Principal Caretaker

Greater Kashmir

A retired teacher revived a neglected Pandit school in Nawakadal and ensured the temple inside the school was never closed for devotees

When 76-year-old Ghulam Muhammad Malik retired as a government teacher in 1995, he had looked forward to his post-retirement life. But when the local people from Khankah-Sokhta in Nawakadal approached him to revive the neglected Vidya Bhavan School, Malik did not hesitate to accept the challenge.  Not only did he take charge of the school from 1995, he quietly renovated the temple housed inside the school premises and kept it functional in the heart of the city through the turbulent 90s. 
At an age when he is supposed to rest at home, the soft-spoken Malik comes to the school everyday. A narrow lane leads to the two-storey school building surrounded by old wooden houses intimately stacked together. Majority of these houses belonged to Kashmiri Pandits before their migration in the 90s. Situated on the banks of river Jehlum in Khankah Sokhta, the school is surrounded by houses that were once peopled by Kashmiri Pandits. After their migration, most of the houses were sold to the Kashmiri Muslims living nearby. Next to the school building an old wooden house, where a Pandit family once used to live, stands forlorn.  Its wooden door is locked; its windows are ajar.
Malik does not earn a single penny from running this school. He pays a monthly rent of Rs 700 to the Pandit Trust in Jammu that owns the property. For running the school and taking care of the temple, he does not take any salary from the Trust either. Whatever he earns from the school is spend on the upkeep of the school and the temple inside. Spending money from his own pocket in the past, Malik kept the school and temple functional after the migration of Pandits. He proudly says it is the only temple in the city which was never closed for devotees in the past two decades of turmoil.
Established in 1958 the school was run by a respectable Pandit teacher Sheera Kaul. Most of the students in this school were Kashmiri Pandit kids. Before 90s, Malik says, the school was vey popular and had a roll of over thousand students. When Kaul passed away in 1996, Malik says the local Muslims performed her last rites. After her death some young female teachers were working in the school. But they couldn’t look after the school properly. The school was in need of an experienced principal. 
When Malik took charge of the school and became its principal in 1995, only 17 students were left in the school. The school building was in a dilapidated condition.  “It was neither a middle school nor a high school when I joined it in 1995,” says Malik in his small office chamber in the second floor of the old school building. To begin with, he started classes till 5th standard in 1999. Then he employed more teachers. When more students enrolled in the school, in 2005 he started classes till 8th standard. Last year he enrolled students for the 10th standard. The school is now a government recognized high school.  “I was upgrading this school thinking that might attract more students to the school,” says Malik.
The school is now staffed by 12 young teachers and around 100 students are on roll. Malik says as compared to other schools in the vicinity he charges less fee from the students. “Till 2008 I would take Rs 60 per month from students and now I take Rs 150 to 200 per month as fee,” he says. That has attracted many students from poor families who cannot afford the high fee charged by other private schools. “I have kept the fee lowest because most of the students who enroll in this school are from poor families,” says Malik.
Recently Malik took along five kids from the school belonging to poor families and approached a local NGO, Athrot. He requested them for some financial assistance. Despite his old age and several hardships he faces in running the school and maintaining an old school building, Malik has not given up. Even in these difficult conditions, the students of this school have been performing well. That makes Malik happy. He wants to do more for his students. In the recently declared results of 8th standard, he points out, all the students performed well and not a single student failed. “It makes me happy to see this school functional despite all the difficulties we are facing,” says Malik.
The two-storey school building, however, is in need of major renovation. The paint on the mud walls has come off at many places. The bricks on the walls in many classrooms have been exposed, and at many places, come out of the walls. Dust from the walls and wooden ceiling is irritating for students and the teaching staff. Malik points at the windows of classrooms he repaired over the years. When he took charge of the school, many windows were missing.  He shows the wooden gate of the school that had to be recently repaired. Somehow, despite all odds and meager resources at hand, Malik kept the school functional. “The school could become a higher secondary if this building is renovated and upgraded,’ he says. “The school deserves a better building now.”
From time to time Malik has been approaching some individuals to seek some financial help to upgrade the school and invest in the renovation of the school building. More than the government, he points out, I would like philanthropists and Kashmiri Pandits to come forward and help me in renovating this 100-year old school building. “Many kids left this school after seeing the condition of the school building,” Malik says. “When I have a better school building the roll will increase and kids will love to come to the school regularly.”

Temple caretaker:
When Malik started taking care of the school in 1995, he found the temple neglected on the ground floor near the banks of the river Jehlum. It was in bad condition. No devotee would visit it. There was no statue inside, and the temple was without a shivling. The kirtan hall of the temple was not functional.  From some old scriptures left in the temple, Malik recovered some old photos of Rupa Bawani, a mystic poet and a revered religious figure among the Kashmiri Pandits who used to live in the house next to the school premises. He got the photos enlarged, framed them, and placed them inside the temple. Then he started renovating the temple and made the prayer hall functional. He also employed a chowkidar in 2004 who regularly cleans the temple. Last year he got the dome of the temple repaired and placed a board outside the temple.
Five years back Malik also got the Shivling arranged from outside and placed it inside the temple. He paid money from his own pocket to buy the shivling. When some Kashmiri Pandits would visit the temple, he says, they would find the shivling missing and I would feel bad about it. “It was my responsibility to make it available in the temple so that their religious sentiments are not hurt.”  From Delhi he brought small statues for the temple. He shows small incense sticks and other required material he has kept inside the temple for devotees.
Malik ensured that around 1000 utensils, scriptures and other material left behind by the Pandits were returned to them in Jammu. “It was my responsibility,” Malik says about his efforts to renovate the temple, “it was the right thing to do.”
“When I respect their religion,” he emphasizes, “they will respect mine.”
Malik says this is perhaps the only temple in Srinagar that was never closed for devotees even at the height of conflict in the mid 90s. Unlike this temple, he says, the nearby temples were abandoned and remained closed and neglected in the past two decades of conflict. “They are only now being renovated,” he says.
“Now many Pandits come every year and pay their obeisance in the temple,” says Malik. “They feel happy to see the temple clean and well maintained.”
Taking his shoes off before entering the temple hall, Malik shows the clean, cemented surface of the temple he got repaired. He points at other small things he placed inside the temple for devotees. On the wall, close to the framed photos of Rupa Bawani, a small board reads: “we should respect all religions.” Near the framed photos he has kept matchboxes, some incense sticks, and other required items for the devotees. There is a separate broom for cleaning the temple. Malik ensures the temple is kept clean every day for the devotees.
“Besides being the principal of the school,” he says with a smile as he locks the wooden door of the temple, “I am also a kind of a pujari of this temple.”

About the migration of Kashmir Pandits, Malik says it’s wrong to blame Kashmiri Muslims for their exodus. “We used to eat in the same utensils,” he says. Kashmir is a political issue, he emphasizes, and not a religious issue. Malik feels there was some government conspiracy to force the Kashmiri Pandits out of the valley in the early 90s, “because that helped to single out Kashmiri Muslims.”
In the early 90s Malik remembers going to a Kashmiri Pandit friend’s home and inviting him to live in his house along with his family if he felt insecure or threatened. The next day, Malik recalls, when he again went to his home, the Kashmiri Pandit had already left along with his family. After a thoughtful pause, Malik says in Kashmiri about the departure of Kashmiri Pandits: “Yae leaj nae paye tem keth peath drae yaete raeto raath….”
Since last two years Malik has kept another person in the school who assists him in the hectic official work. Although it is difficult for him move around much in his old age, he is determined to take care of the school—and the temple—as long as his health allows. “Even if no Kashmiri Pandits come forward to look after the school and temple,” he says, “I will hand it over to a responsible person who will look after it well after I am gone.”
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