On the evening of November 3, when Zeeshan Mushtaq, 16, was preparing for his Class 10 exams at his uncle’s home at Kanipora in South Kashmir’s Shopian district, a gunbattle broke out between militants and security forces in a village nearby. As the firing went on all night, Zeeshan says, they put off all the lights in their house, and he couldn’t study.
“I could have scored more in my Urdu paper had there been no encounter that day,” says Zeeshan, a student of the Government High School in his village Sedow in Shopian. Zeeshan got 472 marks out of 500 (94.4 per cent) in the Class 10 exams of the J&K State Board of School Education (JKBOSE).
In the results for Kashmir division announced by the JKBOSE on December 29, Shopian along with Pulwama, the hotbeds of the current unrest in Kashmir, saw the highest pass percentages of all the districts in the Valley (83 per cent and 84.50 per cent respectively). Even among government schools, the two districts were among the best performers.
Behind those statistics lie many stories like Zeeshan’s, of students and schools carrying on through gunfights and civilian protests, that often led to shutdowns.
Zeeshan says he made it a point to never miss his tuitions. “The classes were a little far from my home. When there was a shutdown, I would walk for several kilometres. At times, I would reach at 12 pm, for classes that began at 9 am. I took it up as a challenge, that under any circumstances, I have to reach my classes and study.”
Tawheeda Akbar of Mandena village in Pulwama, who studies at Government Central High School in the main town, scored 96 per cent, and wants to become a doctor. “We had one thing in mind, that the situation is not going to improve, and that shutdowns will always be there,” she says. “So, we would go to school even through stone-pelting. Once I was back from school, I would take some rest and study till late in the night.”
School teachers in Pulwama call the results “miraculous”, given the circumstances that prevailed in the district last year. Government Central High School, for example, had 119 working days. Of the 115 students of the school who gave the Class 10 exam, 16 secured distinction and 47 first division.
Lateef Gowhar, the in-charge of the school, says, “It is difficult to be a student in South Kashmir because of the various challenges. It is due to the efforts of students, teachers and parents that the students performed really well.”
Mudasir Bashir, who teaches Social Science at the school, says they took extra classes for Class 10 and also converted some holidays into working days to complete the syllabus. Since 2015-2016, the state government has organised classes for students during winter vacations in the Valley.
Bashir says it was only in “extreme conditions” that the classes were cancelled. Crediting fellow teachers, all from local villages, he says, “Everyone focused on students from their villages. Students would visit homes of the teachers when they needed help. We would also visit the home of a student if he or she remained absent for long.”
Manzoor Hafiz, who also teaches at the same school, recalls one student who threw a stone at a CRPF vehicle on the day of his practical exam. “The student was arrested. With the help of authorities, we got him released within a few hours because we wanted his career saved.” He also gives the example of a student whose militant brother was killed in an encounter on the day of the math exam. “We urged him to write the paper. He passed,” Hafiz smiles, talking about this sense of “belonging” they had towards the students.
Acknowledging the support of the teachers, Class 10 student Nyla Bint Maznoor, a resident of Wandakpora area, says, “From Day 1, we had this in our mind: that we have to complete our syllabus on time at school and then do self-study at home. I spent hours revising what teachers taught.” She secured 98.9 per cent.
Idrees Imtiyaz, a student of Government Higher Secondary School Newa in Pulwama district, says their school would often shut down after a militant killing. “There was an Army camp near the school and the area would see stone-pelting. Some of us were afraid. So, all the boys would enter the school from the back,” he says.
The son of a mason, Idrees couldn’t afford private coaching. Happy with his 380 marks, the 16-year-old says, “The last few months before the exams were really important. I worked very hard.”
Ghulam Mohidin Bhat, Principal of Mehjoor Memorial Boys Higher Secondary School in Pulwama and a renowned educationist, says there was pressure on teachers to ensure good results. “They did continuous assessment, took regular tests and gave homework,” says Bhat. He also points out that over the years, students from South Kashmir have started moving to Srinagar or even Jammu for private tuitions during winters to complete the syllabus.
At the same time, Bhat says, what can’t be dismissed is the “importance of education” instilled among students by the teachers. “They (students) can help take us out from what we are seeing in Kashmir. Only education can take the nation out of morass,” he says, adding that they got experts in different fields as well as religious scholars to make students understand how important studies were for them.
Dr G N Itoo, Director, School Education, Kashmir, says they stepped in with help whenever they could given the trouble in South Kashmir. Chief Education Officer, Shopian, Mohammed Sadiq points out given that so many classes were missed — “there were only eight working days in the months of March, April” — directions were issued to hold extra classes.
Azra Fayaz, 16, says her school, Government Girls’ High School in Vehil Shopian, was only open four days during one month in 2018. She attributes her teachers as well as elder sister for getting 487 marks out of 500 in the exams.
Aware that the situation may not change, Azra has enrolled in a coaching centre in nearby Kulgam district for Class 11. “Kulgam sees lesser shutdowns,” she says, adding, “I want to become a doctor.”