Children of Conflict: How is Uncertainty Shaping Children’s Behaviour in Kashmir

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The challenges that school-going children face in the state are known to leave extreme psychological effects on their perceptions of adulthood.
 

SRINAGAR — During all the celebrations that culminate at the end of Ramazan, Eid is a day when Kashmiri children are let loose to roam the city as they please. They glimmer in their new clothes, and frolic to parks and gardens, going in their numbers in tightly crammed cars, or atop open air double decker buses. As I made my way to Nishat Garden in crawling traffic, a convoy of CRPF vehicles was trying to make its way to join our lane of cars. Just in front of their convoy, were buses packed to the rafters with children and adolescents, who upon noticing the forces unanimously began to chant, “Hum kya chahte? Azadi!” “Musa Musa, Zakir Musa!” Most of the CRPF men didn’t react, while one of them let out a wry smirk, probably amused at the prepubescent youngling’s attempt to express dissent. I thought what school of thought makes a child react to the sight of police officers in such a way? Where do they learn these chants? At school? At home? Its impossible to ignore or be isolated from everything that goes around in our conflict ridden state, but how is it our youth are setting up ideologies of hate and dissent at such tender ages? We cannot be frivolous about the notion that such behavior may bundle up into picking up arms as a child grows older, and they start to believe militancy is what their future will comprise of. This is perhaps the greatest threat staring at us in our faces: What future are we giving to the children of Kashmir?

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The challenges that school going children face in the state are known to leave extreme psychological effects on their perceptions of adulthood. There are those who are affected by the indefinite shutdown of schools, in which children are not allowed to leave their homes for months on end. They cannot go study, go out to play or even see their friends faces up until the moment they are reunited sometimes after months without seeing each other. In 2017, schools opened after 8 months following the unrest caused by Burhan Wani’s killing. At upscale Burn Hall School in Srinagar, Rev. Fr. Sebastian Nagathunkal says suspended school days are perhaps one of his largest concerns. “Time is something we find it hard to make up for. Our students lose precious schooling hours, and students cover their syllabus, by enrolling in tuitions.” Burn Hall is a prestigious institution in the city, with one of the oldest schooling traditions that continues to this day. He spoke of how making up for lost time, causes children to not be able to engage in recreation. If time in and out of school is divided for the sole purpose of remembering their lessons and completing homework, they are bound to be subjected to frustration and psychological degradation.”

The plight of a child’s mental health is drastically overlooked by the state. Psychological counselling is perhaps the most basic service required in schools to overlook students and how they grapple with the political unrest around them. However, schools in Srinagar find themselves underequipped to monitor a child’s psychological condition. “We lack support from the government. What are all these humanitarian groups (NGO’s) doing? They get their two seconds of fame on news networks, but do not deliver aid or funding to our schools and our children” says Mr. Farooq Lone, a commerce teacher at SP Higher Secondary School in Srinagar. “We even have to be delicate in terms of discipline. Some children overreact to our scolding, and react with rage, anger and abuses. This isn’t normal, and is only because of the psychological pressures on them. Our state can’t provide them with a future after they graduate, which leaves them bewildered.” Mr. Farooq also spoke about how it is imperative to act, rather than just talk about these issues.

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Fighting and stone pelting incidents between government forces and protestors have inadvertent effect on Kashmiri children. These demonstrations are not held in isolated Jantar Mantar type of designated spots but major public places across Srinagar and beyond. Since 2003, a total number of 318 children have been killed as a result of violence in Kashmir. (121 of those killed fell in the age group of below 12 years while 154 were between 13-17 years, according to JKCCS report. The dead includes 13 infants also). Many of them died directly as a result of gun shots, while some passed away due to pellet gun wounds.

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Families are marred with loss, and young siblings express this loss by anger, which usually culminates into picking up of arms. It’s no accident that 16 year old Burhan Wani has become a modern day Robin hood and role model for young Kashmiris. Every instance of death and killing by armed forces become urban legends, which pass from child to child in playgrounds, schools and at homes. Children have no other role models provided to them that they can look up to. Kashmiri success stories are low, and the ever increasing unemployment rate only add up the increasing frustration among Kashmiri youth. Those who participate in these stone pelting demonstrations are left with no other means to express their dissent. It is unknown what forces are behind the organization and mobilization of these youths who pelt stones, but being handed ISIS flags to wave at the armed forces and Indian news outlets only shows how unaware and misinformed these children are. They perhaps don’t understand the ideology the flag they  hold represents, but their eagerness to show dissent is at the dangerous crossroad of culminating into violent expressions.

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*Ijaz and Raheem, are two class 11 students at Government Boys Higher Secondary School in Rainawari, Srinagar. They both admitted to being part of local demonstrations where they have masked themselves and pelted stones at military vehicles. “It’s because of these terrorists (referring to the Govt forces) that we had to stop going to school in 2016. I lost a year of studying, and had to repeat the 8th grade. For a moment let’s keep aside all the crimes the Govt forces have committed in Kashmir. Now look at the effect they’ve had on the youth, just by being here. We can’t come to school, we can’t go out to play and if we want to build a career in Kashmir, we can’t because there are no jobs. Their occupation is driving people and money away from Kashmir,” says Raheem, who also mentioned how his father is struggling to provide for his family due to his failing handicrafts business. “Tourists have stopped coming here, so people like my father struggle to make ends meet.” Ijaz on the other hand, said he came from a family of relatively better means, and both his older brothers have engineering degrees. “They work in MNC’s and earn well, but have to live in New Delhi or Mumbai to do that. I on the other hand don’t want to leave Kashmir. Who will take care of my parents after me if I go too? But I worry about my future here, which is why I get angry a lot. I have pelted stones at the armed forces. God willing someday I will have the means to use stronger force to make myself heard.”

Dr. Arshad Hussain, a leading psychiatrist and professor in Srinagar, speaks of how people, and especially children in Kashmir respond to adversity. “There are those among whom the effects are short term, with a traumatic experience causing distress for a limited period of time. And there are also those who carry these experiences for several years. What we as society need to work upon in Kashmir, is showing school going children the side of dialogue and debate, rather than conflict, to have a traumatizing experience leave a minimal effect.”

Hussain also spoke about peaceful dissent, and how this form of engagement and dialogue between the youth could ensure decreasing violence and crimes against humanity in the Kashmir Valley. “It seems of utmost importance in Kashmir, that there be vigilance to divert the youth from picking up guns as a form of expression or rebellion, and provide them with platforms of peaceful ways to voice their opinions”, he said.

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