I first met John Mohammed* (name changed) while on a day-trip to the popular tourist destination of Patnitop where he was the proprietor and operator of a portable paddle ride for children. It had been a few months since the revocation of Article 370 and the internet lockdown which continues even today in some form was still in full swing. While my stepson paddled around in the large inflatable pool, John participated in my conversation with my partner. He spoke perfect English and seemed well-informed, not just on political issues, but also on the subject of etymology that we had been previously discussing. Upon some questioning he revealed that he has several degrees from the University of Kashmir (including post-graduate degrees) but he chooses to work in the field of children’s rides because there are no jobs for educated youths in the state of J&K. The jobs that do exist pay far less than unskilled labour and often require connections to acquire.
“Besides,” John Mohammed said, “It is better to stay away from the university and do whatever work is there. If you say something against anyone, you become a terrorist. If you don’t have a job, then also you are a terrorist.”
John Mohammed is not an exception. In 2018, the State Directorate of Unemployment and Counselling had called for all unemployed persons in J&K who had a post-graduate degree, M.Phil or PhD to register with Employee Exchanges, 1.5 Lakh people registered with the exchanges. A whopping majority of these people were under the age of 35, which stands to reason since as per the 2011 census, 70% of the population of J&K is under 35, making it one of the youngest states in the country. It also has among the highest rate of unemployed youth in the country with 24.6% of people between 18-29 being unemployed while the national rate is 13.2%.
None of this came as a surprise because for the past few months I have been attending a Master’s Programme at the Government Degree College, Udhampur, which is an offsite location of the University of Jammu (JU). There are two major government universities in the Union Territories of J&K. Previously a single university they were split by an act of state legislature into two in 1969 namely the University of Jammu, located in Jammu and the University of Kashmir, in Srinagar. JU has 36 departments in its main campus, 7 offsite-campuses and 157 affiliated colleges. It carries an A+ Grade and was the first university in India to receive the ISO-9001 certification. The admission to the university is governed by various academic criteria including a centralised exam called JUET. While on paper this sounds commiserate with universities across the country, in reality despite having among the highest grades in the list of applicants, I was repeatedly denied admission at the main campus citing various reasons. Prominent among those reasons was that my documents weren’t in keeping with state guidelines because I was previously educated out of J&K. After an arduous process, I gained admission in the Udhampur campus. When I arrived to register, the authorities were surprised to learn that admissions were taking place, they asked me to return a week later as they were not sure about the fees that had to be charged.
Over the next month I attended college by myself and sat in a classroom hoping and waiting for classes, which finally began with 9-students in the second week of September; the delay being attributed to the chaos caused by the revocation of Article 370 and the subsequent shutdown of schools and colleges. Three months later we sat for our first semester examinations even though less than 60% of our lessons had been conducted. The medium of instruction often varied in language with advanced students in the English department being taught in Hindi or Dogribecause “that is how things happen here” which is understandable because most people who opt for the English programme do so because it was the only option left. While the quality of education would not directly impact the employability of students, it reflects in the quality of instruction. One cannot blame the professors, either, as they strive to teach as they were once taught, encouraging the use of guides and disregarding the text. Our master’s classroom often resembles a sixth-grade literature class elsewhere in the country with the professors reading a synopsis of the text or dictating notes for us to scribble. After graduating from these institutions most students cannot hope to leave the state of J&K and compete with students elsewhere in the country, most people choose to remain within the state even though there are no jobs which leads to intelligent, qualified individuals such as John Mohammad taking jobs of unskilled labour. Most fruit vendors, taxi drivers, mini-bus drivers in Udhampur have attended university, some have even gotten advanced degrees but it would be impossible to tell as they themselves are mostly unaware of what they learnt. Getting a driver’s license and your own taxi remains amongst the most lucrative professions here.
Due to the lack of benefit from education, drop-out rates in schools and colleges have been increasing in J&K for almost a decade. The hostility of the GOI to students in J&K with regard to access of internet to better their chances at being able to compete nationally has only led to the situation worsening. The administrative response is to remind students that they can use libraries and other resources. They remind us that people used to be able to study before the internet too because the affordability and ease of online resources is not a benefit that students here deserve. While the COVID 19 crisis continues and students all over the country rely more and more on online learning, we are unable to do so. Some of us because we have inadequate internet access, and others because our universities have taken the lockdown as an excuse to stop functioning altogether. The truth, however, is that as a country we had abandoned the people of J&K long before usurping further power from them in 2019. We had written them off as the acceptable collateral damage of border tensions and that is what led to a culture of corruption and complacency that we now use to justify furthering a modified state of powerlessness. The government worries that restoring the internet will lead to a “disruption of peace” but the gag-order on the liberty of Kashmiri students is much older than the revocation of Article 370. The majority of students are scared to say anything and have learnt not to complain because they have been taught to be grateful for what they have. They have been taught that the lack of internet should be seen as an opportunity to unplug as opposed to the confiscation of rights that it is.
When a person in this situation speaks up, whether it be photojournalist Masrat Zahra who was recently arrested under the New Media Policy 2020 (which enables institutional oversight of what can be considered news) for “disrupting the peace” or a student protesting outside their college campus for more focus on education, they are labelled anti-national and accused of denting the image of the authorities of the area. We equivocate the students and professionals crying out against injustice and robbed opportunities with insurgents and terrorists. We laud the crackdown on militancy and use that to justify revoking the rights of the millions of people who live here. We say that restoring peace to the area will increase employment, but how can there be peace when we are at war with our own citizens? How can there be peace when John Mohammad, with his multiple degrees, is more likely to be seen as a potential terrorist instead of a potential employee?
Peace is a farce but as long as we can keep our students distracted by making education harder to access and more complicated to keep up with, it’s all good, because we know idle students are what lead to the disruption of peace. Not institutional oppression. That’s not a thing that exists and if we can keep the students quiet and under-qualified long enough, we can get everyone to buy that theory. Because look, we’re killing terrorists everyday. What more could you want?