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That elusive chalk

That elusive chalk

Author: Kavita Suri
Publication: The Statesman
Date: August 4, 2006

From the salubrious environs of her village nestling in the foothills of Anantnag district in Zalangam, south

Kashmir, getting uprooted and settling in a tented colony on the outskirts of Jammu city in Nagrota in the scorching heat of the plains was not easy for Sunita Kaul, all of 14 years.

Leaving her belongings and her friends in the neighbourhood to flee with her parents to Jammu in the middle of one dark night in early 1990 was a harsh reality that she could never reconcile to.

After landing in Jammu and staying in Gita Bhavan temple for a few months, Sunita didn't know what she was supposed to do since she saw disillusionment all around. Then her family shifted to a tent in the Nagrota Migrant Camps. A few migrant schools were set up there. Sunita started attending one of them.

On the terrace of a temple nearby, she had an encounter with a snake which she brought home in her school bag. Her mother discovered it the next morning when her daughter was preparing to go to school again. (At least 1,000 Kashmiri Pandits died of sunstroke and snakebites in refugee camps of Jammu and Delhi). Years have gone by. Sunita finished school. She is now as well placed as she can be in the circumstances. Coping with the harsh, post-April summer of 1990, hundreds of Kashmiri Pandit girls were in mental turmoil as they had to adjust to camp school.

All the Kashmiri Pandit families in Kashmir were affected by armed insurgency which took root in the early 1990s. This was also the period when the world witnessed the exodus of the ethnic Kashmiri Pandit community from their homeland.

In 1990, the year of the holocaust, as the Kashmiri Pandits put it; all regular educational institutions were closed for Kashmiri students. But for a Kashmiri Pandit, students from other states could easily get admission in a regular school in Jammu. Makeshift arrangements for migrant students were made in tents. There were no fans in the scorching heat, nor any toilet or drinking water facilities.

Degree classes for migrant students were arranged in the Government Science College and MAM College, Jammu. Migrant students were registered with Kashmir university. During the peak of militancy in the early 1990s, the three-year academic year got stretched to six-seven years. Most of the migrant students in Jammu got exhausted and lost interest in studies.

The Kashmiri Pandit youth suffered after their displacement from the Kashmir Valley 16 years ago. Life in the migrant camps was far worse for them than those who got private accommodation in various parts of Jammu and Delhi and a few other cities. Most of those who settled in government, migrant colonies were those who had no major resources for sustenance. So they had low literacy rates. The girls fared badly, according to a report on the "Impact of migration on the socio-economic conditions of Kashmiri displaced people" conducted by the Jammu and Kashmir Centre for Minority Studies (J&KCMS).

Discontinuation of education due to inaccessibility of the educational institute/economic reasons and other socio-cultural factors was pronounced in the migrant camps where the families were mostly from agricultural/business and self-employed sections," the report stated. The research undertaken for studying the impact of violence on Kashmiri Pundit girls' education reveals that there has been a significant difference between camp and non-camp students. The affluent constructed their house or lived in rented accommodation. The tent community were later shifted to one-room tenements (ORTs).

The condition of refugee camps set up at Muthi, Nagrota, Mishriwalla and Jhiri, Purkhoo in Jammu and Batal Ballian in Udhampur, have always been sub-human. Lack of healthcare, hygiene, education and other facilities reflected on their education. The literacy rate in camp localities was 56 per cent for boys and 40 per cent for girls. Families with rural and urban background in the camps depicted significant variations in the proportion of the educated and trained population.

In camps, the female literacy rate was 49 per cent for families of urban origin and 37 per cent for families of rural origin in the post- migration period of March, 2002. Only 11 per cent of the students reach graduation level, with hardly three per cent becoming graduates.

The avenues for higher education were less among families dwelling in camps as compared to families living in non-camp localities. After the initial trauma of migration, the students were able to cope to some extent, Dr Agnishekher, Panun Kashmir chairman, said.

The CMS findings show that the percentage of students who discontinued studies after the migration due to inaccessibility of educational institutions, a financial crunch and other socio-economic and cultural factors, in the age group 6-18 years was worked out at eight per cent for boys and 11 per cent for girls at the school level..

Those between 18 and 24 years for graduation and post-graduation and professional studies was worked out at 24 per cent for boys and 30 per cent for girls at the college level. "The discontinuation of education for both boys and girls from camp localities was 24 per cent for boys and 43 per cent for girls at the school level; 65 per cent for boys and 74 per cent for girls at the college level and 25 per cent for boys and girls each at the post-graduation and professional training level," the report states.

The communal carnage, the forced exodus, the changed milieu, alien and hostile environment along with a torn social fabric, poor shelter, lack of privacy and security, economic distress, loss of interest among students due to non-availability of jobs, lack of an appropriate education environment in the vicinity, the institutional confusion because of the change of the university, the callous attitude of the Kashmir university and inflexibility and lack of sympathy of the state government to allow flexibility of jurisdiction resulted in discontinuation of education among Kashmiri Pandits.

Living in sub-human camps, deprived of the basic needs of life, living in squalor, the youths were discriminated against in education and employment and they lapsed into psychological and mental diseases including depression, anxiety disorders, and personality syndromes. What came to the rescue of such migrant students were the reservations made by the Maharashtra government in various professional seats of the state. Students interested in engineering seats outside the state could get admission in Maharashtra. When compulsory primary education was denied to Kashmiri Pandit students in Jammu and Kashmir, this state opened it doors to the choicest engineering and medical colleges for them. Recently, Karnataka also became the first state in the country to allot medical and dental seats, besides engineering seats to Kashmiri Pandit migrants for the academic year 2006-07. (On 1 July, the Common Entrance Cell of the Karnataka government allotted 60 engineering seats, four medical seats and one dental seat). And things started improving for these students. Dr KL Chowdhury, chairman, political affairs, Panun Kashmir said: "Despite the difficult circumstances, education has been our main focus, be it girls or boys. If you visit a refugee camp and enter any one-room tenement, you will not miss a study corner in that multipurpose room where you may have three generations living together." "All you have is family support; the state has not provided even the basic infrastructure for education of the displaced. I remember the tent schools would be blown off with the first summer storm. In these schools there are only blackboards and the girls have to sit on the bare, uneven, rocky ground", says Dr Chowdhary, a physician.

The Pandits sold their properties back home in the Valley for a song to generate funds to educate their children. Dr Chowdhary said states like Maharashtra have given an incentive for the youth to work hard and get into professional colleges. He said the girls are marching shoulder to shoulder with the boys and even faring better in various disciplines. They are in medicine, engineering, journalism, acting, modelling, law, IT, aviation, police and so on. Some years back, he wrote a poem **Camp School** in his anthology, **Of Gods, Men and Militants** (Minerva India (Pvt) Ltd. 2000) which goes as follows:

In the wild outskirts of the city, On a barren piece of land at Muthi, Five tattered tents each twelve feet by twenty, Flapping in the wind, holding tenuously, Make our school for a hundred and thirty. The only furniture or upholstery Is a bare blackboard, solitary, Rough and ridged and rickety, That refuses to be writ upon With any chalk, coloured or white, Hard, soft or powdery.

The 'migrant' teachers try their best With words, gestures and pantomime But often leave the class in disgust As the wind blows hot, the sun peeps through Or the rains seep in to flood the school And the skin smarts and burns with the 'loo'. But that doesn't dampen our spirits In this veritable laboratory Where the briar and bush is our botany, The insects and worms our zoology, The sand and stones our geology, The elements our physics and chemistry, Mother Nature our library And we ourselves the history Ours is not just a camp school, But a mini open university.

(The writer, The Statesman's Jammu-based Special Correspondent is also a peace scholar with Women In Security, Conflict Management and Peace -WISCOMP)

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