Make or break: how language decides learning outcomes among Gujjar Bakarwals of Kashmir

Liyaqat Ahmad from Doodhmarg Tral in Pulwama is just 19, but he knows what he should become in life. "I want to become a teacher so that I can educate the children of my own community. We are poor, we do not get that many opportunities," he states.
Make or break: Liyaqat Ahmad from Doodhmarg Tral in Pulwama is just 19, but he knows what he should become in life. "I want to become a teacher so that I can educate the children of my own community. [101Reporters]
Make or break: Liyaqat Ahmad from Doodhmarg Tral in Pulwama is just 19, but he knows what he should become in life. "I want to become a teacher so that I can educate the children of my own community. [101Reporters]

Make or break: Liyaqat Ahmad from Doodhmarg Tral in Pulwama is just 19, but he knows what he should become in life. "I want to become a teacher so that I can educate the children of my own community. We are poor, we do not get that many opportunities," he states.

Liyaqat belongs to the Gujjar Bakarwal community, one of the largest ethnic groups in Jammu and Kashmir. Having unique culture, language, identity and lifestyle, Gujjar Bakarwals are present in all parts of the Union Territory, except Kargil and Ladakh. Nevertheless, they do not have the facilities to complete even basic education in their mother tongue Gojri, which is believed to be the main reason for their poor literacy. Studies have indicated that their socio-economic and educational statuses are far from satisfactory.

"I had trouble communicating from lower kindergarten to class 1. I did not understand the lessons because the medium of education was Urdu. Yet, I never raised a question due to a feeling of insecurity. I used to later ask my parents about it, but they mostly could not answer me," Liyaqat recalls. 

"This issue is usually noticed up to class 5... Parents of majority of the Gujjar Bakarwal children are uneducated, so if children have to learn something, they have to do it from the school itself. For this to happen, education in their mother tongue is mandatory. Hence there is a need for teachers from the community itself," he reasons.

In a clearing amid the pine trees sans foliage sits a group of children from a government school in the upper reaches of Tral sub-district. Class 3 student Jamsheena Aaqib *(8) studies here. "It is true that we do not understand the lessons. However, none of us raises a question. Nevertheless, teachers give us home assignments," she quips, while noting that it would be better if there was a teacher from the Gujjar Bakarwal community in the school. 

Jasmeena Jaffer* (8), another class 3 student at Nagabal, says she understands a bit of Urdu, but still feels shy to interact with teachers. "Had there been a tribal teacher who speaks our language, I could have raised my concerns," reasons Jaffer, who wishes to be a teacher when she grows up.  

Tral sub-district has two education zones namely Lurgam and Tral Main. As per the figures received from the Zonal Education Offices, only 17 out of the total 60 schools in these zones have 38 Gujjar Bakarwal teachers, recruited through the Jammu and Kashmir Services Selection Board (JKSSB)exams and the Rehbar-e-Taleem scheme. There are 27 tribal schools, including two high schools, eight middle and 17 primary schools in Tral Main. However, only 12 tribal teachers are present and only nine schools have their services. 

"For a long time, we have been demanding that Gujjar Bakarwal teachers be posted in all schools with Scheduled Tribe (ST) population. Teachers of other communities teach them very well, but lack of teachers in their mother tongue confuses the students," Noor Mohammad Trali, a social activist from the Gujjar Bakarwal community, tells 101Reporters.

Great expectations

Class 12 student Manzoor Ahmad* (20) belongs to the Gujjar community in Doodhmarg Tral, where two government primary schools and a high school function. “Only the high school has one tribal teacher. When students in other places have teachers of their own mother tongue, our primary schools lack staff, particularly mother tongue teachers." 

Mohammad Aasif Bajard (18), who is pursuing Bachelor of Arts course at Government Degree College in Tral, believes that qualified teachers should be posted in ST-based schools subject-wise, because one teacher would teach many subjects when he was in school.

Both the children of Mohammad Sidiq Poswal, a tribal singer and mason from the Gujjar community of Tral sub-district, study in a government school where tribal teachers are not posted. "Gojri is different from Kashmiri and other languages, so it would be better if at least one tribal teacher is posted there," he says.

Labourer Mohammad Qasim of Hajan village wants to see his five children as government employees. "Unfortunately, my elder son dropped out of studies midway [after class 8] and started working in a hotel now. He would not understand the lessons and would be punished by teachers for the same. Now I send my other boy and my three girls to school. I hope to see them shining in future, as I do everything possible to facilitate them," he says.

Khursheed Ahmad Bhat, a non-tribal teacher, agrees that children take time to catch up with the curriculum. "Through repetitive exercises, we have to work extra hard to make them understand things. They do not get time at their homes to read books, which disconnects them from their regular learning process in the school," he says.

Mudasir Ahmad, a non-tribal teacher posted at the middle school in Shojan Tral, agrees that the initial schooling years are difficult for tribal children. However, with the passage of time, they gradually improve. "After spending a lot of time in the school, we teachers have managed to learn Gojri language. We have also created a friendly atmosphere in the school," he says.

However, Nazir Chichi, who wants his children to be doctors or teachers, says the school in Shojan Tral  has only five teachers to manage 10 classes. "Not even a computer facility is available there," he complains.

Pleas go unheard

"Evidence suggests that teaching and learning in the mother tongue builds strong foundations for a child's cognitive development, improves communication skills and creates an emotional connection between the child and their learning environment," Shabir Mastana (24), a tribal student pursuing his postgraduation in Kashmiri language, tells 101Reporters.

Mohammad Ibrahim Khaksar, a retired teacher from Gujjar Bakarwal community who heads tribal welfare organisation Gojri Majalis Adab, says he raised the issue with the authorities recently, citing "without mother tongue, education of our children is incomplete because they fail to compete in competitive exams in this advanced era". 

Speaking to 101reporters, Dr Sheikh Arshid Ahmad, a writer, columnist and education counsellor, delves on the influence of the National Education Policy (NEP) on educational institutions in the contemporary era. “Leveraging the advancements in technology and social media presents a remarkable opportunity to enhance our education system," he says, adding that traditional, passive reliance on conventional methods in the academic sphere has become archaic.

“A proactive approach is imperative to ensure comprehensive development of students. The recent accomplishments of the NEP underscore the significance of incorporating mother tongue as a medium of instruction in primary and secondary education, while also fostering vocational and research aptitudes," he explains.

“However, if we were to exclusively choose mother tongue as the medium of instruction, it could potentially undermine aspects such as project work, case studies, cognitive abilities, experiments and research areas recommended by the NEP. This could limit the policy’s impact, potentially hindering students from reaching higher levels of academic achievement,” he warns.

He recommends that while the learning process should incorporate the mother tongue, the utilisation of another language, particularly English, is essential to ensure access to valuable and systematic knowledge rooted in experiments and innovation.

Irfan Nazir, president, Jammu & Kashmir Teachers' Forum- Pulwama district, agrees that NEP-2020 recommended mother tongue as a medium of instruction as children usually understood things in that language.

Asked why tribal teachers were mostly posted in high schools when they were most needed in primary schools, Nazir says that teachers were not shifted when some middle schools became high schools. “Some tribal teachers recruited through JKSSB as general teachers were posted in vacancies, irrespective of the community status. No transfers are being made to sort out these issues,” he says.

When asked about the issues in comprehending, Abdul Qayoom Naqvi, Chief Education Officer, Pulwama, tells 101Reporters there are some areas where tribal people speak only tribal language. "We do not have that much staff to fulfil the requirements in tribal schools. We will take all possible steps to bring mother tongue teachers to ST-dominated schools, though teachers from other sections posted in these schools already play a good role." 101Reporters/SP