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Published in the 16-30 Sep 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Youth with a mission

By Hilal Bhat

Srinagar: Ajaz Ahmad Rather, final year social sciences student in a college here, calls it 'literacy in the light of Islam.' Three years ago, the idea of teaching English language to underprivileged children of this village struck him and gradually he introduced primers on basic tenets of Islam in English. Last month, when two of his best students studying in Urdu-medium government schools bagged the first two prizes in a district-level debate leaving behind competitors from convent schools, he was a very satisfied man.

Ajaz Ahmad Rather with his students

Ajaz Ahmad Rather with his students
(Pic: Javaid Dar) 

Uneducated parents of his students have lauded his endeavor. "We saw English-speaking children only on television, but now our own children can speak this language," Niyaz Ahmad Mir, a shopkeeper at Bumthan said.
Aijaz says his efforts are aimed at removing the notion of backwardness associated with any kind of instruction in Islamic teachings. "Often inferiority complex is ascribed to students of madrasas and one of the reasons for that is the lack of knowledge of English language," he says.

Imparting Islamic lessons in English and keeping his students rooted in Arabic and Urdu at the same time was a daunting task. Aijaz found useful the primers on Imaan (belief) Ibadah (worship) and Salah (namaz), published by a Delhi-based Islamic publishing house. His students speak the 'global language of science and commerce' like their counterparts in English-medium and missionary schools. 

"The way these Urdu-medium students spoke English was a total surprise for me," says Iqbal Ahmad, a teacher form one of the elite schools of the Kashmir Valley. Early in the morning, the children gather in the village mosque and take the lessons from Aijaz, who regularly updates himself on the nuances of the language. Students are also encouraged to read natural sciences in innovative ways.

Aijaz procures books from his well-off friends in college and has a collection of more than 600 books in the community library housed in the village mosque. "I lend these books exclusively to those who cannot afford to buy them," Aijaz says.

Parents are happy with the transformation brought about by Aijaz. Asim Ahmad, 14, studies in a government school. Three years back he did not know the difference between 'his' and 'her.' But now he not only understands the language but can also speak it fluently. "His behavior changed ever since he started attending classes in the mosque," his father, a truck driver, says adding, "he does not roam aimlessly in the village and offers prayers five times a day besides studying in a disciplined way."

His sister, a graduate student says, "He knows the language better than me and it is the result of informal lessons he receives from Aijaz." Aijaz invests even his pocket money for purchasing books and to further his dream of 'literacy in the light of Islam' in his lesser-known village. "My objective is to remove the disadvantages the children of low-income families like drivers, hawkers and labourers are subjected to vis-a-vis the children of affluent families," Aijaz added.

Students in his class are charged a nominal fee of a hundred rupees per year. Last year Aijaz brought a computer using the money collected over the last three years, with a generous amount contributed from his own pocket. There is no computer teacher in the village. Aijaz himself attended computer classes in a computer institute and now teaches it to the children.

A shop has been donated by a villager which is used as a lab-cum classroom for the students. "The larger objective was to remove every speck of inferiority from the lives of these poor children," Aijaz says adding, "children of well-to-do parents have easy access to these modern-day facilities besides private tuition, but for the poor villagers who cannot even afford a notebook and pencil, private tuition or coaching is a distant dream." 

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