In India’s Borderlands, Education Needs to Start at Home

The status of education in the remote corners of our country has been well-researched by academicians, journalists and, sometimes, even a few policymakers who focus on improving the prospects of education.

I happen to belong to the former-most category. Being a PhD researcher who is on her fieldwork in one such remote borderland district of Poonch in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, I didn’t intend to – but accidentally ended up – exploring the various facets of education in this conflict-ridden border area.

My father, an educationist who retired from service recently, always had interesting stories to tell us about his job. These stories, being an insider, helped me construct a clearer perspective from within. It was normal for us to hear about his missed encounters with militants. Yes, those were the kind of locations my parents served at.

One day, he came back and told us that he couldn’t open his school because the village headman advised him against it as the chances of militants using the school-building as their night shelter were very high. A few days later, the headman’s advice turned out to be well-founded. He found packets of half-burnt cigarettes, some dry fruits and a blackish paste in a packet that later – upon enquiry – turned out to be a high-quality drug grown around the golden-crescent in Afghanistan.

The good news is that he survived this posting, but who knows how many times he would’ve opened those doors of the school to the smell of half-burnt cigarettes.

Also read: For Kashmiris in India, War is an Everyday Meal

Another anecdote that shook my spirits goes like this:

My dad met one of his students named Rukhsana (name changed for security purposes) strolling around the town-market area. He had taught her when he was posted to the frontier village of Jhullas-salotri (the village faces incessant cease-fire violations on a daily basis.) She, after paying her respect to him, started thanking him. When asked, she told him that she was in her final year of college only because of the wise words he had once imparted to her. He had asked her to not abandon her education even if she had to die fighting for her right to educate herself.

Years ago, to her surprise, her parents had fixed her wedding to one of her cousins and, despite her strong refusals, no one paid heed to her protest. She then remembered what dad had told her: “to fight till death for her right to educate herself.” Thus, on her wedding day, she ran away dressed as a bride towards the line of control (LoC,) which was half-a-kilometre from her backyard. She ran, continuously chased by the men of her family, and stopped right at the LoC, threatening to cross the border until they promised her to break off the marriage.

That day, while narrating this to dad, she was happily unmarried, chasing her dreams by finishing her last year of college.

But not all stories have happy endings.

Along with these inspiring sagas, the obverse is quite unfortunate. While the struggle to keep these temples of education alive amidst mortar shells demands more encouragement and support, the various agents and actors involved in this struggle – right from a child to a teacher – do not hold the same conviction for knowledge and learning.

Rehman (name changed for security reasons), a teacher at a high school in Degwar-Maldayalan – another frontier-village facing army pickets across the LoC right at its head – recounted how in the previous academic session, she was a 10th standard class teacher. According to her, one of the boys residing at the ridge right below the most notorious Pakistani army post never attended class.

After a month of marking him absent, Rehman asked the headmaster to tread along with her to this student’s house and enquire about his whereabouts, but all in vain. Thus, Rehman, kept marking him absent. However, at the end of term, the boy finally came to take his admit card. Accompanied by his family, they pleaded with the headmaster to issue him his admit card on such pleas as: “Hum maskeen hain, yateem hain, who paar border se aana padhta hai, de dijiye card (We are helpless, and poor, we have to come from across the border, kindly issue him his card)”

Most other staff from this school have also reported issues of many male students involved in drug-rackets, where local drug-traffickers engage them on the promise of making money in exchange for selling hand-rolled hashish balls. This, according to the staff, is rampant, with parents being least interested even when informed by the teachers.

Also read: ‘Main Khud Sey Ek Ladai Hoon’: Life in Kashmir

But the situation in good private schools within the town is nothing to write home about either. Cheating scams and cases of mass-copying during state board examinations had already beleaguered the system to the extent of mass-copying becoming a perennial trend.

However, the corollary of such scams was that those students who had been enrolling themselves in private academies in the town had also been enrolling for private medical and engineering classes in cities like Jammu and Delhi. Thus, schools have been allowing such students to be absent from their required higher secondary classes as they know a large number of them would be absent most of the time anyway. ‘Being absent from class’ on the pretext of being in border areas has become an infamous cult, both in the villages and in the town.

In contrast, the zeal to learn depends upon the zeal to be taught. Learning cannot happen without there being good teachers with the self-motivation to teach students at these perilous locations.

One such example highlighting this comes from Terwaan, a village located beyond the fencing across the LoC on the Indian-side. Rafiq (name changed for security purposes), a teacher in an other government high school told me about a fascinating case. Resham (named changed for security purposes) cleared most of her papers in her matriculation examination except one – Urdu.

Upon her mother’s request – who was mid-day meal cook at the school – Rafiq began to give extra classes to Resham. After six months, Resham passed her Urdu exam with flying colours, thus becoming an example of how important the role of teachers is in the village. This demonstrates that learning can happen even in a village located outside the surveillance-wire at the border, provided there’s good teaching.

Through these anecdotes, one thing that becomes clear is that education suffers heavily in borderlands that have been dealing with conflict on an everyday basis.

In such an environment, educational development policies should be implemented selectively in such a way that there’s contextual differentiation for regions like mainlands and borderlands right at the outset. However, the most important place for this to be addressed is at ‘home’. Nowhere has the ‘poverty of mind’ struck like a tragedy as much as it has parents.

The poverty of their minds speaks about the tragic conditions they live in – in frontier areas where the idea of ‘survival as a borderlander’ supersedes the need of a good education. Instead of improving education rights at the school-level, it’s time our policymakers focus on educating parents about how education can be instrumental itself in dealing with conflict.

If not, the conditions will remain the same.

Education may not silence guns at our borders, but it will gradually replace guns with pens. But this can only happen if we innovative and adapt our educational schemes for our borderlands.

Malvika Sharma is a PhD Sociology Research Scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal

Featured image credit: Reuters