On Sunday, arsonists set on fire a school in southern Kashmir, the latest arson attack that has targeted nearly 25 schools in India’s Jammu and Kashmir state. Anti-government protests and the government’s heavy-handed response have created an atmosphere of turmoil.
These schools, most of them government-run institutions, were attacked in the middle of the night by so-called “miscreants.” No one has claimed responsibility. Everyone blames each other. The High Court has called upon the authorities to “stop the enemies of education.”
It is a tough time to be a student in Kashmir these days. First there were the protests that began in July after Burhan Wani, who became a militant as a teenager, was killed in an armed exchange with security forces. Wani had developed a large following on social media, even inspiring other young people to join the militancy.
After he was killed, Wani’s young admirers took to the streets, throwing stones at police. Government forces retaliated with riot guns – the pellets often blinding protesters and bystanders, many permanently. Over 90 people have died in the violence, many of them students. Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti blamed Pakistan and called upon parents to keep their children from joining the protests and prevent “vested interests” from “playing politics over the dead bodies of the youth.”
As protest violence escalated, the government first imposed a mandatory curfew and schools, colleges, and shops shut down. Now, even though the violence has ebbed, calls for protests by Kashmiri separatist leaders have prevented educational institutions from functioning properly. Schools have remained shut for months. As some students protested, demanding that schools be reopened in time for examinations, Chief Minister Mufti accused the separatist protest organizers of trying to keep children out of school.
Now schools are being razed.
Meanwhile, soldiers deployed to contain the violence are temporarily occupying schools to use them as their bases and barracks.
These attacks on education in Jammu and Kashmir need to stop immediately. The burning of schools, assaults on teachers and students, the occupation of schools by the police and military, and the recruitment of children to become fighters violate the rights of children or thwart their chances to get an education. Both India and Pakistan should show their commitment to ensuring all students can learn in peace by endorsing the Safe Schools Declaration, an international political commitment that outlines common-sense steps that governments can take to better protect students and schools in such tense situations. Kashmir should be putting out school graduates, not school fires.