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History's school: Journey from kabaylis to the satellite

The school that played a role in deciding Kashmir's destiny, which witnessed Baramulla's 1947 horrors and once hosted European nuns and tribal raiders, will now shape new dreams with satellite-linked classrooms, Kashmir's first. Neelesh Misra reports.Special Coverage

india Updated: Nov 25, 2008 19:37 IST
Neelesh Misra
Neelesh Misra
Hindustan Times

That is the spot where the frightening tribal raiders shot the European nun in 1947, the corridor through which her body was dragged to the babies' ward, where she died watched by Kashmiri patients, Italian nuns and a British journalist.

Not too far, there are swank, satellite-linked classrooms – Kashmir's first -- that will soon let students in the insurgency town be taught by students live on screens from hundreds of kilometres away.

"I want to be an engineer, I will write the IIT exam. There is too much competition, but I will try my best," said Adil Mehraj Wani, 18, a XIIth-grade student of the school.

The St.Joseph's school was where kabayli raiders halted for three days in 1947 as they pillaged Baramulla town, a delay that helped change the course of Kashmir's destiny as it prevented them from capturing Srinagar and bringing Kashmir possibly under Pakistan's control.

The school is soaked in Kashmir's past. It survived the presented, becoming the only school in the region to run through the twenty-year insurgency – and is now shaping the future of thousands of Kashmir's children.

Located on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad highway, the school is pushing the envelope – from 33 per cent, it has pushed up the pass percentage to 60 per cent, rarely found even in urban schools.

And before month-end, professors sitting in Chennai will teach higher secondary students mathematics, multimedia, computer applications, science, commerce and journalism.

"Good teachers from outside have a lot of fears about Baramulla due to the militancy. They do not like to come here, so we are going to them through satellite," said Father Chacko, the school's vice-principal.

The 104-year-old school – whose alumni took up everything from medicine to engineering to management, and armed militancy -- has changed the lives of thousands of tough, bringing them English-medium education in the insurgency heartland.

It has 2,530 students – nearly 1,000 from the pro-Pakistan insurgency hotbed of Sopore -- and 110 teachers.

Baramulla was once a trading hub for traders coming in from Muzaffarabad and what would later become Pakistan. It is now little more than a rural town.

Everyone has sent their children here, from anti-India Jamaat-e-Islami supporters to the local Sikh minority. Children come from 40 kilometres away, from near the Line of Control.

Until the 1960s, European nuns travelled on horseback to faraway villages, taking the school's medical wing to needy villagers.

By the late 1980s, everything was changing for Kashmir. The insurgency had begun. Baramulla submerged into chaos. Several of its English-speaking students even became militants.

Hundreds of schools across the region were attacked by the rebels or burnt down through the mid-1990s. But "St. Joseph's was protected by the citizens," Father Chacko said. Armed militants were among those coming to the complex for treatment.

"There was always trouble. We could always hear shooting. I saw it so many times. We would be in the market, then climb up a building to save ourselves," Sister Rosa, 85, the Kerala-born nun who has been at the school for more than half a century.

Militancy has eased now, but the school still mirrors Baramulla's turbulence – dozens of youth stormed it and tried to cause damage during the recent public protests against India.

"The (separatist) protests really affected our studies, I am trying to catch up – and the army also beats us and there is firing," said 18-year-old Omar Sajjad Wani, two days after two youth were killed in paramilitary firing in Baramulla.

Still, Baramulla's children are beginning to dream big.

"Students are becoming more competitive, they are moving out of the town now, they are aware of the world outside," said Father Chacko. "Once they spread their wings, its endless."

First Published: Nov 23, 2008 22:33 IST