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Published in the 1-15 June 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Collapsing education system in heights of J&K puts Gujjar children into jeopardy 

By Luv Puri <luv_puri1@rediffmail.com>

The Milli Gazette Online

Marrah(Poonch): Muzaffar Iqbal, an 11-year-old boy still shudders remembering the last one year he spent with the gun-totting Lashkar-e-Taiba militants in the heights of Pir Panjal of Jammu and Kashmir. Muzaffar Iqbal was found by the army in a bloody encounter, which lasted for four days amidst rain which led to the killing of seven terrorists.A jawan spotted the boy behind the bushes, he was asked to come out.Trembling with fear, Iqbal surrendered with raised hands which took the soldiers by surprise. Not too different was the experience of Abdul Ghani a 13 year old who was rescued in the famous Sarp Vinash operation by the local Gujjars in the Surankote belt, once known as the terror zone of the state. ABDUL GHANI, a resident of Pagai village — Rajouri district at the foothills of the Pir Panjal range — was found in a combat zone of Hill Kaka area of Surankote under the rubble after the security forces with the help of locals blasted a hideout where the militants were hiding. Both the children belonged to the Gujjar community and were well trained by the militants in armed warfare and could handle sophisticated weapons like AK-47 and even grenades.

But not every Gujjar child in the remote hills of Jammu and Kashmir has been lucky to escape the dreadful experience. Tahir Mohammad is still looking for his fifteen year old son Mohammad Yaqoob who was taken by the militants four years back from his home at Bafliaz. The father approached several militants commanders at the risk to his life but there was no trace of his son. As per the last information given by a militant commander, his son was last seen in Pakistan occupied Kashmir where he had crossed over last year. The fate of families of around 150 such missing persons in Gujjar populated belts of Rajouri-Poonch belt is no different as they are still waiting for the re-union with their children. 

Since militancy erupted in the Gujjar belt of the state, the children were easy prey for recruitment. Several factors made the militants recruit children of low ages. It was believed that security forces would be less suspicious about children and they in turn could be used as informers to know the movement of the patrols of security forces for targeting. Number of children after their escape from militants have admitted that they had lobbed grenades in the crowded bazaars. Mohammad Altaf, a 13 year old boy who remained with the Lashkar-e-Taiba militants for more than a year says, “I along with five children worked day and night to prepare food for the platoon of militants and washed their utensils. Besides this we were given armed training and sent to get arms from various hideouts.” Number of children died along the Line of Control, while they were carrying arms for the militants. For instance, in August, 2002, a ten year old boy was killed by the forces along the Line of Control in Mendhar sector when he was carrying arms from the neighbouring Nikiyal area of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. 

There is almost least ideological commitment with the militants as per the statements of the rescued children but the fact cannot be denied that the educational infrastructure in the Gujjar community populated remote hills remains poor as compared to the urban centers. The educational system in the heights of Pir Panjal is collapsing due to no institutional checks. The government teachers are playing truant. For instance in Marrah village of Surankote, for the last five years zero percent matriculation results have been recorded. Mohammad Qasim, a Marrah villager says, “Even though we have vacated the area of the presence of militants two years back, teachers do not come here to teach. Every time we approach them they give the lame excuse of militancy. No one has come to check this mass absenteeism of teachers. ” From the teacher’s side, there is less incentive to be efficient. Teachers in the remote hills are employed under Raber-e-Taleem scheme started by the state government in late 1999’s. As per the policy local educated youth were to be employed by the state government for teaching on a paltry sum of Rs.1500 per month. The idea behind the policy was to involve the local youth in the literacy drive as the teachers from the urban areas rarely visit the hilly belt. Minimum qualification for appointment of teachers is 10+2 with 40 per cent obtained in qualifying examination. Unfortunately candidates from Gujjar community were not available with this qualification with the result that the vacancies remained unfilled, despite the fact the state has a large force of unemployed educated youth. For instance there are as many as 123 vacancies of teachers in Kashmir province which could not be filled up during the year 1997-98 because of non-availability of 10+2 candidates. Most of the teachers who enrolled were from the urban areas and therefore the paltry sum of Rs.1500 per month became a disincentive and with time the youth got disinterested. For number of years now the teachers employed under the Raber-e-Taleem scheme have started an agitation for increasing their salaries but the state government has not moved an inch. Saleel Mohammad, a teacher employed in Khari area of Poonch district says, “The salary given to us is too less. Most of our expense go in transportation to reach the allotted hilly area. I am teaching as there is no other avenue.” 

The policy schemes in the field of education for the benefit of the Gujjars children is also not making much difference on the ground. Gujjar community was given the scheduled tribe status by the central government in 1991 and consequently this made them eligible for reservation in various educational institutions. But people living in the remote areas argue that the affirmative action has mostly benefited the people of the community in the urban areas of the state who any way had the best educational facilities.A debate has triggered off with in the community for excluding the creamy layer from the affirmative action as most of the consequent benefits are taken by the people who were already well settled. Mohammad Akram Khan, a Gujjar teacher says, “The reservation policy on the ground is benefiting the people living in urban areas. The affirmative action does not meet its objective. There is a huge difference between the educational standards of the people living in rural and urban areas. Every year eighty students pass out from my schools but in the last decade not even one has made it to professional college in the competitive exams.” The Gujjar children are at present given a scholarship of Rs.200 per month for buying books and stationery as per the tribal policy of the state government. But teachers point out that the parents who are mostly illiterate do not utilize the money for their Children benefit and money for books is diverted for meeting the daily expenses of households. Reaching to the Schools is also an ordeal for the Gujjar children. A minimum of 5 Km has to be trekked by the Gujjar children to reach the nearest school and so much of the time goes on traveling. Education department officials point out that not much can be done in this regard as the community lives in the far-flung areas in low density. To provide a conducive environment to the children and over come this problem, Gujjar boarding hostels were started in different parts of the state in late1970’s. The number of these hostels is too few as compared to the total strength of the students who want to join these institutions. The worse is the state of Children of Bakerwal community ethnically similar to Gujjars but the difference is the fact that they are nomads. To improve the literacy among the Bakerwal children, the state government had started the concept of mobile schools as teachers traveled with the nomads during their seasonal trek. With militancy erupting in the state, teachers hesitated to move with the Bakerwals with the result that the illiteracy level among the community remains high. A dualistic educational system is fast emerging in the state with a high level of qualitative education system up-to the University level available in the urban areas and at the same time the rural hilly belt of the state lacks even a basic primary education infrastructure. Whatever primary education system was created since independence is also collapsing and requires policy intervention.

(This article is based on a study on Gujjar community of J&K under a National Foundation for India fellowship) «

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