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More than 24 School Burnings by unidentified Arsonists Cause Consternation in Indian Kashmir

Amid the accusations and counter accusations, observers point out that the victims are the tens of thousands of students in the valley

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FILE - Kashmiri Muslim student Hilal Ahmed Hajam, left, and Nasir Ahmed Mir inspects the damage of a partially burned government high school in Goripora, outskirts of Srinagar, India controlled Kashmir, Nov. 1, 2016. VOA

New Delhi, November 3, 2016: More than two dozen schools have been burned in Indian Kashmir by unidentified arsonists during the last two months as education becomes a new flashpoint in the unrest that has gripped the region since July.

It is first time that schools have been targeted on this scale in the restive Himalayan valley where Islamic militants usually strike at military or police targets. Most schools have also remained closed for nearly four months due to a shutdown call given by separatist leaders in the state.

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After three schools were set ablaze last weekend, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court called on the state government to ensure their protection, “unmask the enemies of education” and deal with them with an “iron hand.”

But there appear to be no clear answers as to who is behind the spate of destruction of school buildings that has taken place across 10 districts. Some schools have been completely gutted, while others are partially burnt.

Police say they have made some arrests, but have not announced who is to blame.

Observers say the burning of the institutions accelerated after the state government made attempts to reopen schools, and announced that examinations would be held on schedule despite their prolonged shutdown.

Schools were initially closed due to a curfew imposed after the killing of a local militant leader, Burhan Wani, triggered a wave of violent anti-India protests in which about 90 people have died. Later separatist leaders included educational institutions in weekly strike instructions they have been issuing.

FILE - Indian security personnel inspect a house allegedly damaged by from gunfire from the Pakistan side of the border, at a residential area near the international border at Bidipur, in Ranbir Singh Pura, India, Oct. 22, 2016. VOA
FILE – Indian security personnel inspect a house allegedly damaged by from gunfire from the Pakistan side of the border, at a residential area near the international border at Bidipur, in Ranbir Singh Pura, India, Oct. 22, 2016. VOA

Top state officials have slammed the separatists, saying they want to raise a generation of uneducated youth who can be used to pelt security forces with stones.

“That is the intention. To keep them away from schools and have cannon fodder ready,” Kashmir education minister, Naeem Akhtar told VOA. “They (separatists) have allowed businesses to work partially, the private trade, everything is going on. It is about denying education to students,” he said.

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Condemning the burning of schools, Kashmir’s main coalition of separatist groups, the All Parties Huriyat Conference, has shot back saying that the school burnings are part of a “well-planned strategy to malign the ongoing movement and paint it as violence and anarchy.”

Amid the accusations and counter accusations, observers point out that the victims are the tens of thousands of students in the valley.

For the government, reopening schools would be a signal that normalcy has returned to Kashmir, which is suffering its most prolonged phase of unrest since a violent separatist insurgency abated 15 years ago. Top separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani has said schools will only be allowed to open once the government concedes to their demand to release all those detained during the protests.

“It is just so sad that all issues in Kashmir begin to become about propaganda or rhetoric when these are very important daily life issues. It is between ridiculous and tragic,” said Radha Kumar, a policy analyst who was a government interlocutor in Kashmir when protests gripped the region six years ago.

FILE - Masked Kashmiri protesters shout pro-freedom slogans during a protest in Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir, Oct. 14, 2016. VOA
FILE – Masked Kashmiri protesters shout pro-freedom slogans during a protest in Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir, Oct. 14, 2016. VOA

Both the police and state government have appealed to the local community for help in protecting the schools, saying it is impossible to provide security to over 12,000 buildings spread over the mountainous region.

As the arsons triggers a wave of popular anger, Education Minister Akhtar sees a ray of hope. “The silver lining is that society has risen like one man. In fact the entire education has become a subject of debate. That is what I see as a silver lining in otherwise a very dark horizon,” he said.

In a region where there is widespread alienation and anger with security forces and the state government, the burning down of schools has caused consternation.

Kumar said, at least where the issue of education is concerned, public opinion is with the government. “What the government does have in their favor is that there is now a large public outcry against the burning of schools,” she said. “That should help them a great deal if they show a serious commitment to reopening the schools and providing education.”

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South Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, Meenakshi Ganguly, said the situation in Kashmir since July has been very difficult for young students. “Burning of schools is a serious concern. Attacks upon schools denies the child the right to an education,” he said.

Divided between India and Pakistan, Kashmir was wracked with a violent separatist insurgency in the 1990’s, but the situation had greatly improved in the last 15 years, although there were brief phases of unrest. The present turmoil however has raised fears that it is slipping back into a conflict phase. (VOA)

Next Story

Internet Shutdown in Jammu and Kashmir- Longest Lockdown in a Democracy

Kashmir Internet Shutdown Takes Toll on Economy

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A Kashmir girl rides her bike past Indian security force personnel standing guard in front closed shops in a street in Srinagar. VOA

By Niala Mohammad, Yusuf Jameel

The internet shutdown in India’s Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, which shows no signs of abating and has been the longest lockdown in a democracy, is taking a toll on the local economy and has led to the loss of thousands of jobs, according to rights groups and analysts.

Access Now, a global digital rights group that has been monitoring the situation in Kashmir, told VOA the “loss of connectivity in the valley” because of the shutdown has been “devastating to the local economy.”

“India’s internet shutdown in Kashmir is the longest ever in a democracy,” Raman Jit Singh Chima, Access Now’s senior international counsel and Asia Pacific policy director, told VOA.

“The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce has gone on record to speak of the immense economic cost that the internet shutdown has caused to the region, undermining the very economic goals that the Union Government promised it would drive through integrating the area into the wider Indian Union,” Chima added.

The lockdown has been in place since August, when New Delhi revoked Kashmir’s semiautonomous status and imposed a curfew on the region, including shutting down the internet.

The government defended its decision, saying it was a temporary measure to prevent possible terrorist attacks.

In a televised address to the nation in August, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “The Kashmir decision will bring positive changes in the lives of the common man. It would mean the protection of Indian laws, industrialization, a boost in tourism and, therefore, more employment opportunities.”

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Indian security personnel guard outside the civil secretariat of the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir during the annual reopening of the former state’s winter capital in Jammu, India. VOA

However, opposition parties in the country argue the opposite is happening.

“You have redefined the definition of normalcy, the J&K [Jammu and Kashmir] definition of normalcy now prevails in the rest of the country. This is uncaring and unthinking government,” Indian National Congress said on twitter this week in reference to what’s happening in Kashmir and the passage of a recent controversial law.

India’s parliament recently approved legislation that allows Hindus, Christians and other religious minorities who are living in India illegally to become citizens. The applicants must prove they were persecuted because of their religious beliefs in neighboring Bangladesh, Pakistan or Afghanistan.

However, the law does not apply to Muslims, which critics say is discriminatory.

Terrorism or protests? 

India’s government, led by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), defends its continued lockdown of internet connectivity in Kashmir as a deterrent to terrorist attacks.

While briefing the country’s lawmakers in November, Indian Home Minister Amit Shah, a close ally of Modi, said the internet would be restored as soon as local authorities felt it was appropriate.

“There are activities by our neighbors in the region, so we must keep security in mind. Whenever local authorities see fit, a decision will be taken to restore it [internet service],” Shah said, referring to Pakistan’s alleged interference in the region.

India has accused Pakistan’s intelligence agency of fomenting instability in Kashmir by supporting local militant groups, a charge Islamabad has denied.

Some analysts, however, say the internet lockdown is largely designed to prevent collective political protests.

“The stated reason [by the Indian government] was to contain possible terrorist attacks. In my view, it is largely designed to prevent collective political protests of any sort,” Sumit Ganguly, a professor of political science and the Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilization at Indiana University, told VOA.

Other analysts, such as Ashok Swain, a professor of peace and conflict studies at Uppsala University in Sweden who follows Indian politics, said the reasons behind the Indian government’s decision to shut down the internet in Kashmir are multifaceted.

“As I see [it], the real reason for [the] internet shutdown is not to restrict communication within Kashmir Valley, but to restrict Kashmir’s communication with [the] outside world,” Swain said, adding the government is more concerned about its global image as a democracy.

“By taking away the internet, [the] regime is also controlling the local media and its publication as the journalists are dependent on [the] regime’s mercy to communicate with [the] outside world and to contact with their offices,” Swain said.

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A masked boy in Kashmir throws stones at a police drone flying over Jamia Masjid mosque where Kashmiris are offering their first Friday prayers since Aug. 5 in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir. VOA

Local economy 

Sheikh Ashiq, the president of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told VOA that there has been a rapid rise in unemployment and a significant drop in Kashmir’s cottage industry.

“Our handicraft sector, that is solely based on the internet, is at a standstill. As a result, 50,000 artisans are jobless,” Ashiq said, adding that the export of its heritage industry handicrafts had declined by 62%.

Experts say the action against Kashmir has led to losses in tourism, health care, education and in the communications industries.

“The state economy has lost more $1.5 billion due to [the] lockdown. Several companies, whose operations were internet-dependent, have been closed,” Swain said.

The internet lockdown “has affected education, health service and even regular movement of the people, creating a severe humanitarian crisis. Business, particularly fruit trade and tourism, have [been] affected severely,” he added.

Local voices 

Young Kashmiri entrepreneurs like Muheet Mehraj see a bleak future in Kashmir, as the internet shutdown has placed a cloud over future employment prospects.

“If something doesn’t change for the better with time or our internet isn’t resumed, then I don’t understand what I am going to do in the future,” Mehraj told VOA.

Many businesspeople told VOA they have been forced to leave Kashmir to earn an income.

Syed Mujtaba, the owner of Kashmir Art Quest, shifted his business to Delhi because of the lockdown.

“Eventually, my family and my own logic told me it was best to leave Kashmir,” Mujtaba told VOA.

“Now I am in Delhi, you know … in search of new opportunity … and halfheartedly so, to be honest. My heart is still in Kashmir and will always remain in Kashmir,” he added.

The government, however, continues to paint a normal picture of the situation on the ground.

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“The situation in Kashmir does not need to be normalized. The situation in Kashmir is already normal,” Home Minister Shah told lawmakers last month.

Ashiq, of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce, paints a different picture.

“We are handed a narrative of development. However, we do not see any form of development,” he said. (VOA)