Updated: June 5, 2022 10:02:23 am
THE Government High School at Gopalpora in Kulgam is shut since the morning of May 31, when terror came to its doorstep. Its five teachers, though, turn up every day, sitting huddled together, unable to control their tears as they talk of their dead colleague, Rajni Bala.
The school, with around 100 students on its rolls between the Classes of 6 and 10, is located deep inside a colony in Gopalpora, down a narrow 30-metre stone path leading from the main road. The land on which it stands is disputed, which means there is no boundary wall around it. From where Rajni Bala fell after a single gunshot, there is a thick canopy of apple orchards as far as the eye can see.
Saima Akhtar, a fellow teacher, recalls how she was getting children in order for the morning assembly. After ensuring the boys stood in a line, she moved towards the girls when she heard what she thought at the time was a firecracker. She picked up a stick thinking one of the students had brought it to school. As she turned, she saw Rajni lying metres away from the school building.
“She had been shot in the head. I tied her own dupatta around the wound trying to stop the blood while I screamed for help,” Akhter told The Sunday Express.
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Fayaz Ahmad also thought it was a firecracker. Officiating as in-charge of the school, in the absence of a headmaster for over a year, he was overseeing the gathering for the assembly when he heard the sound, followed by Akhter’s cries for help. “We picked Rajni up, stopped a car passing by the main road and took her to the hospital,” Ahmad says, breaking down.
“I feel like her blood is still on me,” says Shahida Maqbool. “I have been a teacher for 20 years. She was younger than me but I learnt so much from her.”
A teacher for over 12 years, Rajni had joined the Gopalpora school in March 2017 and taught social science, with colleagues recalling her infectious energy in the staff room. Her husband Raj Kumar is a teacher at a different school in the same district.
Akhter and Maqbool say Rajni’s 13-year-old daughter arrived at the hospital straight from her school, still in uniform. They had to console the broken child.
As they stick together, the five colleagues of Rajni say it’s easier for them to be with each other than their families, as only they understand what each one of them is going through.
Like the pain of seeing Rajni’s signature missing on May 31 in the attendance register. “When she would come in, I would bring the register to the door, so she wouldn’t have to take her shoes off,” says Peer Javid Ahmad, another colleague.
So every morning since the killing, despite the fears of their families, they pick themselves up, get ready, meet on the way and walk to the school together. “Now we don’t let anyone go alone,” Fayaz Ahmad says.
On April 13, Satish Kumar Singh, a driver and also a Hindu, was killed in Kakran, not far from the school. The teachers say the incident did not ruffle them much; they have to block such incidents out, they say, as things over which they had no control.
However, Rajni’s killing came as a shock – not only because they worked with her but also that a respected teacher could be a target. “This speaks of our society as well. This is not about religion or caste, a member of our family has been snatched from us,” says Ahmad.
Kulgam Deputy Commissioner Bilal Bhat says that in the wake of the killing, the 50-odd Hindu teachers in the district employed in schools under the reserved SC quota, to which Rajni belonged, have been transferred. They shut the school “to give students time to process the loss of their teacher”, he adds. “We will resume classes next week.”
Akhter worries about that, as the five of them walk back home, down the same path Rajni had taken, to her death. “They will have to come by here every day, and will be reminded of her.”
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