Creative Pursuits Countering ‘Coerced Careers’ in Kashmir

Students on way to their school in this file photo.

Passionate for their children education, parents mostly chart the academic paths for their kids and plan for their academic futures in the valley. But now, creative call of the young generation is changing it.

By Aaqid Andrabi

IT has been six months since Zahra passed her secondary school exams with the merit that hardly brought smiles on her parent’s frown faces. She was supposed to choose a course for her undergrad studies but, so far, she hasn’t.

What brought logjam in her academic trajectory is her parents’ insistence that she appear in the entrance exam for either an MBBS degree or an engineering one.

But there was a minor hiccup.

She didn’t want to go for a medical degree or an engineering one since her interests lie somewhere else entirely.

Zahra has always inclined to English Literature and intended to pursue the same going ahead.

“English as a language and the associated literary works have always fascinated me,” Zahra says with a typical teen’s futuristic dream. “I’ve been writing since I was in high school and wanted to establish myself in the same field.”

Her parents, however, seem to have other plans for her future, for which she has never been on board.

“It’s a strange thing that parents virtually decide everything for their kids out here, be their academic future or anything else,” she says.

As Kashmir is currently grappling with the third straight year of campus closure, students like Zahra are finding their call in creative means, “like never before”, to keep their sanity intact within weary walls.

Many of them have picked up writing, painting and other creative pursuits in a drawn-out discord situation, to give voice to their anguish and anxiety.

This is where many of these students today don’t want to follow the traditional Medical or Non-Medical fields, as made mandatory by their parents since childhood.

Most of them now want to make their passion as their profession.

“And it makes sense too,” says Arsilan Nisar, a Class 11 student, who last attended her normal campus class when she was Class 8th student. And that was on August 5, 2019, when New Delhi abrogated semiautonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir and plunged the region into the communication crisis. The unprecedented move shut schools overnight and made students captive within four walls of their home.

Since then, Arsilan has found her expression in poetry.

“I believe education should be pursued in realistic manner not through the make-believe concepts and constructs,” she continues.

“Thing is, we’re witnessing an overwhelming situation in Kashmir where attempts are being made to alter our reality. Under these circumstances, expecting us to pursue the normalized careers is a bit unfair. Most of us were never brought up in normal circumstances – no matter how hard our parents try to make certain careers charming or compulsory for us.”

The murmurs regarding this shift started last year when pandemic made many Kashmiris wonder—“Don’t we’ve any scientist who could rise to the occasion when parents make Science a do-or-die career choice for children since childhood in Kashmir?”

This online noise soon translated on the ground where many students questioned their “delusional” schooling and forced career choices.

But now, much of that is changing.

Studying in the backdrop of lockdown

Inside his home atop hillock in a South Kashmir village, Amaan, who lately graduated his secondary school, is currently looking for a change.

A voracious reader and believer in the platonic school of thought, he had his eyes set on a course in Philosophy at Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Still, his father, an employee with the civil secretariat, had something else in mind for him.

Coming from a family that has churned out mostly doctors and civil servants in the past decade, Amaan had little to no choice in choosing his future course. The subdued light in his room, more or less, represents his current state of mind.

“I understand change is not a cakewalk,” the teenager said with grave expressions.

“It never was — until someone decided to be a difference maker. I believe the decision I’ve taken need a strong backup of nerves and resilience. But come what may, I’m up for it, for the sake of my passion.”

Although this ‘lettered spirit’ is nothing new in Kashmir, the tribe of passionate learners is apparently growing today.

“At the end of the day,” says Amaan, “our community is driven by Domini effect. It just takes one Shah Faesal to make bureaucracy as a crazy career choice for masses.”

And now, when most of the youngsters are being hailed as role models for creating their own identities in liberal arts, Amaan is sure that more and more students will be setting themselves free from the clutches of certain coerced careers.

Back to campus, before the second viral wave sent them back to home.

However, before this academic resistance, students from the valley were mainly pushed towards majors that are likely to provide financially-secure futures and are considered “respectable professions”, or courses that provide one with enveloped and padded ends.

Upon graduating from high school and secondary school levels, it’s believed that parents play a significantly imposing role in deciding for their kids what majors they have to opt for.

On an annual basis, an average of 5000 students from a mixed bag of majors graduate from various higher education institutes in the valley. Out of the said numbers, about 25 per cent of the students drop out of opting for any further education, a worrying trend in itself, but the underlying reason is more worrisome.

Conversations with students coming from different backgrounds help one understand to what extent the parents in the valley influence or decide the academic futures of their kids.

The discussions with the representative sample of the student populace in the valley, more or less, establish the fact that parents have a relatively more immense or decisive influence on the academic paths their kids opt for. This academic “coercion” ends up creating its own issues for students.

So far, Sadia, a Kashmiri student in her early twenties, has made two attempts on her life in three years.

After graduating from secondary school, she wanted to go for a course in Humanities for her undergrad studies. But she was met with a blunt denial from her parents and was forced to opt for a science course.

Unable to cope with the excessive stress and anxiety, she chose to opt out of life. She survived, she says, because hemlock wasn’t available.

Students studying in an open-air classroom during pandemic.

Mindful of these “pulverized passions” and “brink brains”, Dr. Iftikhar Bhat, a child psychologist, is involved in an extensive research project looking into the modalities and nuances of the parental psyche in Kashmir.

He’s trying to find out what factors coerce the kids into choosing one kind of a major which will land them a cushy, well-paid job and “staying away” from the ones that won’t.

“Kashmir is no different a place when it comes to parents dictating career choices to their kids,” Dr. Iftikhar said.

“Ours is a lamina of the South Asia as a whole but, we can notice a gradual decrease in parental interference regarding the kind of education their kids choose in other parts.”

But in Kashmir, the child mental specialist said, parental career choice is still highly prevalent.

“The parents, in most cases, decide for their kids the kind of stream they choose,” he continued.

“There is little to no academic agency with the kids when it comes to Kashmir. I believe we still are a few decades behind, putting to shame the times Galileo lived in, when accepting the changes in the world in general and the academic ecosystem specifically.”

This has led to a repressed psyche among the younger generation, he said, where the lack of agency has created a mental chasm within them.

The ugly offshoot of this burdened mindset, many believe, is the suicidal tendencies among students—some of whom took their own lives during the second viral wave in the valley.

About the rising trajectory of suicides in the younger generation of the valley, Dr. Iftikhar said, “It’s natural that when an individual feels repressed and believes he doesn’t have a choice regarding his own matters, so he will tend to look for some way out. We’ve seen in many cases. To end the feeling of helplessness and misery, one chooses to go for rather hardcore egresses. It’s a classic case of feeling a smidge of control in life by taking control of one’s end.”

Para-medical students protesting in this file photo.

One of the reasons for this situation, said academic Dr. Shahid Mantaqi, is the schooling system which over the time has been rather rigorously transformed into an investment for the future.

“The caveat is, the future being secured is of the parents and not the kids,” Dr. Shahid said. “A kid securing a good job is an insurance policy and a point of prestige for the parents.”

The aspirations and the ambitions of the children aren’t given much thought to, or are often derided, the academic continued.

“This has led us to a quagmire and a psychologically despotic and corrupt education system for our kids,” he said.

“In my three decades of experience as a teacher and academic consultant, I’ve come across kids who dropped out because their parents wanted and expected something else from them. In even worse cases, some of my students attempted to kill themselves. There is hardly any semblance of imparting knowledge based on one’s aptitude.”

Dr. Shahid advocates for an aptitude-based learning mode starting from high school levels to promulgate better education methods.

“We need to rectify this system of ours at the earliest,” he said. “We have to encourage parents to constantly interact with their kids to let the academic decisions be as informed and fitting as they can be. Our kids also need to indulge their psyches to understand their intellectual leanings better and make primed decisions.”

At her home, Zahra often pours her heart out on paper these days. Apart from penning what she calls “all-weather woe” of her homeland, she writes her own pathos while following her passion.

But she mostly writes about hope and its magical power.

“Things take time to shape up,” she says. “Till they do, one has to stay patient and persistent.”

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