BARAMULLA, INDIAN-ADMINISTERED KASHMIR — Mehnaaz Mehraj crouches over a science book on her front porch and tries to focus. The steps of this one-story, yellow brick house have turned into her classroom. Again.
The 14-year-old takes a break from scrutinizing the text to help her younger sister with reading and writing. The pair, along with 1.5 million other students in this contested mountainous region, had recently returned to classes after a government lockdown shuttered schools for nearly seven months. Then the new coronavirus struck. Their resumed studies lasted less than a month.
“Just when we had begun schools after such a long time, they were closed again,” Mehnaaz says. “How can we study like that?”
The Indian government in August revoked an article in its constitution that had granted semi-autonomy to the largely Muslim state of Jammu and Kashmir. Officials split the area into two federal territories to more closely align it with India and sent in troops to quell unrest. Authorities cut access to internet and phone services, and most government-run and private schools closed. The clampdown marked the latest chapter in a decades-long battle between India and Pakistan over the region’s fate. Both countries and China control pieces of the disputed land.
Raihana Maqbool, GPJ Indian-administered Kashmir
Officials started restoring access in January, although high-speed internet is still restricted. Schools officially reopened February 24, only to shut down by March 12 out of concern over the spread of the virus.
Indian officials have confirmed 97 cases in Indian-administered Kashmir and two deaths as of April 4; all non-essential services have closed. Army and police patrols monitor the streets. Authorities have confirmed 3,072 cases and 75 deaths nationwide, and declared a shutdown for 21 days.
During Indian-administered Kashmir’s earlier lockdown, parents fretted about sending their children to the few open schools amid the presence of nearly 100,000 troops. Now, they fear a less visible foe.
Parents balance health worries with concerns about wasted time and what school closures mean for their kids’ futures.
“I had to see my children suffer for so many months,” says Mehraj Naik, Mehnaaz’s father and a laborer who works on construction sites. “What a child learns in school can never be taught at home.”
A teacher who lives near their home took pity on his daughters, he says, and offered free lessons. Mehnaaz runs over to her house with questions about math equations.
Mehnaaz has her crucial 10th-grade exams this year, which she needs to pass to proceed with her studies. She understands the health rationale for closing schools but believes, at this point, the government should consider alternatives for education.
“I need guidance from the teachers,” Mehnaaz says. “Going to school is very important for me as my parents are not that educated [and can’t] help me in my studies.”
Local education officials point to measures meant to create as much normalcy as possible. The government is collaborating with a local television channel to broadcast pre-recorded teacher videos for two hours a day, says Mohammad Younis Malik, director of school education in the Kashmir Valley.
Educators also send audio lectures through WhatsApp, a messaging application, and provide students with study material, he says. School officials plan to air additional classes on a local radio station.
Schools will hold exams when the crisis is over, Malik says. “We are doing everything that is possible and in our hands.”
This doesn’t offer much solace to stressed parents. Mohammad Yousef Bhat, a businessman from Rajbagh, an affluent area with private schools and trendy hotels, says he’s run out of options for his children. He tried to pay for private lessons, but those ended due to concerns about the spread of the virus.
“Me and my wife tried to teach them at home, but it is not easy,” he says. “They don’t want to concentrate and constantly say they miss school and their friends.” The lockdowns have turned his children antsy and aggressive. His son buries himself in video games on his phone and snaps easily.
The long-term effects of school closures remain unclear, although students already are falling behind.
“These months created a huge gap in education, and it will affect the students during their upcoming exams,” says G N Var, head of the Kashmir Private Schools and Coaching Centres Association. “This will create problems for them in the future as well because they have missed so much learning and classwork.”
Limitations on high-speed internet also make it difficult for students to take advantage of online learning, a strategy used in places like Mongolia and the United States. The federal government shut down internet access in Indian-administered Kashmir more than 80 times last year, according to Access Now, an internet-rights organization based in New York. The Indian government also has banned the region from using higher speeds, such as 4G.
But this long-disputed region is used to adapting.
“We have a silver lining,” says Tariq Chalkoo, a professor at Government Degree College Uri. “We have internet even though the bandwidth is very low.” He suggests teachers scan notes to send to students and make videos on their mobile phones that they can share through email. He also encourages parents to participate in the lessons.
Eventually, though, patience can dry up.
Ali Rehman, 14, who studies at a private school in the region, struggles to adjust to perpetual uncertainty.
“Sometimes I would just sit for hours thinking about what will happen next,” Rehman says, about the first lockdown. “With schools closed again and no good internet, I wonder what we are going to do.”
Raihana Maqbool, GPJ, translated interviews from Urdu and Kashmiri.