Pausing to catch her breath, Nadiya Akbar, 16, squats on a rocky precipice overlooking the miniature houses of her village of Wagoora nestled in the valley below.
Since last August, Ms Akbar has had too much time to think. A high-achiever at her government school in Jammu and Kashmir, Ms Akbar’s parents had pooled together their savings in anticipation of Ms Akbar pursuing her dream of studying medicine.
Now, one year on, her dream lies in tatters and she has been forced to drop out of school and herd her family’s livestock to make ends meet.
“I was developing a severe infection in my right ear and I used to go to a local hospital where doctors treated me,” explained Ms Akbar. “I think that was the first moment when the medical profession attracted me, I remember an inspirational talk I had from a doctor”.
Everything changed for Ms Akbar and Kashmiri children like her on August 5, 2019, after Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, announced he would remove the autonomous status that the region had enjoyed since independence in 1947.
Mr Modi argued revoking Article 370 would bring Jammu and Kashmir, devastated by violent conflict between pro-independence insurgents and the Indian authorities for almost four decades, under greater central control.
He announced a draconian security curfew, whereby residents would only be permitted to leave their homes to purchase essential food and medicines, until further notice.
Over 13,600 public and private schools closed their doors and an estimated 2.5 million students, like Ms Akbar, were confined to their homes. Ms Akbar hadn’t been unduly worried at the start of the lockdown.
Growing up in Wagoora, she had lost count of the times her family had been placed under curfew when conflict erupted elsewhere in Jammu and Kashmir. But, restless days at home turned into weeks and then months and her family was unable to pay for private tutoring so she could complete her studies remotely.
“I had been nurturing the dream of my parents and my sister, who failed to become a doctor because of poverty,” said Ms Akbar.
“After my father was in an accident last year, it provided me with more encouragement and I strengthened my resolve to become a doctor because they have no-one to look after them. Unfortunately, it seems I too will miss this dream”.
On February 22, after seven months under security lockdown, Ms Akbar excitedly packed her science books into her satchel eager to return to her studies. To her disbelief, her school shut again two weeks later after Mr Modi instructed closures across India because of the Covid-19 epidemic.
However, unlike elsewhere in India, Kashmiri children have been unable to participate in online lessons, as the Indian Government continues to block 4G internet as part of the longest ever communications blackout in a democracy.
Internet was partially restored in March after enormous international pressure but only at a 2G speed and students say the connection is too poor to even communicate with teachers over Skype, let alone download documents.
Sitting in her dimly lit room, Ms Akbar sifts through the pages of her physics book. “Self-study of science is very difficult,” she says. “I need the guidance of teachers and unfortunately, there are none available”.
NGOs like Amnesty International have called on the Indian Government to restore 4G internet, arguing the ability of children to obtain an education is a fundamental right and a second-year without children’s schooling will limit the future development of the region.
Their plea, and an attempt by the Private Schools Association of Jammu and Kashmir to move India’s highest court, has fallen on death ears.
“Restrictions on mobile internet speed to 2G directly impact the students of Jammu and Kashmir by hindering their right to education as they are unable to access e-learning services such as online video classes and other online educational content,” said Nazia Erum, the Head of Advocacy at Amnesty International India.
“It puts the students of Jammu and Kashmir who are preparing for competitive exams at a disadvantage. As the academic year progresses online for many, those unconnected or disconnected fall further behind”.
G N Var, the President of the Private Schools Association of Jammu and Kashmir, said the Indian Government is enforcing illiteracy on children in Kashmir by refusing to restore 4G internet.
“Schools, but most importantly schooling, has been shut in Kashmir for the past one year,” said Mr Var. “Educators across the country moved to online platforms for schooling during Covid-19 but New Delhi’s ban on high-speed internet in Kashmir continues to keep our children away”.
Many worry about the adverse effect a lack of schooling is also having on the mental well-being of students. India has one of the highest rates of psychiatric disorders in the world and in conflict-ridden Jammu and Kashmir, as much as 45 per cent of the population suffers from mental distress.
Children are disproportionately affected, having been exposed to conflict at an early age without subsequent access to mental health support or treatment.
The number of children treated in the psychiatric ward at the Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (IMHANS) in the city of Srinagar rose from around 17,000 to 30,000 between 2016 and 2019. Dr Syed Karrar Hussain, a child psychiatrist at IMHANS, says numbers are continuing to rise as children lose hope for their future.
“The closure of educational facilities are known to have implications on the behaviour of children and it gets worse if it’s prolonged amid uncertainties and the backdrop of conflict,” said Dr Hussain. “The routines of children have been disrupted and many children are reporting anxiety disorders”.
One year on, a panel of independent United Nations (UN) human rights experts is calling for urgent action in Jammu and Kashmir, warning the region is in “free fall” due to a severe crackdown on freedom of expression.
A controversial new law, the Public Safety Act, has resulted in thousands of Kashmiris – civil society activists, journalists and religious clerics – to languish in prisons across India without charge for two years.
The Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission was closed last October and Kashmiris risk arrest and torture if they speak out. Successive lockdowns have also crippled the Kashmiri economy, costing the region £1.85 billion between August and December alone, according to the Kashmiri Chamber of Commerce.
Watching his daughter skim through her old textbooks is too much for her father, Muhammad Akbar Bhat, to bear.
“Schools have been shut and private tuition is not available for poor families like ours. Many students from poor families like my daughter have had to quit their studies,” he laments. “I have never said this before but the future looks so bleak”.
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