Authorities have closed about 300 schools in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir state after fatal shelling racked areas near the Pakistan border for days and arsonists this week torched the latest of 28 schools in two months.
More than 1.2 million children have already been out of school, since deadly protests and strict curfews began more than 100 days ago. Indian authorities had hoped they could re-open schools to project a return to normalcy, but the unidentified arsonists made sure that did not happen.
“According to government officials, the schools are a soft target for separatist groups that want to keep up pressure on the government now that the street protests have died down,” Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, wrote to Humanosphere in an email.
Kashmir has been the subject of a territorial dispute between Pakistan and India since 1947. But the most recent violence was sparked after Indian security forces killed 22-year-old Burhan Wani in a gun battle on July 8.
Wani, who joined Kashmir’s largest militant separatist group Hizbul Mujahideen as a teenager, earned a loyal following on social media among young Muslim Kashmiris, many of whom have taken up arms to follow his lead.
Anti-government protestors took to the streets in mourning the day following Wani’s death. Since then, more than 90 people have died – most of them youth – and thousands have been injured in clashes with police who are using non-lethal weapons, such as pellet guns, at close range.
The arson attacks on schools are the latest flare up to highlight the central role that youth and children have taken in this decades-long conflict.
“The [separatist]leadership want a generation of uneducated youths who can pelt stones for them,” Mehbooba Mufti, chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir state, said at a public event, according to Times of India.
Separatist leaders shot back that the attacks were part of a “well-planned strategy to malign the ongoing movement and paint it as violence and anarchy,” in a statement from the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a coalition of separatist groups.
According to the New York Times, Hurriyat’s weekly strike instructions demand all educational institutions be closed, and the arson attacks have not swayed that position.
While both sides assign blame in support of their causes, the youth and children of Kashmir are sacrificing their futures.
Mufti blamed “certain quarters” of “playing politics of over the dead bodies of the youth,” in a televised address in July according to Times of India. But both nuclear powers are perpetuating the conflict through charged rhetoric, human rights abuses and diplomatic gestures followed repeatedly by cross-border attacks, such as India’s “surgical strikes” in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir after an attack on an Indian military base killed 19. Meanwhile, youth are dying, permanently maimed and giving up their education.
Even Wani’s father, Muzzafar Wani, weighed in on the school fires: “Whoever is doing this is wrong; burning of schools is unacceptable,” he told Asian News International.
About 20 people have been arrested in connection with the fires, but authorities still do not know who is responsible.
In the meantime, Ganguly of Human Rights Watch said both nations need to endorse the international Safe Schools Declaration and beef up security for schools, which are targets for the first time in this conflict.
“The Safe School Declaration is a public commitment to ensure that access is not impacted due to conflict. It means that schools cannot be targeted in violent attacks and should not used as barracks by security forces,” she wrote to Humanosphere.
“In many areas, teachers and residents are guarding the premises to prevent attacks. But the state should provide adequate security to ensure the protection of schools,” said Ganguly.
The government has stepped up its protection of schools since the Jammu and Kashmir high court issued an order on Monday to file a compliance report by Nov. 7 proving adequate security. “Investment in education is an investment for future generations,” a judge said, according to the BBC.
Without a resolution in sight for this complex and historical conflict, it may be up to future generations to fix what their parents couldn’t – assuming they survive.