Arson Spate Hits State-Run Schools in Indian Kashmir

Amin Masoodi
Srinagar, India
2016-11-01
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161101-IN-school-1000 Local residents help a fireman put out a fire at a school in Jammu and Kashmir's Anantnag district, Oct. 30, 2016.
Hilal Ahmad/BenarNews

A rash of mysterious and unprecedented arson attacks has targeted at least 25 government-run schools in Indian-administered Kashmir, amid unrest that has gripped the Himalayan region for nearly four months.

No one knows why these educational institutions have been set ablaze, but authorities in Jammu and Kashmir state say they are investigating whether “the miscreants” who carried out these acts are Kashmiri separatists or pro-separatist and anti-India protestors.

The state’s authorities on Tuesday urged local teachers and senior citizens to prevent miscreants from trying to burn down more schools. A majority of the targeted ones have been torched in the southern part of Kashmir since anti-India protests erupted following the killing of the leader of an armed separatist group on July 8.

Late on Tuesday, someone set fire to the official residence of the chief of the District Institute of Education and Training, a government-run teacher training college, in south Kashmir's Shopian district late on Tuesday, local media said. The flames were doused before they could destroy the building.

Two days earlier, a higher secondary school in Anantnag district, about 70 km (43.4 miles) from Srinagar, was set on fire by unidentified suspects, authorities said. Firefighters extinguished the blaze, but most of the other targeted schools were completely gutted.

“Kulgam district is the worst affected, with seven schools reduced to ashes. Around 2,000 students have been affected in Kulgam alone,” Andul Rouf Shahmiri, the district’s chief education officer, told BenarNews.

“The divisional commissioner of Kashmir today directed senior education officials across the region to seek help from teachers, senior citizens and village heads to counsel youngsters against targeting schools to mark their protest,” Shahmiri said.

On Tuesday, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs asked the Jammu and Kashmir state government to ensure the safety of schools and try to reopen educational institutes in the region, according to media reports.

“The union home ministry is deeply concerned over the torching of schools and worried about the future of the children who are the worst suffered due to the nearly four months [of] turmoil in the state,” the Press Trust of India quoted an unnamed ministry official as saying.

Meanwhile, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a senior member of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an alliance of 26 Kashmiri separatist groups, condemned the arson attacks.

“Those involved in such acts can never be the well-wishers of society,” Geelani said in a statement. “[T]hese acts are purposely used to malign the [separatist] movement ….”

No school since July

Virtually all schools and colleges in Indian Kashmir have remained closed since July. Authorities in the meantime have frequently imposed a statewide curfew in view of violent street protests that followed the killing of Burhan Wani, a leader of the separatist outfit Hizbul Mujahideen.

During the latest unrest, at least 90 people, including two security personnel, have been killed and more than 10,000 injured in clashes between protesters and police and government forces.

The Himalayan region of Kashmir, which is claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan, has been in the midst of a separatist insurgency that has claimed over 70,000 lives since the late 1980s.

On Monday, the police claimed to have arrested “more than 12” suspects allegedly involved in torching schools in Anantnag and Shopian districts. The police, however, refused to reveal their identities or confirm if they belonged to any separatist faction.

“We are still interrogating them. We are working on some leads, and hopefully we will be able to give you more details on these arrests in the next few days,” Director General of Police S.P. Vaid told BenarNews.

Because thousands of schools are scattered across Kashmir, it is not possible for police to protect all of them, he said.

“It is the collective responsibility of the society to ensure that these centers of learning are not destroyed,” Vaid said. “I request community members and education officials to join hands and help the police in ensuring that schools are not targeted.”

Fazaz Ahmad, a teacher from Baramulla district, agreed.

“Schools are national assets and it is the moral duty of every member of this society to ensure the safety of schools,” he told BenarNews.

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