Srinagar: Leaving his home amid the wavering sunrays of dawn, Shahid Ahmad Bhat managed to reach Srinagar’s Tourist Reception Centre (TRC) after changing four cars.
With two bags in his hands and one slinging from his shoulders, 18-year-old Bhat heaved a sigh of relief on finding dozens of his classmates at the TRC. His home in Kulgam, southern Kashmir, is around 70 kilometres from Srinagar, normally a 90-minute drive. However, it took him four hours, while requesting random people for a lift.
Bhat, who has secured over 90 per cent marks in the class 12 exams, aspires to become a doctor. Son of a government school teacher and the youngest in the family with four sisters, he is enrolled at a private coaching centre in Srinagar, where he was preparing for the medical exams, National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET).
This will be his second attempt. But Bhat is melancholic and feels that things for him are turning bad.
The coaching centre he was studying at in Srinagar has decided to shift to Ambala in Punjab due to the restive situation in Kashmir.
“This is for the first time I will be leaving Kashmir,” Bhat, while scribbling his name on his bags, told News18. “One bag is filled with clothes and another with books,” he said. “I don’t want to lose them.”
Shahid Ahmad Bhat, student from Kulgam, writing his name on his bags. Photo by Aakash Hassan
For the last three months, he remained confined to his home and did attend the coaching classes.
On August 2, as Bhat and his classmates went to attend the morning classes, the lecturer made a surprising announcement, instead of resuming the topic they were discussing in class for about a week. “The coaching centre will remain closed for many days. Go home till we inform you to return,” the lecturer said. That day, Parraypora locality in uptown Srinagar, which is considered as the hub of the Valley’s private coaching centres, was as usual crowded with students. However, they were, unlike other days, not rushing towards their classes, but leaving for home.
Most of the students enrolled there are from rural areas of Kashmir. So, they packed the bags. Kashmir was on tenterhooks; there was uneasiness all over.
From calling in thousands of additional troops to issuing emergency-situation like orders, the administration's efforts were making it clear that something out of the ordinary was happening.
On August 5, the Narendra Modi government announced its move to strip Jammu and Kashmir of its special status under Article 370 of the Constitution and divide the strife-torn state into two union territories.
The coaching centre Bhat was studying in and half-a-dozen other private institutes, giving tuition to the students who were preparing for different competitive exams, decided to shift from the Valley, with teachers and students.
After staying at home for over two months, Bhat got to know in a newspaper advertisement that his coaching centre was distributing video lectures.
“I went with a pen drive and collected the video material. But at the same time the management told me that they were moving to Punjab,” Bhat told News18. “For this, I had to convince my parents.”
But paying extra money for the travel was his first worry, and then it was his safety.
“When I started preparing for the exams, some of my friends advised me that I move out of Kashmir and get better coaching,” said Bhat. He had refused at the time. “There have been a number of incidents where Kashmiri students were beaten outside the region. I was scared of that; that is why I decided to stay in Kashmir,” he said.
But now Bhat had to make a hard choice: either stay at home and waste more time, perhaps a few more months, or do what he disliked—move out of Kashmir.
“I had to leave. That seemed the only option,” he said, before boarding a bus with dozens of other students at TRC Srinagar. “In Kashmir, studying in normal circumstances seems impossible,” he said.
“I don’t think any student preparing for medical exams can afford to waste three months,” said Bhat. But he and thousands of other students in Kashmir have already lost that much time.
Everyone is not as lucky as Bhat.
Sameer Rasheed and Saima Jan, a brother-sister duo from Shopian area of south Kashmir, were both Bhat’s classmates. But only Rasheed could go to Ambala.
At the Srinagar’s TRC, Jan waved to her brother, who kept his gaze fixed on her, as the bus left. Jan’s father who was accompanying her said that he cannot send his daughter like he allowed his son to go. He has his own concerns, perhaps created by the situation.
“I want to give equal education to both children. But I get more worried about the safety of my daughter which is why I didn’t allow her to join classes in Ambala,” said Rasheed Ahmad Lone, Jan’s father, who works as an apple farmer.
Jan’s eyes get filled with tears, as her father talks.
“I want to go with my brother. I aspire to study like my brother, but my father is concerned about me and I can’t do anything,” said Jan. “I had requested my father. But he says it is not safe for girls outside Kashmir.”
Many students have economic constraints. They simply can’t afford the additional charges incurred. In Kashmir valley, there are around 550 coaching centres, as per GN War, who heads the association of private schools and private coaching centres.
“We have over 60,000 students enrolled in these coaching institutes,” he said.
But there are only a few big names who can afford to shift base out of Kashmir and take their students along.
For around a month during the security and communication clampdown in the Valley that started around August 5, the management at Nature’s Coaching Centre at Parraypora in Srinagar was busy recording videos; their faculty delivering lectures to empty classrooms. They could only ask students to collect these videos, a way to compensate for their time.
With around 500 students enrolled, the management at this centre say they can’t afford to hire a space out of the Valley and take the students there.
“We are already suffering losses,” said Zahoor Ahmad, administrator of the coaching centre. “We have to pay the rent and other charges without even teaching the students. If the situation remains like this for some more time, we will have to shut down permanently.”