SRINAGAR, India – Kashmir's oldest school burned down Monday in a suspected arson attack that sparked emotional street protests over an institution that has educated the region's most prominent and influential people for generations.
The Islamia High School (search), a 105-year-old brick and wood structure with high arched windows and ceilings of cedar logs, was gutted in the fire that broke out early Monday in the center of Srinagar, said senior police officer Javed Ahmad.
"We suspect mischief. It doesn't seem to be an accident," Ahmad told The Associated Press.
News of the fire sent shockwaves through the city, and people went out into the streets and shut down shops in an emotional outpouring.
No one immediately claimed responsibility.
"I am in shock. I can't believe it. Soon after dawn, the fire started in the left wing of the building," said witness Mohammed Hussain, who lives next to the school. "Within minutes, before I could blink an eye, it had spread all over the building. There were very dark, black clouds of smoke rising."
The school, which has some 2,500 students, was built in 1899 and is run by Anjuman-e-Nusrat-ul Islam (Society for the Victory of Islam), a religious and educational trust headed by Umar Farooq, the chief Muslim cleric in Kashmir (search).
Farooq is also a top leader of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a political separatist grouping in Kashmir. Farooq, a moderate, has been targeted in recent months by suspected armed Islamic groups.
Farooq's uncle was shot while saying prayers at a mosque on May 29 and died of his wounds a week later. On the same day, Farooq's home was attacked with a grenade.
The school was the first attempt to inculcate modern thinking in Kashmiri Muslim society that had been bogged down with dogma and superstitions. Even in the 20th century, it was among the first Muslim religious schools in Kashmir to teach in English, and offer science subjects.
Through the 20th century and until 1989, when a separatist Islamic insurgency broke out in Kashmir, the school also had teachers from the Kashmiri Hindu community. But they fled their homeland after attacks on them during the militancy.
The militants want Kashmir to be independent or merged into neighboring Pakistan (search). The violence since 1989 has killed 65,000 people and is one of the main points of discord between nuclear-armed neighbors India and Pakistan.