Dawn evokes unpleasant memories in Kashmir — usually associated with anti-militancy operations by security forces.
However, one early morning initiative has kindled hope and won hearts in the troubled region — an open-air coaching class in the open, amidst tall English willows.
Twenty days ago when Muneer Alam, a mathematics teacher and engineer, decided to resume his classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the challenge was finding a suitable venue.
“The SOPs suggested avoiding closed rooms. I took a walk around the city to look for a venue and decided to set up a trial class at the Eidgah,” Mr. Alam told The Hindu.
Around seven kilometres away from his house in the Malbagh area, Eidgah is Srinagar’s largest prayer ground, mostly used for congregational prayers on the occasion of Id.
“There is a dried swamp at one corner of this sprawling ground. The grass around it tall enough to act as a wall against the morning chill,” Mr. Alam explains on why he chose the spot for his open-air classes.
And the enthusiastic teacher certainly has filled crying need as his classes have seen students come in from across the city. “Twenty days on, the students, stuck at home due to the lockdown, have started multiplying and the parents are feeling encouraged,” Mr. Alam said.
Around 70 students gather at the open-air venue from as early as 5 a.m. and the classes end by 7: 15 a.m. “Even before the dawn breaks, these students even from far-off areas of Srinagar start assembling. The timing suited us because it’s not noisy and the movement is minimal, helping to avoid any contact and maintain social distancing,” Mr. Alam said.
The sessions are the first return to academics for high school students of grades XI and XII.
“I used to teach 350 to 400 students during “normal” times. As abnormality becomes normal, more and more students are coming forward,” said Mr. Alam.
He was forced to stop his online classes due to non-availability of 4G connections in the Valley. “The Internet speed is 2G and gets suspended every time an encounter takes place. Mathematics requires extra attention on details. I could see my students slipping into a cycle of depression,” the dedicated teacher said.
“The time has come to declare education an essential service like health. If our students fail to pick up the fundamentals of the subject, the handicap is going to stay with them. Given the competition, I don’t want my students to suffer in their careers. This is not about money but a generation’s future is at stake,” Mr. Alam added.
Mahira and Saima Hameed, both grade XII students, echo their teacher teacher. “It’s hard to take lessons on 2G Internet. Also mathematics needs to be taught in a group so we can learn better,” they said.
Shadow of violence
But it has not been smooth sailing for the teacher and students.
“An encounter broke out in my area on Thursday night. I was worried if the students could reach the venue. I had to leave early, despite the ongoing operation in the area, to ensure that my students are safe. Security forces were all around the venue. We had to cancel classes for the day,” Mr. Alam recalled.
Despite the difficulties, his initiative has motivated other teachers, too. “I have received appreciation from as far away as teachers in Bangladesh! They have been motivated to resume their classes in the outdoors,” he said.
His initiative has galvanised a movement, with scores of other teachers in the Valley looking for open-air venues to restart classes, with the pandemic showing no signs of dying down. Fresh guidelines have been issued in Kashmir, as the cases and deaths due to COVID-19 continued to rise.