This week, students around the globe returned to their classrooms for the first time in months after they were closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But in Kashmir, a disputed territory between India and Pakistan, students have been shut out for over a year and they remain uncertain when they can resume their education.
For Kashmiris, the disruption the pandemic has caused to everyday life is grimly familiar. Although this picturesque valley has been described as paradise on Earth in poetic verse, it has witnessed massacres, lockdowns, curfews, guerilla warfare and violent occupation. Nevertheless, its people have strived for education. Now, this hope seems more distant than ever.
In the summer of 2019, I was making plans to study at university, when the Indian government revoked Kashmir’s autonomy and took control of the state. In anticipation of protests, people were confined to their homes and all modes of communication – internet, mobile phones, landlines – were blocked. My home turned into an open-air prison overnight. I missed the deadline to apply for admission to university in New Delhi. The dreams of thousands of students like me were shattered.
“My home turned into an open-air prison overnight.”
I was left deeply saddened by missing out on the opportunity to study. It caused me a lot of mental anguish. I felt restless, I wished I could do something about it. Something, somehow. But I couldn’t. All I could do is this: surrender. I surrendered. I did because I had no option. I was confined to the four walls of my home, where my future came crashing down.
Pursuing education has been one the major casualties of the decades-long conflict in Kashmir. Since the 1990s, educational institutions have repeatedly been forced to close, depriving children of their fundamental right to education as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN.
Internet shutdowns by the Indian government have made it almost impossible to undertake online classes, access educational resources, or apply for admissions. The most recent internet cut-off, which started in August last year, lasted five months – the longest recorded in any democracy.The state’s 4G network has yet to be fully restored, leaving Kashimiri’s struggling with extremely slow internet speeds, and many websites remain blocked. That is despite a Indian Supreme Court ruling that the cutoff is illegal in January.
Even when schools reopened briefly in March after the Indian government loosened its restrictions many parents felt it was too unsafe for their children to attend. Two weeks later, schools were ordered to shut again, this time because of the pandemic.
Pursuing education under lockdown is challenging too. It has had a huge psychological impact on the student community, which has borne the brunt of violence and conflict time and again.
Parents are worried that the extended lockdown has left their children “mentally drained” and fear that teenagers are growing increasingly frustrated and combative.
Last month, the UN secretary general raised concerns about the treatment of children in the state. Last year, eight children between the ages of nine and 17 were detained by Indian security services on national security-related charges, according to a report by the international body. The United Nations also verified attacks on nine schools in the state by “unidentified elements”.
The coronavirus pandemic has worsened the situation for students. Several schools and universities have been converted into the quarantine centers for COVID patients and very few children are able to join online classes because of internet restrictions.
In August, the government began restoring high-speed internet accesses in Kashmir, but only on a trial basis in areas where it believes there is a “low intensity of terrorist activity”. If the curbs are lifted completely, it would go a long way improving the lives of students, who, like their counterparts elsewhere, have dreams to chase and successes to achieve. I couldn’t chase my dream, let others chase theirs.