SRINAGAR, India – When Kashmir erupted in anti-India protests almost four months ago, 14-year-old Shazia Batool was sequestered at home — forbidden from venturing out as stone-throwing protesters faced off in street clashes with government forces and demanded an end to Indian rule in the disputed Himalayan region.
Batool's school was shuttered as businesses went on strike. For weeks, she saw only her mother and two siblings. "It was more like being in a prison ... it was maddening," the ninth-grader said.
Now Batool and other children have found refuge and resumed lessons in a makeshift school set up by volunteers in a Srinagar mosque.
"Now at least I'm meeting other people. It feels better," she said.
With Kashmir daily life still paralyzed by strikes and rolling curfews, dozens of ad hoc learning centers have popped up in homes and religious centers, and thousands of students from grades 5-12 have signed up.
They gather during daylight hours, often sitting on the floor, to hear a teacher read aloud from a text or practice mathematical equations in a shared notebook.
The centers are doing more than just helping students prepare for upcoming exams, organizers said. They're keeping kids off the streets and giving them comfort amid a civilian uprising sparked when a popular rebel leader was killed by Indian forces July 8.
Since then, at least 90 civilians have been killed, most of them shot by government troops during protests. Some schools have been turned into paramilitary bunkers ringed by razor wire and soldiers with machine guns. Nearly 20 others have been set on fire by people described by police as "miscreants."
The learning centers "have kept kids somewhat busy in their studies at a time when everyone is traumatized," said Javaid Bhat, one of many government teachers who have volunteered at the centers. "They provide a glimmer of hope and some contentment, too."
Still, most students in India-controlled Kashmir live too far from any centers to attend, or have been caught up in the street violence themselves. Students account for many of those killed in the uprising, and for most of the more than 1,000 people blinded or partially blinded by shotgun pellets fired by government forces at protesters. Authorities have locked up hundreds of teenagers for fear they might rally more protests.
"Blood and ink can't flow together!" read one placard held aloft by a teenage girl at a recent protest. "Justice for pellet victim students," read another.
Kashmir has been under a tight security lockdown, along with a separatist-sponsored strike, as Indian forces struggle to quell the uprising and arrest thousands of civilian protesters. The region, also claimed by Pakistan, is divided between the two nuclear-armed neighbors by a heavily militarized Line of Control.
India has blamed Pakistan for supplying anti-India rebels with arms and training, and for encouraging the civil unrest to destabilize the Delhi-backed government in Srinagar. Pakistan has denied the allegation, insisting it offers only moral support to the rebels and Kashmiris who want the region to be independent or merged with Pakistan.
With no political efforts being made to break the impasse, Kashmir's government has said it wants to open schools as soon as possible, and has announced exams will take place in November. Police have been asked to arrange exams for students jailed for allegedly throwing stones at government forces or participating in protests.
The attempt to hold exams and resume official classwork has been met with more anger, and demands that exams be postponed until March. Protesters accuse the government of shutting schools when it suits them for a crackdown, and then forcing them to reopen as a way of restoring normalcy before safety is restored.
"Now suddenly they are worried for students," said G.N. Var, head of the Kashmir Private Schools Association. "This is hypocrisy. Every now and then exams have been deferred, so why not now?"
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