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Odyssey of education in Kashmir


By Asif Bhat

“The foundation of every state is the education of its youth” – Diogenes Laertius 

Education is the main pillar of a society and a society is known by the quality of education that it imparts. As a photographer takes a clean estimate of the background before capturing a photograph, in a similar fashion understanding the education system in Kashmir requires traversing into its history. Kashmir is a culturally rich region with a distinct civilization and a long history. In his book, Kashmir in Sunlight and Shade, Tyndale Biscoe writes: “Kashmir fortunately possesses an ancient history and a civilization more ancient than our own.” Kashmir has been the abode of Sanskrit learning; this small valley has produced masterpieces of history, poetry, romance, fable, and philosophy. For centuries, it was the humble abode of the greatest Sanskrit scholars and Saivism – the great Indian religion tradition – found some of its best teachers on the banks of Vitasta (the river Jhelum is called Vitastā in Rigveda).

Many historians believe that Islam came to Kashmir in 1305 with the Tatar invasion. But others argue that Islam came to Kashmir with the advent of Bulbul Shah in the second decade of the 14th century. In his book, A history of Kashmir, PNK Bamzai writes: “Islam entered the valley in medieval period not as a result of foreign invasion, but by coup d’etat from within the country.” During Muslim rule, Persian language flourished in the valley due to the presence of Sadatas/ Sayedds, who came to Kashmir from Central Asia for the purpose of proselytization. As a result, Persian became the court language. New maktabs (Arabic word for elementary school) and patshalas (Hindi word for elementary school) were opened, where Persian and Sanskrit were taught. However, education imparted in both Hindu (Patshal) and Muslim (Maktab) institutions continued to be religiously-oriented. This is clearly visible in the writings of Biscoe, who claims: “The indigenous schools of Kashmir have always been in connection with the mosques, where the boys are taught to read Arabic so that they may be able to read the Koran, but not necessarily to understand it. Likewise the Brahmans have their schools, where Sanskrit is taught so that the boys may be able to read the sacred Hindu books.”

During the rule of the Dogras, Kashmir was known outside chiefly for the despondency of its land and misery of its people. Biscoe further writes: “Robert Thorp came to Kashmir to shoot big game on the mountains, like many other British officers. But his heart soon softened and directed him to a more important matter – namely, the miseries of Kashmiris under incompetent government. Mohammedan peasants not only suffered terribly under Hindu officials but their very blood was sucked out of them. They were forced to pay taxes in kind which was half of the produce. This made the farmer and his family to live on roots.” It may be an exaggeration that the peasants were forced to live on roots but it is true that the state acted unsympathetically while collecting taxes.

The Dogra rulers, particularly Gulab Singh and his successor, Maharaja Ranbir Singh, paid less attention towards the education of their subjects. Instead of opening schools in his own state, Maharaja Ranbir Singh contributed a huge sum of one lakh for the establishment of the Punjab University. This implies that the Maharaja was not against the spread of education, but was against the education of his subjects. While he paid some attention to the education of his subjects, these measures were like drops of water in the sea. It must be remembered that the educational institutions that existed prior to the missionaries provided mainly preliminary instruction. Therefore, they cannot be considered as institutions engaged in the promotion of general education in the modern sense.

In the field of modern education, Kashmir was lagging behind in the subcontinent. It was only in the second half of the 19th century that modern education began to be imparted in Kashmir with the advent of Christian missionaries. Undoubtedly, their main aim was to spread Christianity and they believed that the massage of Christ would lessen the suffering of people. At the same time, they considered it their duty to educate the people, in order to help them in redressing their grievances.

Initially, the mission of the C.M.S. started with the medical work. The first medical missionary to visit Kashmir, Dr. Elmslie, arrived in Srinagar in 1864. In the beginning they faced stiff resistance from different quarters of the society for their alleged involvement in spreading Christianity in the valley under the garb of modern education. They continued their schools despite firm opposition and, with the passage of time, won the confidence of the people. It was these missionaries, who made pioneering efforts to educate people of Kashmir on the pattern of European education. The proposal of the Christian missionaries to establish schools in Kashmir was approved by the C.M.S. in London. The first western and modern boys’ school in Kashmir – the Church Mission Society Boys School – was founded in 1880 by Reverend J Hinton Knowles, which is now called the Tyndale Biscoe School, named after Tyndale Biscoe, a British missionary, who became the school’s principal in 1891. Tyndale Biscoe is often credited with founding the modern education system in Kashmir, through the adoption of western system and the rejection of local tradition. In this context, Shafi Ahmad Qadri, in his book Biscoe in Kashmir, writes: “The opening of CMS School was a red-letter day in the recorded history of Kashmir; it brought a new era by imparting scientific education on modern lines.”

Initially, the fruits of the modern education were reaped by the children of Kashmiri pundits. The CMS School was, in fact, monopolized by them. Muslims, on the other hand, from the very beginning of English education, did not show much interest in it. There were so many factors responsible for this. The pundits possessed the economic means to acquire education while, Muslims were very poor. The Muslim clergymen made them believe that by studying English they would become Christians. In addition, the majority of Muslim population in Kashmir consisted of artisans who were not enthusiastic about education. The peasants were often heard of saying:

“Pari Pathi  gali  Foratti,   Hal Vage, Takra Khag.”
(Education brings on ruin; it is only through ploughing that good living can be earned)

Un-sympathetic attitude of teachers towards Muslim students in government schools and the discriminatory policies of the Dogra administration were the other causes of backwardness of Muslims.

Moulvi Rasool Shah, popularly known as Sir Sayed of Kashmir, realized that without modern education Muslims would remain always backward. Like a medical practitioner, he diagnosed the disease – backwardness due to illiteracy – of the Muslim community and prescribed education based on modern scientific lines as a remedy. His aim was to launch a crusade against the rigidity and conservative beliefs prevalent among Muslims of Kashmir. To fulfill his aim, Muslim Educational Movement was started in the 1890s. In Role of Christian Missionaries in the Spread of Modern Education among the Muslims of Kashmir (1885-1925), Peerzada Muhammad Ashraf writes: “It was Moulvi Rasool Shah, who led the Muslims from darkness to light, who used to distribute books free of cost to the poor and needy Muslim students. It was he who laid the foundation of Anjuman-i-Nasrat-ul-Islam by opening a primary school in 1899 A.D and in 1905 was upgraded as high school – the fore-runner of present Islamiaya College.”

On 28 August, 1975, the state government of Jammu and Kashmir established its own educational board (Jammu and Kashmir board of school education). In the 1980s, the system of education in the Valley spread rapidly. The armed conflict in the valley, which started in 1989, not only led to social disorder, disorganization, mass psychological trauma but also proved disastrous for education. It is often repeatedly said[1] even today that economic development and employment opportunities did not expand correspondingly, which lead to a rise in unemployment among the educated. Frustrated and jobless, many unemployed yet educated youth fell into the ‘gun culture’ of the late 1980s, which eventually led to the insurgency and consequential military uprising during the 1990s. It can be considered one out of many reasons but not the main reason. A number of school buildings were either damaged or gutted since 1989 during the course of armed conflict. Security threats, bomb blasts, strikes, arrest of teachers, etc. have left education crippled in valley. Years of turmoil – 1989, 2008, 2010, and 2016 – clearly depicts that education in Kashmir has had to face tough trials and tests of time.

The 2016 unrest in Kashmir, which broke out after the killing of Hizb Commander, Burhan Wani, popularly known as the ‘Poster Boy’, triggered protests across the Valley. Millions of students were unable to attend regular schools due to the constant state of unrest in the Valley. The presence of heavy paramilitary forces and curfews resulted in the shutdown of schools. Thus, the worst sufferers in this constant state of conflict were none but children, who have been confined to their homes and were denied right to education. In these testing times, the youth of Kashmir have stepped in to educate the children of Kashmir in ‘Curfew Schools’ for free. In the aftermath of Burhan Wani’s death, thirty-two schools were reportedly targeted by unknown persons. The education sector was badly hit in Kashmir Valley for around five months causing “irreversible loss” to students. The recent announcement by the Jammu and Kashmir government of mass promotion of students to next levels clearly indicates the damage education has suffered in Kashmir.

Going by the literacy rate, which is the visible and computable indicator of education level, the Jammu and Kashmir state stands at the bottom, along with sates like Bihar, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, and Arunachal Pradesh. Keeping in view the 2011 census, the state ranks 29 out of the 35 states and union territories taken together. This gives us a clear glimpse into the hopeless state of education system in the Valley. For the last 26 years, the conflict situation has impoverished the education system in Kashmir, leading to the ruin of our future generations. If education keeps on suffering at the present scale, the quality of human resource will be a casualty.

[1] See Robert G Wirsing (1998) and W Habibullah (2008) on this point.

Asif Bhat is a Research Scholar at the Department of History and Culture, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He can be reached at


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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Unmasking the Conflict: Making sense of the recent uprisings in Kashmir’, edited by Idrees Kanth, Leiden University, The Netherlands and Muhammad Tahir, Dublin City University, Ireland.

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