinion on the advisability or otherwise of holding or deferring the examinations.
This position was reiterated by the JKLF supremo Yasin Malik soon after his release from the jail. “Show me one separatist leader who said don’t hold exams,” said Yasin Malik while addressing a press conference. However, it was amidst the consequent deadlock that the schools started burning. Initially, no one paid the attention as this was considered a rare occurence than the routine. But the public alarm grew once the school burnings became a day to day affair.
But both, the government and the separatist groups, were slow to wake up to this ugly turn in the situation. Hurriyat only responded to the situation when around 20 schools had been burnt. It was only then that it released a statement or two instead of refusing to loudly condemn it the day the first school was gutted. And by the way, Hurriyat has yet to dissociate from the torching of more than 60 vehicles for allegedly violating its weekly protest calendar which it should have otherwise condemned with an equal vehemence.
On the other hand, it was only after one month that Government announced that it had arrested people responsible for the burnings. And when it did so, it didn’t reveal their identity, nor their motivations and the connections. People are now asking questions as to why the alleged culprits were nabbed all at once and in such large numbers. And why police has proved unable to stop the arson when it has been dealing relatively effectively with the protests on a mass scale and has so far arrested more than 7,000 people.
Chief Minister Mehboba Mufti has said that her government will not spare the people responsible for burning schools. “When everything started moving in right direction, some miscreants burnt our schools to hit the education prospects of the students,” she said. “We have already taken into custody some miscreants who are allegedly involved in such acts.”
Her government has now asked the teachers to take turns to guard their schools to prevent such incidents. This includes even the female teachers who are now expected to discharge the duty of a chowkidar for their respective schools.
Truth is that a predominant majority of the schools lack the basic facilities required for a night shift and that too in winter. Many schools have no windows, the rooms have no doors and a bare minimum matting. There is no arrangement for heat and no place to cook. And to top it all, even if the teachers do stay at the schools braving all odds, they won’t be able to stave off an attack. What will an unarmed teacher or two do to an attacker possibly armed and with an intention to cause harm? “If any harm comes to a teacher, who will be responsible for this?” asked Mushtaq Ahmad, a teacher.
The chorus is now growing for the state government to act and unveil the faces of the people behind the arson. “The easiest way to deal with the menace of burning schools is to arrest the persons responsible for this and also publicly identify them”. This is something that the government has inexplicably not done. And we wonder why,” said Naseer Ahmad, a local columnist. “Such organized and coordinated burnings spanning entire Valley can hardly take place unless there is some agency working behind the scenes. Who is it, needs to be identified. And that is the only permanent solution to the crisis at hand”.