Every year in Indian-administered Kashmir, thousands of students start the academic year hoping that this time things will be a bit better, a bit more normal. We head to our classrooms determined to cherish every minute that we are there and take everything in as quickly as we can, as we never know whether we will be able to return the next day.
After all, thanks to never-ending violence and oppression, we hardly attend school. Unlike many of our peers elsewhere in the world, going to school most days of the year is not a certainty for us.
In March 2019, when I started the new school year as a Class 12 (the final year of secondary school) student, I was once again hoping for the best. I was happy to be back but aware that an escalation in violence can cut the academic year short at any moment. My friends were as nervous as I was. Trying to laugh away our concerns, we joked about the possibility of yet another “break” starting soon.
In a few months, our jokes became a reality.
On August 5, we had a biology exam. I did not feel I was adequately prepared for it, so the night before I prayed for something to happen to cause the exam to be postponed, or better yet, cancelled. Of course, I had no idea what was about to happen. If I had, I would have taken 100 more exams to stop it.
The next morning, my father shook me awake and gave me the news that the Indian government had scrapped Article 370 – the article in the constitution which granted our region special status and protected its demography.
I cannot quite recall what I did that day. All I remember was thinking: “What is going to happen to us now?” In the following days, everyone put forward their theories about our future. Each imagined scenario was grimmer than the one before it. We were unable to discuss our future with anyone outside our immediate neighbourhood – the internet was shut down, phone lines were cut, and a curfew was imposed.
I told myself “just wait until the Eid is over”. The Muslim religious holiday was to take place in a week’s time, and I naively thought that once that had passed, life in Indian-administered Kashmir would return to “normal”, or at least to a state that could be considered normal under military occupation.
I was wrong.
Eid came and went, but our situation did not change.
I imagine being a 17-year-old student in Class 12 is not that easy anywhere in the world. You “must” get good grades. You “must” secure your place at a good university. You are repeatedly reminded that the grades you get in Class 12 affect the type of college you will be admitted to and thereby, your future. I know that these are ordinary worries of young adulthood. But last year in Indian-administered Kashmir, I had the added pressure of being a prisoner in my own home.
I wanted to study, but the shutdown made it almost impossible for me to do so. Schools were closed, tuition centres were locked, and, of course, the online study opportunities were gone. Thanks to the total communications blackout, I could not even seek guidance from my teachers or support from my friends.
Moreover, I was worried about my friends. I did not know if they were OK and had no means of checking. Had any of them been arrested? Killed?
My parents were also suffering. I had never seen them so devastated and under so much pressure. They were worried not only about the events transpiring around us, but also about my future. They were so desperate for me to continue with my education that they wandered around our neighbourhood looking for a teacher who could help me.
They also could not communicate at all with my brother, who was studying in New Delhi at the time. When we eventually got in touch with him, he told us he, too, had been unable to concentrate on his studies because he had no idea what fate his family back home had suffered.
In late September, I heard the front gate of our house open, then familiar voices. When I peeked through the window, I saw my friends who I have not heard from in almost two months, standing there. I ran outside barefoot. They told me to get ready as our school had decided to carry on with our internal practical tests which would contribute to our final exams.
Then in October, the Board of School Education announced that schools in Indian-administered Kashmir would go ahead with the annual examinations without any relaxation in the syllabus. This meant that despite my school being able to complete only 30 percent of the Class 12 syllabus before the August shutdown, we would be examined on the entire syllabus in November.
I was angry and upset.
Clearly, the officials who took this decision did not care whether we would be able to pass these exams. They did not care whether we learned anything. The only thing they were concerned about was the number of students who would sit the exams. They wanted everyone to attend as if nothing had happened so that they could boast in the media that everything had returned to “normal” in Indian-administered Kashmir.
I could do nothing other than try to learn the syllabus in the short amount of time that was left.
I spent the month before my exams at my grandmother’s house in order to study without any distractions. There was so little time, I read some chapters for the first time the day before the exams started.
On the first day of exams, there were hardly any buses available. As everyone was forced to use private vehicles, the traffic was heavy, and many students could not reach their exam venues in time. The authorities once again turned a blind eye to the problem. No one was given extra time, and some students were forced to start writing their exams almost half an hour late.
We were all set for failure, but nobody cared.
Things did not get any better in the following days. It started snowing and there was no electricity for a week. The weather was so cold, I could barely hold my pen.
When I expressed my annoyance at all of this, my father said something that I will never forget: “Get used to it, things will be like this from now on.”
Despite all this, we did the best we could. Officials did not say much about our performance, or the obstacles we faced but boasted about the high exam attendance rate.
In the eyes of the authorities, us Kashmiri students are nothing but tools to keep the charade of normalcy alive. They do not care about our education, our wellbeing or our future. They think simply by forcing us to sit exams they can convince us, and the world, that we are receiving an education. But we are well aware of our reality. We know that what they are trying to sell as “normal” is anything but.
But despite all the obstacles put in front of us, we are aware of our power and our potential. We know that whatever they do, they cannot change the fact that we are the future of this land.