The most educated part of South Asia is where students are punished the most, in an international conflict that shows no respite.
By Ahmed Quraishi
There is an eerie silence now on the only website in Kashmir for students and educationists. It used to be a bustling place three months ago, where students from around Kashmir used to come for latest information on courses, admissions, and student-related news. Today, the website KashmirStudentAlerts.com looks haunted, like the Titanic ship, with every post on the page showing the same date: 4 August 2019. That was the day before India imposed a curfew and full communication blackout in Kashmir. The internet was cutoff, leaving the website with the last uploaded articles and reports. This online community symbolizes how the curfew and communication ban have disrupted school life in Indian-occupied Kashmir.
Most Kashmiri students have not seen their classrooms for more than three months now, as India refuses to heed calls by countries, the United Nations, and the international media to end the curfew and restore normalcy
Just like this online site, most Kashmiri students have not seen their classrooms for more than three months now, as India refuses to heed calls by countries, the United Nations, and the international media to end the curfew and restore normalcy. New Delhi illegally annexed Kashmir on August 5. The curfew is meant to stop the world from seeing Kashmiri reaction, which would puncture the neatly laid official storyline that Kashmiris accept Indian government control. And since the Kashmiri protest movement is largely made up of the younger generation, schools and colleges are a special target.
MOST EDUCATED IN THE REGION
Kashmiri students are the most educated in South Asia despite being at the heart of several conventional wars and a possible a nuclear-armed confrontation if the conflict is not resolved. The literacy rates have consistently been the highest for Kashmiris in both Pakistan and India. This underlines Kashmiri fondness for education. So the students are the hardest hit now when, in Indian-occupied Kashmir, students within a total Kashmiri population between 8 and 10 million are unable to reach their schools because of either the curfew, the security situation, or because the Indian paramilitaries have taken over schools to use them as temporary barracks.
Two months into the curfew, India tried to reopen the schools and encourage Kashmiri students to resume studies. (The curfew now has turned into likely the longest siege of a population this size in modern times). When the announcement was made, a correspondent for the Indian wire service, the IANS, visited a few schools in Kashmir, giving names of the schools and locations, and filed a story that described how teachers and staff were in office but no students at all. The report, which was carried by Indian media outlets, emphasized that Indian paramilitaries occupied some of schools.
Troubles for Kashmiri students go back in time. After the 2016 extrajudicial execution of a charismatic social media activist Burhan Wani, whose desperation at the situation pushed him to armed resistance, students studying at Indian schools faced a backlash. Indian extremists stormed into dorm rooms to beat up Kashmiri students. Many were intimidated on campuses and forced to return to Kashmir. In one incident, India watched on social media in horror as Indian extremists tried to enter the residences of female Kashmiri students. The Indian federal and state governments largely failed to protect Kashmiri students or punish Indian extremists involved, which raised the possibility that these attacks had some official sanction. Several of the incidents involved student groups linked to the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which is known to encourage religious hate. As a result, Pakistan was compelled to step in and offer scholarships at Pakistani universities for hundreds of Kashmiri students.
Many Kashmiris have the means but cannot study at foreign schools because of India’s harsh passport policy. India uses travel documents as one of the ways of controlling Kashmiris. So, Kashmiris who ‘behave,’ as in accept Indian rule and cooperate with Indian authorities, get a passport as a reward. Those who oppose India are punished by not receiving travel documents. Therefore, India is often the only foreign-schooling option left for many Kashmiris.
Economic hardship due to Kashmir lockdown will affect thousands of families and will further reduce the numbers of young Kashmiris with access to quality education. Kashmir has seen losses of up to a billion dollars since India slapped the world’s longest curfew. The figure was officially announced mid-November by Kashmir’s main trade body. The full impact of this loss, including on education, will be visible after India lifts the blockade. Even prosperous Kashmiri students who managed to travel to study in India, Pakistan, the Arabian Gulf, and the West are suffering. Their families cannot send money to cover tuition fees, and in many cases telephone communication is difficult or not available. Again, the communication blackout prevents journalists and researchers from understanding the full scale of this tragedy. But some examples exist. Many Twitter threads, with vivid descriptions, help in understanding how self-financed Kashmiri students in Pakistani universities are surviving. These students are not on scholarships and are completely dependent on funding from home.
So, the plight of Kashmiri students, who are some of the smartest in South Asia, really comes down to conflict resolution. But this does not absolve the government of India from its responsibilities to ensure Kashmiri students have full access to education in accordance with international law and Geneva Conventions.
THE END GAME
The Kashmir Conflict has reached a stage where the end game is visible. The Kashmiris will achieve some form of end to Indian military occupation, and possibly succeed in getting an UN-supervised referendum to decide their political future. But this will be an arduous road. The key point is that India can no longer reverse Kashmir’s freedom. This is no longer debatable post-Wani. The freedom movement has cultivated enough critical mass for it to challenge India’s repeated claims that UNSC resolutions have ‘expired’ (UNSC resolutions do not expire; their status can only change through subsequent resolutions).The strategic community is watching Kashmir slip out of India’s hands. The Diplomat has bluntly said that Kashmir is Slipping Away from India. The Foreign Policy magazine has published an article titled, India is Losing Kashmir, and the BBC asked: Is India losing Kashmir?The reason the international media is discussing this is simple. It’s because India has lost Kashmir in most ways except the physical control, and that now is a matter of time. Indian leaders realize they are headed toward the inevitable in Kashmir. Some Indian lawmakers, especially from non-Hindi speaking states, have called for ‘letting Kashmir go’ if that’s what the Kashmiri nation wants. Some Indian politicians have admitted that Kashmir is lost already.
Many Kashmiris have the means but cannot study at foreign schools because of India’s harsh passport policy. India uses travel documents as one of the ways of controlling Kashmiris.
It is a human tragedy that a minority of Indian politicians (most of them religious, Hindi-speaking, and come from the ruling state of UP in the north) whip up false religious and nationalistic emotions over Kashmir, where Indian army kills innocent civilians and where the Indian military suffers its worst casualties, including suicides and psychological problems as the Indian soldiers fight a losing battle. India holds the key not only to peace in Kashmir but the entire region. India created Kashmir conflict by stalling and rejecting UNSC resolutions. There is no real conflict between Pakistan and India if Kashmir is resolved. India is a big enough country to afford the necessary concessions to resolve Kashmir, allow Kashmiris to heal their wounds, and allow Pakistan and India to enjoy the dividends of peace.
If India fails to do this, the region will see more instability, and a possible war, which eventually would invite international intervention. That could be humiliating for India. It is better to show leadership, vision and compassion, and resolve the conflict with the Kashmiris and Pakistan.
Expecting Pakistan to forget Kashmir is not an option. The physical, historical, cultural, and religious links between Pakistanis and Kashmiris make it impossible to consider this option. A comparable situation does not exist in India, where the vast majority of Indians share no affinity to Kashmiris and, more importantly, the Kashmiris overwhelmingly reject any manufactured affiliation to India. Wani was an Internet poster boy for a new generation of Kashmiris. He donned military fatigues for show, as a form of rebellion and rejection of military occupation. He was handsome, well-educated, and Kashmiris loved him. India arrested him alive, but it miscalculated in his murder as it has miscalculated everything else in Kashmir. Burhan Wani has changed Kashmir forever. He is also an example of how many smart, capable and intelligent Kashmiri students lost their lives and careers because of a conflict that awaits India’s readiness to permanently end it.
The writer is the executive director of YFK-International Kashmir Lobby Group, a nonprofit working on accountability for human rights violations in Kashmir and the peaceful resolution of the conflict. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org