Nestled 6,300ft above sea level, surrounded by dense forests, Govind High School at Pichnar village in Kotranka town, situated 60 kilometres north east of Rajouri district in Kashmir, is a unique institution located in troubled region. It testifies to the principle that no matter what the situation, no matter what the conflict, it must not be allowed to affect the education, health and well-being of the children in the region.
Rajouri has been the site of insurgency for many years. But tucked away in its reclusive location, this school carries on with its mandate of providing good education to local children, especially girls, and has emerged as one of the most popular educational institutions here.
Both the school administration and students have learnt to take the spectre of violence in their stride. Says Afzal Mohammed, the headmaster, “The school stands close to an army ‘chowki’ (army post), yet the students are not affected by the threat of violence. They are more focused on building a future for themselves. I have not seen any student terrified of coming to school for fear of terror attacks. Even the Lal Chowk demonstrations and agitation had no impact here. Since we are situated in such a remote area, a lot of information related to the conflict hardly trickles down to us.”
A significant aspect of this institution is that it has over 200 students. What makes it special is that it has more girls than boys in its classrooms. These girls come from the villages that surround Kotranka town. It could take two hours or more of non-stop walking to reach school, but fuelled by dreams of the future, these young women put up with the tough terrain and inclement weather to clock in each school day at 10 am.
What came as pleasant surprise to Mohammed when he first became headmaster in May 2010 was to find that nobody complained about the lack of facilities, least of all the students. When he got to know them more, he was touched to hear stories about how most of them especially the girls who travelled such long distances without a murmur.
But with fundamentalists coming down hard on educating girls in Kashmir isn’t she apprehensive about coming to school? “We have no electricity, no proper roads, no system of health care and no clean drinking water. I think these problems are far bigger for us than the diktat of militants,” retorts the youngster.
These are girls endowed with a strong will to rise above their circumstances. Most of them come from homes with eight or nine children. Villages here have no electricity or proper civic amenities. Given the number of hungry mouths to feed, education is perceived as a luxury. Girls, especially, have a rough time since many families believe that the more hands there are to keep the home running, the better. Many are married off early, and are still teenagers when they have their first child.
Given this scenario, the importance of a school like Govind High is obvious. If it had not existed, life would have been very different for many of these young students. The school has ensured that the fundamental right to education is upheld, even under inhospitable circumstances.
The facilities need upgrading, and the headmaster is conscious of that.
“These children have the zeal to be someone in life and I realised that it is a privilege to be able to teach them. They taught me that it is a teacher who has the power to help realise a child’s dream of becoming a doctor, engineer, pilot or soldier. So I decided to make sure that I will try my best to ensure that these children get the facilities to study better.”-Mohammed.
The challenge of upgradation is now very much in the sights of the headmaster and his five colleagues. Avers Mohammed, “We don’t have a science lab, playgrounds or even a library. The posts of Class IV employees (tertiary staff) are unfilled. But after we started meeting education officials and letting them know the condition of the school, we got one more building, taking the total count to four, under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. Even the 60th Rashtriya Rifles, posted at Rajouri, has pitched in with furniture and sports equipment, thanks to some helpful officers. So things are beginning to look up for the school.”
What remains the biggest problem, however, is ensuring that the girls of Class X get to take their Higher Secondary Board Examinations every year, because this entails travelling a distance of 30 to 35 kilometres to reach Dangri – a town even further than Rajouri – where the examination centres are located. Despite the hurdles, though, no student has ever missed an examination, according to Mohammed Bashir, 16, who has himself passed out of this school, and now observes his nine-year-old sister making her way through it.
Says Bashir, “It is very essential for girls in our communities to be educated because that’s the only way they will be able to make a place for themselves. So the girls go and take their examinations even if they have to change three buses to reach the centre.”
He understands very well that his village stands to gain if there are more educated women around. As Bashir puts it, “There are many hardships in my village and if someone falls ill, it is very difficult to get medical aid as the nearest hospital is miles away. So if our sisters can study and become doctors and teachers, it will only help the rest of us.”