Education – the instrument of peace in Kashmir

A growing number of young people in Kashmir are suffering from emotional despair, low self-esteem, a lack of cultural connectivity and a loss of values. They are angry at their situation and susceptible to political overtures and groups that hope to profit from their situation. If the current negative attitudes that permeate through Kashmiri society are not dealt with and brought to the foreground to be explored, many fear the situation will worsen. One answer to the turmoil may lie in the education system, where current teaching methods can be supplemented with peace driven initiatives.

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Conflict Background

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By Ashima Kaul

Qayoom volunteers for Human Aid Society in Kashmir’s north district Baramulla. His concern for inter-generational gap, aggressiveness and growing skepticism in the youth is visible on his disturbed face. “Young people in the last 22 years of violence, disturbances and shut downs have lost their sense of roots, the rich cultural heritage Kashmir has and parents and grandparents who earlier had time for their children and grandchildren are caught up in their own turmoil. It’s worrying!” shares Qayoom. The late evening conversation in Qayoom’s home in Baramulla resonates with Farooq’s palpable anxiety about the behavior of his students. A teacher in a private school in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district, Farooq expresses his anguish about how society and families in Kashmir have broken down. “The youth too are lost in this chaos” he adds. However when both were told that this is a universal phenomenon with young people as societies across cultures are facing these challenges, they agree but added, “Here in Kashmir it is different because the parents cannot reprimand or guide their children . We are scared they might just run off and join some terrorist group or commit suicide”.

According to various newspaper reports, there have been 1100 suicide attempts registered in police stations or hospitals last year. These statistics include men, women and teenagers between the ages of 17 to 25 years. Mental health professionals are worried that political instability, violence and uncertainty about the future are strong factors for the growing number of suicides. However teachers like Farooq and social volunteers like Qayoom feel that young people have lost the power for restraint. A counselor with a reputed school in Kashmir Valley says that the youth’s capacity to face difficult challenges and situations has been weakened. They also suffer from low self-esteem and are therefore more susceptible to drugs, violence and suicide.

Neerja Mattoo, a retired principal and educator reminisces that in their times (between 1950-80), children learnt about their heritage from folklores that were woven into daily inter-community relationships, whilst cultural values and  the composite culture came to them naturally through common shared spaces like festivals, weddings, education institutions, shrines and public intermingling of communities. “In the absence of these, the young generation has lost a treasure”. “And the saddest part”, she adds “is that none of our indigenous wisdom and knowledge is institutionalised or included in school as part of the curriculum”.

A lack of diversity

The young people have no reference or recollection of co-existence, communal harmony, and the diversity of people in the region and their histories. Their reference is the current external reality of polarised communities, social apathy, a decadence of values, divisive polity, anger and aggressiveness. It becomes a vicious cycle of ignorance, violence, anger, hatred, despair and response that impacts relationships, both politically and socially. This creates an opportunity for the exploitation of certain groups and individuals for political purposes, and is true for all three regions of Ladakh, Kashmir and Jammu.

Furthermore, these regions have many sub-regions with different histories and cultures, and thus it is imperative that the next generation learn about each other in the context of shared and collective history, culture and traditions in order to build unity and a common perspective. Educating young people about peace would mean those aspects of daily life which are deeply connected to ones identity become part of the daily school level curriculum. “The Jammu and Kashmir State Board for School Education needs to look into this aspect” suggest Mrs. Mattoo. Thinking back to her time at school and thereafter up until 1990,  the classroom space was a diverse mix of Hindu and Muslim children studying together. Besides school, however, the opportunity for a secular experience for children is limited in the Valley. Furthermore, teachers are also detached from an experience of diversity.

“If the children do not find it in their text books neither in their associations, it’s naturally going to be an insular experience of education.” – Neerja Mattoo

As well as individual experiences, there is a desire for intervention in addressing the psychological trauma and the loss of values in society. “We have lost morals and our values. We are going away from what our religion teaches us”, says Khalida Ara remorsefully. A teacher in a government school, Khalida often initiates campaigns within her school and locality, and facilitates students through a transition to become good citizens.

A pioneering programme

Ironically with no alternative or secular platforms, schools and teachers find they must resort to religious Quranic teachings as a resource for moral values for the students, a trend that most schools and families are now following. In an effort to address this gap, The Global Education and Leadership Foundation (tGELF), a New Delhi based organisation, has initiated a pioneer programme for schools in Jammu and Kashmir. The idea is to build emotional, mental and intellectual capacities of teachers within the formal school space so that they can apply the same capacity within their classrooms for student leadership and change.

Today’s child is going to grow up in a very complex world. Our values, the core aspect of our fundamental beliefs, therefore need to be built, for anchoring and enabling us to become centered in thoughts and action. – Gowri Ishwaran CEO, tGELF

tGELF have addressed such issues through a number of programmes. The Ethical and Transformative Education programme is one such example that hopes to break the cycle of ignorance and unawareness through intensive workshops on self improvement, ethical dilemma and emotional capacities of the teachers in Jammu and Kashmir. The programme, which has successfully completed one year of collective workshops in the Valley’s three schools, is now ready to embark on the second phase. Approximately 40 teachers attended these experiential workshops that involved role plays, mind maps, discussions, creative storytelling and various other activities on learning the art of listening and dialogue. It provided not only a platform to bond, express and learn new teaching skills, but also to embark on a personal journey of self-awareness. “The situation in Kashmir is such that it has completely closed our minds to new thoughts and solutions. This initiative has opened a new window for us and given us a space to discuss ideas, expressing our honest opinion, learning to solve problems and staying positive”, says a teacher.

The tGELF programme has three modules focused on:

  • Conceptual clarity of education, teaching and learning principles.
  • Personal and professional development of teachers.
  • The provision of skills that they can replicate in their classrooms.

During the first phase of 2012, the teachers were led through collective workshops to develop their own capacities. In the second phase scheduled for next year, the teachers will apply the learning to their students. New schools in two other regions, Ladakh and Jammu, will also be included and a second batch of teachers will commence on the collective, as well as individual, journey. Amongst the trained teachers, a cohort of teachers will be selected to become trainers to expand the work to many other schools in the region. This is a long term commitment for peace in Jammu and Kashmir. For a greater impact however, the government arm of education, the State Board of School Education, needs to re-frame an inclusive education policy and apply it as an instrument of peacebuilding in the region.

Ashima Kaul coordinates the organisation Yakjah in their work in Jammu and Kashmir. An independent journalist by profession, she has an active interest in interfaith dialogue.

This article was originally published on Insight on Conflict, and is available by clicking here.

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