In Kashmir, where do the children play?

Amit Sengupta | Updated on October 26, 2019

In small steps: In a bid to get children to school, the education department has set the dates for examinations   -  THE HINDU/ NISSAR AHMAD

No classroom titter, no outdoor games, not even ice cream — the empty schools and streets of Srinagar patiently await the return of the young

At the crossing to the elite and sanitised VVIP residential zone of Nishat Bagh and Gupkar Road in Srinagar, bang opposite the stark emptiness of the 13-km-long Dal Lake, the armed paramilitary forces manning barricades of sandbags are suddenly taken by surprise. Truly, they are happily surprised, and even in this tense atmosphere, a smile comes to their face.

A top cop in civvies, popular among the local population for making even the most powerful pay for traffic violations and reaching out to ordinary folks with a handshake of friendship, is on his usual walk in the evening around the Dal Lake. At the crossroad opposite the armed checkpost, a young Kashmiri mother stops her car. She smiles and waves. The back door opens and out jumps a young boy, smiling and hands stretched out for a handshake. His younger sister joins him. They sit with the police officer in his tracksuit, and share their life and times under a lockdown and curfew.

“Our schools are open. The teachers do come but no students can be seen in the empty classroom. Sometimes, we get some video lessons which we bring back home as homework. But that is rare,” the boy says.

In a bid to get children to school, the education department has set the dates for examinations, but almost 80 days after the Centre altered Article 370, the special status granted to Kashmir, few parents want to send their children to school. The threat of violence is always in the air.

“Life is dull and boring. No school, no play, no friends, no outdoor games, no internet. Not even ice cream,” the little boy says.

And, yet, as they say goodbye, the brother and sister smile back and wave. Childhood has a way of coping with suffering. Hope floats on the twilight zone of an evening around a sad lake in a huge town under Army siege.

Not everyone is smiling. You can hardly see children on the streets, even during ‘civilian curfew’ invisibly imposed by the local population (or is it, as some say, the Mujahideen?) through word of mouth and underground communication networks. The mausoleum of Sher-e-Kashmir Sheikh Abdullah lies desolate. The beautiful and revered places of worship near Nowhatta in downtown Srinagar are deserted: The huge Jama Masjid in its red-brick magnificence with not even a bird flying in its guarded solitude, and the famous Hazratbal, barricaded and lonely, but full of fluttering pigeons.

Equally stark in this solitary landscape is the absence of children — mothers with children, sisters and brothers walking hand in hand, or sharing popcorn, an ice cream or a burger, playing cricket and football on the streets. Children can’t be spotted playing on the terraces, they don’t look out of the shut windows, they don’t fly kites, they don’t blow soap bubbles, they don’t play hide-and-seek in their neighbourhood. Silence stalks the holed-in and ghettoised doors and windows in daytime, as if the children do not exist.

The teachers are all there, but mothers are not ready to send their children to school. What happens if there is a sudden lathi-charge, police firing, stone-pelting or teargas shelling, they ask. “What happens if their school buses or classrooms are attacked? Will they get food and medical care in times of an emergency? Can they reach out to their parents if they are in danger? How will the government that has locked up hundreds of fathers and brothers protect our children?”

This is the unanimous response of parents across Srinagar, the questions they have been asking since August 5, when the clampdown began.

Besides, the fear of arrests is a tangible one. Mothers wait for their sons who have been picked up in midnight raids; they are afraid of midnight raids. Despite court orders and documentation of children picked up and released, the phobia across holed up homes is endless and ongoing.

“Our children are not terrorists. Our children are like your children, like children all over the world. They want to go to school, study and play. They are innocent and harmless. So, why are they ravaging and destroying their little pure minds, their pristine souls, their only childhood,” asks a schoolteacher in uptown Srinagar.

At the crossing in Rajbagh, on a sunny morning, three schoolgirls with bags are marching to their school. I say, “Good morning.” They smile back and say, “Good morning.”

“Best wishes. Be safe,” I say, as they walk on briskly, cross the road, and wave goodbye. Their smile lingering in the sunshine like a symphony of hope.

Amit Sengupta is the executive editor of Hard News

Published on October 24, 2019

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