Personal Notes

Students in Sriniagar PTI Photo

Students in Sriniagar PTI Photo

Neerja Mattoo

Through my long association with the Government College for Women, Srinagar, as well as a teacher from 1952 to 1995, I have been witness to its phenomenal role as an instrument of change. An institution that had a small beginning. Housed in what was a ‘Widow’s Palace’ in the time of the erstwhile ‘Maharajadhiraj’ of Jammu and Kashmir, it grew to alter a whole society’s perspective on women. The graph of its success in empowering women, which had steadily gone upwards, suddenly took a plunge in the last decade of the 20th century. This was the time when in the valley of Kashmir everything fell apart and no one was sure of the meaning or value of anything but the gun. But let us go back to the beginning.




t was a heady time. Not only because we were just into our teens, but because the world around us felt
young,confident and exuberant – sure that things couldonly get better. Kashmir along with the rest of the sub-continent had been pronounced free only a few years back. Awami Raj they said it was ‘People’s Rule’, and the sheen on that idea had not yet worn thin. Faith in the leadership had not yet taken a beating. And certainly things had changed for the better within an unbelievably short span. Lands had been distributed among the tenant farmers with no compensation to the absentee landlords. With one stroke of a purposeful pen the wretched of the earth had become owners of the land they had cultivated for generations for someone else. Bonded labour was abolished, the usurers warned off. And a college for women set up, where admissions came a-begging to every woman in pursuit of an education or vocation. The sky seemed to be the limit for women’s aspirations.

The year was 1952 and the college was only two years old when I entered it. Had it been born earlier, our eldest sister, the brightest in the family, could also have gone to college after passing matriculation as a private student. She could not go beyond this step in her formal education because in 1941 there was only one college in Srinagar where her brothers went for higher education. The half a dozen girls on its rolls came from non-Kashmiri families, the ‘advanced’, ‘modern’ Punjabi girls, competing with whom was unthinkable for a ‘respectable’ Kashmiri Pandit girl. This even though her own father and future father-in-law (she was married the next year) were both professors in that college.

If this was the unquestioned reality in an educated, comparatively ’emancipated’ Kashmiri Pandit family, who not only had a far stronger tradition of learning – conventional as well as modern brought in by their English education – what the situation must have been for Muslim women can well be imagined. ‘Steeped in ignorance’ might be a cliché, but it was the truth.

The poorer classes were, of course completely unaware of the need for education, but the upper classes – as well as the middle class in its unrelenting desire for respectability – would not encourage it for fear of throwing open the doors to subversion. The scales were heavily weighed against women. Only a few could break free from the mould in which they had been cast from birth.

One such woman who did it with aplomb and made a difference, was Mahmuda Ahmad Ali Shah, the first Kashmiri woman to head a college in Srinagar. This tall sternly beautiful woman had a commanding personality. Her single minded commitment to the ideal of Kashmiri women’s emancipation was largely responsible for making this college an institution of academic and cultural excellence. One of her most repeated exhortations at the morning assembly was to ask the students to always walk with their heads held high as there was nothing that should cow them down as long as they were in the right.

The years from 1950 to the 70s in Kashmir were the kind of years when everything seemed within reach, anything possible with hard work and determination.

The achievements of women during these decades were so significant that that they altered the gender landscape of schools, colleges, offices, courts, police stations, hospitals, hotels and business establishments. Women were everywhere making their mark in every field.

This revolution had been brought about surprisingly, without there being an organised women’s movement in the state. Women began to take the possibilities for their careers for granted. It had not occurred to them as yet that with their unrestrained expansion, the roads would get narrower and there would not be room for everyone – in the professional colleges, in other employment opportunities. Or that a time would come when the gift of freedom would be taken away with the same suddenness that it had been bestowed upon them and they would regress to the swaddling they had broken free from.

But I am talking about a time when optimism was still in the air and expectations from ‘progress’ were raised to limitless heights. Of course it was an unreal situation, at hindsight. The events from the mid-’80s onwards, leading to the total collapse of the educational edifice in the ’90s could be attributed to some extent also to the frustrations generated from this unnaturally high expectations of the rewards from free education.




he things I remember about the college today may sound incredible in today’s devastated educational scene in Kashmir, but they are true nevertheless. My first vivid memory of the college is symbolically most significant too. It is that of the rehearsal for a play we freshers saw when we ventured towards the little wooden hut-like structure that served as an auditorium in 1952 (The fully equipped large auditorium which we got from the government in the 1960s after so many drama festivals-an annual feature-had been staged in that very hut, was burnt down in the 1990s. Another instance of the cyclic nature of history perhaps.)

The play was about Habba Khatoon, who we learnt to our amazement had been a poet and consort of a king of Kashmir. This was our first introduction to the history of Kashmir, which till then was not taught at any stage of our school or college education. The dialogue was in English as the play had been written by a professor of the college who did not know Kashmiri, while the lyrics were Habba Khatoon’s own, set to music by the music department.

That it was possible for our poor disdained, till then looked-down-upon Kashmiri language to rub shoulders with the awesome English language on equal terms was an overwhelming experience. This experiment, so new at that time, opened a door to a whole world of mutually enriching linguistic and cultural cross currents. Kashmir no longer felt small, nor was being called a Kashmiri, an epithet of contempt anymore.

In fact suddenly one felt proud to be a Kashmiri, yet secure enough to accept valuable lessons from other cultures. We did not realise then that this was an instance of what is now called Kashmiriyat, a word appropriated by those who know nothing about it.

Soon we too became a part of this cultural revolution, eclectic in our choice of plays to act in, be they the poetic plays of Tagore, translated into English and Kashmiri, the farce-like comedies of Moliere in Urdu, the socially relevant satires of Ramesh Mehta in Hindustani, Bernard Shaw‘s witty exposes of social and political hypocrisies, the sparkling, epigrammatic Restoration comedies or the powerful human dramas of Shakespeare.

And then we did something really extraordinary, performed a folk opera celebrating a Kashmiri myth. It was the creation of two geniuses of modern Kashmir, the poet Dinanath Nadim and the music composer Mohanlal Aima. The attempt was so successful that it marked our entry into the first All-India Youth Festival held at Talkatora Garden in New Delhi in 1954.

The cast included girls from orthodox families who had never ventured outside the valley of Kashmir, but such were the persuasive powers of the teachers and the principal that they were allowed to go, in the belief that whatever was part of the college activity must be good. The faith reposed by parents in their daughters and giving them the freedom to travel without a male relative as escort, was indicative of how the times had changed within a short time! The experience of living for a whole week in tented accommodation with hundreds of men and women students from the premier universities of India, interacting with them on an equal footing was unforgettable. We never felt inferior to anyone in any way, even though the likes of Bhupen Hazarika, Sharan Rani Mathur and Vijay Anand happened to be part of the Assam, Delhi and Bombay university contingents. In our unsophisticated innocence, we were not even conscious that in this prestigious platform we were representing an ‘educationally backward’ state!

The ease with which Kashmiri Muslim girls-most of them first generation literates-fitted into the routine of a modern college with its emphasis on sports, debating, NCC, educational tours and cultural activities is unimaginable in today’s benighted state.

No parent protested when their daughters were asked to participate in a march past with students from the two boys colleges in Srinagar every month, when the then prime minister Sheik Mohammad Abdullah took the salute. Among them were married women some of them mothers, who were primary school teachers deputed to attend college and get a degree to improve their prospects. No voices were raised against the girls wearing the army-like NCC uniform, or performing on the stage, reviving old Kashmiri folk song and dance forms, or travelling to places all over India in trains, the teachers roughing it out with them in II class compartments, learning about the history of India’s past, without sermons being stuffed down their throats. We were engaged in a ‘dialogue’ all the time, without knowing it was a fashionable word!

Dramatics formed a very important part of our life in college. The whole gamut of stagecraft, without any formal training was appropriated by us, unselfconsciously.

With what supreme self-confidence the girls played the part of great men characters from world drama, the only serious problem being their long hair! I remember the enthusiasm with which Muslim girls from extremely orthodox families were ready to wear basanti saris and flowers in their hair for a Tagore play or western costumes for an English period play.

This great equaliser was aided by the fact that the college rules demanded that all students wear a uniform-beige kurta, white salwar and white dupatta. Thus there was nothing to distinguish one girl from another. In the college we were all equal, no matter from which economic class or caste, or urban or rural background we came from.

Religion, till 1990, was something that had no role to play as far as life in the college was concerned. Academic merit or achievements in other fields was what counted. The Student’s Council with two representatives from all the sections of every class had a President elected directly by the students. Academic performance, participation in activities like debating, dramatics or editing the college magazine Pamposh was taken into account in this election.

Of course it was not wholly democratic-the personal preference of the principal, conveyed through subtle hints and prodding played a part in ensuring the success of a ‘deserving’ candidate who might not have been a ‘popular’ choice, but religion and communal leanings had nothing to do with it.

In fact in the early ’80s, one of the presidents was a girl from Assam, whose father was an army officer posted in Srinagar. Kashmiri girls were secure enough to have an ‘outsider’ occupy the highest position that a student could aspire to in the college.

Generally a girl who had the confidence of the staff and was popular for her social graces too, would get to occupy the prestigious position because her duties included welcoming distinguished personalities from the country and abroad. Every eminent person from the world of politics, art, literature, music, economics or science, who came to Kashmir would invariably be invited to the college to address the students or be introduced to the culture of Kashmir.

These frequent encounters threw the windows wide open. If it was Jawaharlal Nehru one year, it could be Aneurin Bevan or Rajendra Prasad the next. The students who saw and heard Amartya Sen, Sardar Jafri, Begum Akhtar, or Stephen Spender in their college itself, did not need any more cosmopolitan exposure. No wonder they could hold their own when competing with the best products of the leading universities of India and the world. Even though it was only a government college where education was free, its reputation was no less than that of any elite college in Delhi. But I am talking of what is no more




o one could have predicted the suddenness with which the liberal, humanist atmosphere, which had survived through several upheavals threatening to tear the social fabric of Kashmir apart, like the dismissal and imprisonment of Sheik Abdullah in 1953, the infiltration of the mujahideen in 1965, the Pandit agitation of 1967, the tensions of the 1971 war, the politically and communally charged elections of 1983 and 1987, could be blown away.

Something was certainly brewing in Kashmir, stealthily striking at the roots of the trust and bonhomie that existed between the communities, destroying the sense of a common future of all Kashmiris that had been their dream and pride.

The sickness that had affected the world outside suddenly entered the college in a dramatic manner one day in the year 1989. Leaflets were dropped over the, till-then impregnable walls of the college demanding that the Muslim girls wear burqa and the Hindus wear a bindi to save them from ‘unnecessary harassment’!

It was the first time that a wedge was introduced to divide the students along communal lines. But at that stage the response of the students was heartening – they refused to follow the diktat. We did not realise that it was the thin edge of the wedge. Then there were rumours that a man with a stick was lying in wait outside college to hit any girl who did not cover her head. But even this threat was not powerful enough to beat them into submission.

The gun had not yet been used to enforce it and when that happened, the scene in 1990 at the college reopening after the winter break was completely changed. There were hardly any Pandit students and the view was an unrelieved black, not figuratively but literally. Almost all the girls were now covered in a burqa of that colour, only some out of religious conviction, most out of palpable and rampant fear.

There was no freedom anymore for any one, particularly not for women. For them it was a complete u-turn. Humiliation and helplessness took the place of the earlier hard-won confidence.

There was no question of holding one’s head high, safety lay in abject submission, whether to the orders of the militants or the State. The mere act of attending college or any other educational institution required the courage of a mad woman and soon all institutions, whether government offices, schools or other institutions collapsed.

Terror was the only driving force. When bare survival is at stake, who can afford the luxury of a meaningful education? In fact education was the first casualty. As schools and colleges were targeted, carefully built up libraries and laboratories went up in flames, along with our auditorium which had been witness to so much of the history of our achievements in academic and co-curricular fields.

A dark night had descended upon us, our little world which prided itself on a syncretic way of life, reveling in its diversity, was a wash in a uniform black. More than this outward transformation was the transformation in attitudes and expectations. From a vibrant, forward-looking, multi-cultural community of women we had turned in to the worst manifestation of mono culture.

It took a couple of years, unrelieved in their bleakness and terror, for women’s natural resilience to reassert itself. The synthetic polyester burqa gave way to a cotton chadar, but the decline in educational standards was hard to remedy. Large numbers of competent, experienced teachers had migrated from the Kashmir valley to safety.

Those who stayed back like me, had become irrelevant to the scene. Gradually our students did manage to sit for the examinations and even pass them, but hope of a better academic future was nowhere in sight as long as they were in Srinagar. Parents who could afford it-and provided the results were out in time-sent their children out for studies.

The bright ones who stayed on were sucked into militancy in one way or another, some died and some were as good as dead. Violence to flesh and spirit continues unabated and hope finds it more and more difficult to sustain itself.

At present there seems to be a conspiracy of silence regarding the history of women’s emancipation in post-partition Kashmir. Of course girls are still attending schools and colleges but the air of freedom which we had the good fortune to breathe is gone.

Instead of the brightness of hope illuminating their faces, a veil of fear clouds them. Not only do they need moral courage to defy diktats from various quarters, their life is in danger even when making a short trip from may be a randomly flung grenade exploding in their faces or a humiliating search in the bus or being caught in crossfire, there are terrors at every step.

But more than these is the colossal loss of a culture which reveled in diversity, the loss of a time when religious or linguistic identities did not have an aggressive face, when concerns were shared despite academic competitiveness.

The present generation of students has no idea of what it was like before the madness of ‘homogenization’, unleashed by forces over which they have no control, overtook them. This essay is an attempt to address this very generation, in the hope that by understanding the past, they may get insights into the future and pull themselves out of the morass of despondency they are sunk in at present. Hence this story of the multi-dimensional life college education offered them not too long ago.

I am thinking at this time of two outstanding Kashmiri Muslim students of mine, both with great potential. One had the good fortune of passing out in the seventies, while the other did so in the nineties. The former is now a highly successful lawyer in Washington, who has earned herself the sobriquet, ‘Queen Bee’. She helps immigrant professionals with their B-1 visa problems.

With no jobs available in Kashmir and private enterprise stifled, the other young woman, equally gifted and promising, is still waiting to find a useful, fulfilling role in Kashmiri society today.


Courtesy: http://www.peacekashmir.org/views-articles/2010/1009-kashmiri-education.htm
Neerja Mattoo PhotoNeerja Mattoo is a renowned educationist from Kashmir having taught English at Government College in Srinagar from where she retired as Principal.She is a writer/translator, and is the ditor of three books of Kashmiri short stories in English: The Stranger Beside Me, Contemporary Kashmiri Short Stories, and Kath—Stories From Kashmir.  She was awarded an HRD Ministry Senior Fellowship to work on four Kashmiri women poets. She is also the author of The Best of Kashmiri Cooking .

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