It was a long journey from Kargil to Padam, yet an extremely exhilarating one.
The wide expanse of tawny mountains rises up majestically, while the white fleecy clouds cavort across the clear blue skies. Esoteric stupas, painted in ash-grey, ivory and amber, dot the extended stretches of barren land. The sparkling river vacillates between the shades of turquoise and cyan bestowing an unfathomable charm to the landscape. This is the thinly-populated Zanskar region, a subdistrict or tehsil of the Kargil district in Ladakh which comprises a vast area of 7000 sq km. After passing through the endless stretches of soaring mountains with humble patches of olive green, now and then punctuated with prayer flags in pulsating shades of yellow, green and red, I reach Padam, the administrative headquarter of Zanskar. It was a long journey from Kargil to Padam, yet an extremely exhilarating one.
Until the fifteenth century, Zanskar existed for the most part as an independent Buddhist kingdom. Since the fifteenth century, Zanskar’s history has been linked to Ladakh. Later like the rest of Ladakh, it came under the rule of the then Maharaja Hari Singh when he captured Ladakh through his general Zorawar Singh in the nineteenth century. It subsequently became an integral part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir around mid twentieth century. The majority of Zanskar’s population is Buddhist followed by Sunni Muslims. Zanskar is a high altitude semi-desert with extremely harsh and arid climatic conditions.
It is the end of July, yet there is frostiness in the air. I finally reach the humble guest house. There is no electricity. I light a few candles and snuggle up in my bed. Next morning I am supposed to travel to a few nearby villages such as Pibting and Kisharak to visit the government schools and identify gaps in the functioning of these schools. Although, initially I was going to visit the schools alone, later a friend decides to accompany me. We stop by at a few offices related to the education department in Zanskar to identify schools we could visit. Subsequently, we leave for the schools in Padam and reach the Government Girls Middle School after much struggle in being able to locate it. The school is closed but we are able to interact with a few students and parents outside the school. It is around 1pm and before going to the nearby villages, tempted with the delectable aromas of the Tibetan food that fill the streets of Padam, we decide to have a lunch break.
Thereafter, we head towards Pibting, a nearby village. We stop to ask the way to Pibting and are told it is behind the distant Stupa. Ice-clad peaks, cavernous fields, and pristine white clouds gazing through the lucid blue skies make the long walk delightful, even though I almost stumble a few times upon the narrow, jagged and patchy lanes. We reach the village after more than an hour of brisk walk, however, we are yet to find the school. After asking a few locals for directions, we are able to locate it. Tucked away in a corner, the modest board has Government Middle School, Pibting, Zanskar written on it with a message- ‘Enter to Learn, Leave to Serve’. However, as we enter we realise that the school is shut since some schools in the region are closed on Saturdays. We interact with some locals including children in the village before leaving for another village. However, the friend who is accompanying me decides to retire to the guest house. Now I will have to take the journey to another village on my own.
I walk to a close-by village called Kisharak and then back to Padam. Thereafter, I begin interacting with a few locals mainly school children when I happen to come across a teacher from a private school in Padam, who is originally a Kashmiri. His name is Iqbal Ahmad Wani who teaches at Model Public School in Padam which is managed by the Muslim community. I speak to him about my field visit to schools in Zanskar. He accompanies me to Kisharak to meet Sayeeda, Headmistress, Government Girls Middle School, Padam. It is getting cold. The tangerine sun is soon muted by a chiffon cloud. We reach Sayeeda’s house who receives us with a warm smile. After engaging in an informal conversation, I begin to discuss with Sayeeda about the state of education in Zanskar in general. Then she narrates the problems confronted by the Government Girls Middle School in Padam.
One of the key issues, she points out, is lack of proper sanitation and hygiene in most government schools in the region including the Government Girls Middle School. Another alarming issue is that of the staff exceeding the number of students in most government schools. Sayeeda says, ‘The number of students in the government schools is on the decline since more and more parents are now sending their children to private schools for quality education’. Moreover, private schools such as Lamdon Model School provide scholarships to a number of underprivileged students. Most of the students in Lamdon are Buddhist. Another critical issue is that during harsh winter months of October and November before the winter vacations begin, there is a lack of heating facilities which often leads to high drop-out rates. Further, computer education is almost non-existent in government schools. Sayeeda concludes, ‘Most government schools do not have transport facilities’. Many students even have to walk for five to six kms to reach their schools. This is even more difficult for them during extreme winters.
Then Iqbal Ahmad Wani shares the problems confronting the Model Public School which is managed by the Muslim community. He too begins with the issue of lack of proper sanitation and hygiene in the private school where he teaches. He further says, ‘Due to unavailability of electricity, students are not able to receive computer education. Also, there is no separate period for physical education, and co-curricular activities are non-existent’. He also speaks about a lack of heating and transport facilities in the school. Iqbal adds, ‘Interestingly there is not a single female teacher in the school’. Another extremely important issue that Iqbal shares is due to ‘social boycott’ by the Buddhist community against Muslims in Zanskar, there has been a decrease in the number of Buddhist students in the school. Since 2012, the Zanskar region has witnessed tensions between the Buddhist and the Muslim community following the conversion of 22 ‘low caste’ Buddhist members to Islam in the Padam area. I ask Iqbal and Sayeeda more about the recent communal tensions between Buddhists and Muslims. Our conversation on education and social and political issues in the Zanskar region continues for over two hours. It is getting dark and gusty. I can hear the winds skirling and hovering around the raven night. Iqbal and I thank Sayeeda and decide to leave for Padam.