Focus on the essentials

SABBAH HAJI

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AS I write this piece, the situation in the Kashmir Valley is extremely tense. In the aftermath of Afzal Guru’s clandestine execution, a pre-emptive curfew and communication clampdown was imposed throughout the valley that is just easing up. My village, my school, and my people in a little village I call home – Breswana, in the pahari belt of Jammu and Kashmir in Doda – are blissfully unaware of the political machinations in Delhi and Srinagar, and their impact on a substantial portion of the state’s population. That is the charm of where I am. It also encapsulates almost everything about why I continue to live here and why I have such hopes for the children of my village to grow up untainted by the disturbances and anger and resentment and lack of opportunity that unfortunately permeates normal life in ‘Kashmir proper’.

Where I am and where my work happens to be is a huge part of the novelty of the Haji Public School story. Breswana lies in the mountains of Doda district at an altitude of 7,100 ft. It is hardcore mountain terrain – steep, rocky and harsh. One needs to be relatively fit to manage the to and fro journey competently. Once in the village though, it’s a little slice of heaven so long as you’re low maintenance, like the quiet life and are in a frame of mind to enjoy what true village life means.

The pahari belt of Jammu-Kashmir is different from both Jammu as well as the Kashmir Valley. It is made up of hundreds of tiny, far-flung remote villages and small towns, many of which are still not completely connected by motorable roads. The terrain is all steep uphill and downhill; life is difficult in a fundamental physical sense. Because of the remoteness of most areas, mountain villages and the people there are generally unaware of daily events in the big cities or current affairs and political situations. A farming people, they are primarily concerned with their land and their animals, and all those elements that affect them. Everything else is extraneous and distant.

 

I am Sabbah Haji, 30 years old, one of the latest generation of the Haji family of Doda district and, along with my family, run the Haji Public School from our ancestral village, Breswana. The school came into being in May 2009 with two classes of kindergarten and has grown to grade V this year. This, in brief, is our story so far.

I was born and raised in Dubai, where my parents had moved to shortly after their wedding in the ’80s. The best memories of my growing up years involved the annual summer vacations back home in Jammu-Kashmir – two months of adventure, meeting cousins, scampering around old family homes, with jinn stories, mountains, horse riding, cricket and other such excitements. All these served to keeping my siblings and me grounded and in developing a deep love for our roots – Kishtwar, my nanihaal, and Breswana, my father’s ancestral village. Kashmiri (our strain of Kashmiri, the Doda-Kishtwar-Bhaderwah Kashmiri, is slightly different from the way it is spoken in the valley) was always spoken in our homes, and we had a very Kashmiri upbringing in terms of flavour; we were as pahari as one could be living in the Gulf. After grade X, I moved to Bangalore for higher studies and lived, studied and worked there for almost a decade.

It was a good life, working in the writing/editing space with young, fun people. I had many friends, a comfortable salary and no real concerns. Then one afternoon in late 2008, while sitting at my workplace, of all the small towns in the entire world, of all the news reports that could come in, I heard ‘Kishtwar’ mentioned in the context of ‘mobs, rioting and casualties.’ A quick phone call to the family told me that a tragedy was unfolding and many of my close relatives were right in the middle of a serious situation. It was like a wake-up call, a quick jarring of the senses to make me re-look at my priorities in life. That was a bad afternoon for me in Bangalore. I decided to head back home to Jammu-Kashmir and be with my parents.

 

My father’s family ran a charity organization, the Haji Amina Charity Trust, in Doda city, since 2005. My uncle, Nasir Haji, now a successful businessman in Singapore, who channeled his personal zakaat as well as additional funds towards helping the poor, sick, orphaned or otherwise needy people in our region, started the trust. Nasir Uncle’s fund, along with management and actual work on the ground by other members of the Haji family, is how the trust was set up. I started helping with its operations and organization soon after my return from Bangalore.

Over the winter of 2008, the trust realized that to effect any kind of permanent change in the region we had to start at the beginning and provide education to our people. This would be the only game-changer in real terms. It was decided that we would open a primary school in the original Haji village, Breswana, start small and take the school as far as we could. With my mother Tasneem Haji’s experience as a teacher and administrator for over two decades, and my experience in management, accounts and training, it was decided that the two of us would run the school, and the trust would provide us with the infrastructure and means.

That was the beginning of Haji Public School. Over the winter of 2008, my mother and I shortlisted two young men from the area and trained them to be our first teachers for the two kindergarten classes. We hand-picked books, uniforms, school colours, material, stationery, toys and every little thing we could think of to start a good quality school in Breswana. We had meetings with the villagers, with parents of the new batch of young kids who were to join us, to explain our plans for the school and how we would need everyone’s cooperation for it to succeed. Ours would not be a run-of-the-mill pahari government school; we meant to teach and we meant for the parents as well as students to take education seriously.

 

What is humbling, and what I wish more people could see, is the intense desire that people in our villages have to educate their young ones, to give them opportunities they never had themselves. For some inexplicable reason there is a widespread attitude of condescension towards villagers, a certain casualness with regard to whether they are really interested in education. I have heard countless smug (privileged) city/town dwellers dismiss the aspirations of rural folk with a, ‘Oh, but they’re not really interested in educating their children. They just want a pass certificate. They’re happier farming.’ Really? And what gives you this insight? Because in the five years I have worked in my village and with the people there, I have never felt a keener appreciation of the schooling we are providing than among the people. No matter how poor, no matter how difficult their circumstances, all they are focused on is ensuring that their kids are learning. Kids as young as three years old, walk over an hour everyday in the mountains just to reach school. That is something.

Breswana, like the rest of J&K in the previous two decades, had seen the worst of times with the armed forces-militants conflict. Even prior to the ’90s, the quality of education in the government school system was nothing to write home about, but there was an incredible dip in schooling and attendance during the peak of the armed conflict. I remember my summer vacations in the village and the stark contrast I felt with friends and cousins of the same age. We were in the same grades, but what a world of difference. They knew next to nothing, and had trouble with even basic reading and writing although we were in middle and high school. It struck me then and increasingly as I grew older, how these kids, my peers, who were in every way better than me – physically fitter, sharper, more agile, quicker at learning new things, adapting – were pushed to the bottom of the barrel in terms of opportunity only because no one bothered to teach them, give them a good education. With the setting up of Haji Public School from the very first class, our family set into motion a plan to even the odds a bit in favour of our remote mountain people, by providing them the basic tools of a sound education.

 

The Haji Public School was inaugurated on 4 May 2009 and I remember that first day so clearly. The main school building was under construction, so classes were held in two rooms in our own cottage. About thirty freshly scrubbed little children, in crisp new uniforms, some anxious, some crying, along with their parents lined up to see how this new school would unfold. With our two teachers, my mother and I conducted the first ever HPS assembly. The kids were given a ‘welcome to school’ candy each, and we got the day started. Soon we had roll-call and loud recitation of alphabets, numbers, songs and various other classroom noises emanating from the rooms, mixed with random bursts of crying from the youngest kids. The entire first month of the school was like an open-air show, with parents from near and far coming to see how their kids were being taught at this new ‘academy’.

The first batch of students who started in kindergarten in 2009 are in grade V today, and the Haji Public School functions out of its own handsome premises – two huge blocks that will eventually cater to students up to grade XII. We have a computer lab, library, playground and many plans to improve facilities. The library collection we have has been built almost entirely from donations from strangers around the world, facilitated through an online campaign. From thirty-odd students and two teachers in year one, we are now at over two hundred students and fifteen permanent teachers, not to mention the many Indian and overseas volunteers who come up to teach at the village.

 

The change I have seen in our kids is nothing short of amazing, and not just students of Haji Public School. Over the years, as we had hoped, the school and its teaching have had a spillover effect on the community as a whole. It is not only our kids who are confident, bright, happy and communicative, but even other children have picked up on these traits. The overall sense of hygiene, of awareness about presentation, looks, manners and behaviour, all of these have improved in the village. Most importantly, the entire community is now hopeful and positive that these children will finally get a chance to make it on their own when they grow up, that they will have the tools required to secure good jobs, earn a living and improve the quality of their lives.

The Haji Public School premises were built from scratch on land donated by our family, using local labour and resources as far as possible. Every bit of material that was brought in from outside came up on pack animals from the village or on the backs of our villagers. There has been huge employment generation with the constant construction, maintenance and transport requirements for the materials for the school over the years, as well as local teacher and trainee recruitments. The school is deeply connected with the village community in every way, and this is the only way it could have sustained and grown in the manner it has.

 

The school and trust is primarily run on Nasir Haji’s steam and direction. My mother and I are in charge of operating the school on the ground. This covers daily supervision, school administration, teachers’ training, accounts, reporting, scheduling and future planning. My father, Saleem Haji, is a member of the trust and also the village sarpanch. He is our main facilitator, gets the work done, the materials and people moving, the construction and maintenance sorted. My cousin Babur Majid in the US runs the school website and helps with management and policy-making. The trust (comprising still other family members) backs us and we all work in tandem at the same time – it’s a very interesting and enjoyable set-up. We have recruited professionals to take care of particular specialist functions (audit, legal, administration), but essentially we work within the family and find this mix works for us.

The school’s funding comes almost entirely from the pockets of Nasir Haji. While there are donations from friends, relatives and even kind strangers from time to time, they are a small portion of the actual funds Uncle Nasir puts in. The cost of running the school far outweighs any income through school fees. We have a nominal fee structure, keeping in mind the economic capability of an average village dweller. About a third of our students are on scholarship or exempt from paying fees because they come from extremely poor families. The fees are in place mainly to engage the attention of the parents of our students. (If they are paying a monthly fee, they naturally take more interest in the goings-on at the school, and their children’s performance.) As against this, the construction, staffing and volunteer maintenance are the biggest heads of expenditure for the school, not to mention the purchase of books, materials and equipment.

 

Running a good school in a remote region has its own share of unique problems. The main difficulty is finding teachers. There is a paucity of qualified young people in our mountain villages because of the earlier pathetic state of education. None of the local men and women are qualified enough to teach even primary classes. This means sourcing staff from elsewhere. But forget qualified professionals from outside the state, even teachers from J&K are unwilling to live in this unknown village in the mountain, a full day away from anywhere.

As we add classes, it becomes tougher and tougher and this is where we need volunteer teachers to plug the gaps. The Haji Public School Volunteer Programme just completed two successful years. As more and more people hear about our little school, we are getting more applications and offers from young people eager to work with us. This is extremely encouraging. Volunteers from outside offer so much more to students in terms of exposure, methodology, experience and adaptability. We have had volunteers from Canada, Singapore, the US, South Africa and France at HPS, apart from teaching volunteers from India. I can guarantee no other school in the region has offered so much to their students in terms of diversity. The volunteers are provided free boarding and meals at the Haji Cottage in return for a minimum three-month commitment to the school.

 

A major problem we face in the village is Internet connectivity, though we have access to Edge/2G Internet on mobile networks. That is as good as it gets. Sometimes, if it’s dire enough, I run down the mountain to Doda or even travel to Jammu, because I need to send documents, email something or transact online. It is not possible to stream audio/video files online. This is a real shame because healthy Internet could work wonders for our school in terms of teaching in classes, helping students and teachers with resources. Skype classes and online interactive tutorials would help so much with alleviating the scarcity of teachers. Also, one of my main functions vis-à-vis the school is communications and creating an online presence. We have a Facebook page, I run a couple of tumblrs about the school and village, and I’m constantly on Twitter in my personal capacity as well as for the school. The only reason so many people today have heard of the school is because of our online presence. When I’m in the village, it’s like my hands are tied because of the limited Internet connectivity. So, procuring a healthy Internet bandwidth in Breswana is a dream.

Running the school these past five years has been a huge learning experience. Anyone who has worked in Jammu and Kashmir knows how twisted each and every system is. It is no better in the education sector. I have had the worst experiences dealing with the local education department for simple things like procuring permissions for my school, registering results, seeking upgrades, and so on. There is delay, incompetence, impunity, an absence of fixed procedure and/or timelines for completion of any process. For all intent and purposes, one is at the mercy of whichever clerk one’s case file happens to land up with. It does not matter that you have complied with all the requirements, as I have personally experienced in the past years.

I don’t know what the corrective measures are for this malaise. However, I do know that the Haji Public School is providing possibly the best education at its level in the entire region, and that there has been no encouragement or even acknowledgment from the government, forget an easing of procedural hiccups. Who does one approach and what more can one say other than it is our sincere desire to spread education, and nothing else? We are not in the moneymaking game. Still, one learns how to deal with all of these hurdles, how to work around them. There is no other option.

 

Having said that, I have never been more satisfied in my life. Every single day with the kids at school is a pat on the back, because it is obvious just how much they have changed, how bright they are and how eager they continue to be to improve themselves. Nothing I could have done in a big city or elsewhere in the world would have been as rewarding as seeing these children flourish before my eyes.

I only wish the government would get serious about fixing the deep rot in the education system, which is obvious to anyone who is willing to see. Even today, batch after batch of badly educated youth are being churned out of substandard schools and colleges, a majority of which are state-run institutions. Education policies are ill-thought through; there are strange rules governing day-to-day school management and record keeping, there is rampant mismanagement and staff absence in government schools that goes unchecked, especially in far-flung remote areas. The key to good education is a good teacher – not buildings, administration and paperwork. The state has to realize these basic flaws.

The vision for Haji Public School is clear: provide good quality, low-cost English-medium education to all children in our villages, and give them the same tools and skills that are available to their peers in the towns and cities. Good schooling provides these kids with a foot in the door to go on to do what they want. This is what we believe.

We are also hopeful that other people with the means to do so will now return to their roots, look to their villages and people and start some sort of quality education programme, however they can. We also hope that young people will take greater interest in giving back to the community. If you are well educated and qualified in some respect, dedicate a little of your time to people who have not had that privilege. Teach. There is no other surefire way of uplifting a people than through education.

To wind up with the issue I started with, about the current grim situation in Kashmir, I can only restate that it does not figure in the consciousness of the pahari villager at all. What happens a few hundred kilometres away or even down the mountain for that matter, cannot affect us up here. The only thing that is relevant has to do with our daily lives, our crops, our animals, our children, school, health and so on. Come election season, every small village sees a surge of excitement because that is when politicians train their attention and money on them. But in between, during the long years of neglect and forgetting, the common villager focuses on the essentials, on only what matters to get by.

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