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Sabbah Haji on schooling 8,000 feet above civilisation

S. Aijaz
6th May 2015
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Amarnath to Doda: School on a mountaintop 

In 2008, Sabbah Haji sat at her desk and watched the Amarnath riots unfold in Jammu & Kashmir. Through the harrowing news reels Sabbah recognised her small town in the Doda district of Jammu. “I called home, and nobody knew what was going to happen next. My mother said there was a mob moving towards the village.”

Sabbah Haji
Sabbah Haji, Haji Public School

After having worked as an audit intern at KPMG, she decided it was time she moved back to her ancestral home. “I wrapped up in Bangalore,” Sabbah says, “and went to Doda for a few years in the winter of 2008.”

Doda, a mountainous and incorrigible terrain, has its own history, culture and tradition. It’s an arduous place to traverse. There, in land that pampered urbanites would call inhospitable, villagers approached Sabbah’s family to build a school for their children. “My uncle helps the people a lot by sending money to individual families who need help. So he asked us if my mother and I would run the school. We were very keen on helping our village people. We decided we’ll start a small school, and we’ll have complete control over its standards and how it’s run.” That was the beginning of the Haji Public School, nestled in the hills of Breswana, a small, mountainous village.

Every year, cutting through convoluted and clogged bureaucracy, the Haji Public School has gone one class up. On why she bears the burden of educating the children of Doda, she says, “All the children in the village should be educated, which hasn’t happened for more than 30 years. We have children who can’t compete with II grade students.” Like many other states in India, there’s also a conceit within the educated upper-class of Jammu & Kashmir that makes them snub the humbler origins of society. She says, “Educated people here would never consider going to villages and teach. I find a much better and exposed crop of volunteers from the rest of India who fill this gap.”

Haji Public School, Breswana
Haji Public School, Breswana, Doda

Heavily reliant on volunteers, looming doubts over their availability and ‘fit’ in the uncongenial environment of Doda are routine. “Staffing is our biggest challenge.” says Sabbah. Those who come for a tryst with adventure, end up staying an entire year sometimes. “Once you make the mental adjustments, it’s a great place to live. One of our first volunteers is now our deputy director.”

As candidly as ever, Sabbah also admits, “From my family perspective, there are lots of eligible people who’d rather get a government job.” Whether it is entitlement or the unique position Jammu & Kashmir affords, the state has been in perpetual stagnation. “The work ethic in Jammu & Kashmir is very different. I’m going to anger a lot of people, but normally you have a job, pull the time, give your 100 per cent and be happy with what you do. Here, it’s ‘I’ll do it later’ or you get someone else to do it. There’s no serious work ethic, which dissatisfies me. There are people who do good things, but it’s limited. It’s a mentality.”

New experiences for children on the craggy terrain

When Haji Public School first began, it was the object of excited rural curiosity. Parents would line up around windows to poke their heads into classrooms. It was rare for them to see actual education in process.

“We follow the State syllabus,” says Sabbah, “but we play around with it. We have a range of teachers from different cultures and countries.” With the influx of donations from around the world, Haji Public School now has a diverse library. Volunteers bring their technology, literature and culture to children who, until a few years ago, could hardly read their own mother tongue. “Forget outsiders, for many of these children, it’s the first time they’ve met a Hindu.”


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Swaying between the politics of religion and community, there are still old prejudices between Hindus and Muslims in Jammu. Sabbah says, “There’s no acrimony, but that distinction is still there. Once volunteers came, the children felt there was something wrong.” The ubiquitous prejudices didn’t hold water when children interacted with people traditionally considered ‘outsiders.’ “Now when they hear discriminatory things at home, they stop their families.” It’s this aspect of cultural maturity that makes Sabbah most proud of her students.

The children read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and recite Tarantino dialogues. A cult and popular culture enthusiast, Sabbah doesn’t shy away from indulging her students in the many worlds of the universe, from Andaz Apna Apna to identifying watercrafts.

“We’re very sure not to do anything to offend anyone either, so there’s some censorship, especially when we select movies.” But the small rural school accomplishes the classical purpose of an educational institute: it teaches children to question. “If parents say something,” says Sabbah, “the children question them.”

“We have a lot of games, too,” she continues. “Living in the mountains gives them edge in terms of physicality. There’s no plain ground in the mountains.” During the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Sabbah’s students trekked to a plateau to play their very first game of football more than 8,000 feet above the rest of the world.


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Between an education and paperwork

An amused Sabbah says, “I’ve never seen an education officer ever visit schools, but on paper they’ve visited.” Having seen her share of badly run schools in the Jammu, she accuses the government of lack of accountability. Even for private schools, the tribulations are daunting. Government workers are perpetually in a state of losing paperwork or forgetting paperwork or bribing you to pass your paperwork. Bureaucracy moves at a sclerotic pace. She says, “Whenever there is political change, the government goes in limbo, and all your paperwork gets stuck somewhere.”

Over the last eight years, the head of the Haji Public School has made quite a reputation for herself for having repeatedly fought with and chastised indolent public clerks. Luckily, Sabbah’s father, the village sarpanch, a little terrified of his rambunctious daughter, decided to take over dealing with the government.

However, as educators under the purview of the hopelessly sluggish and outdated Department of School Education and Literacy, Sabbah says, “We do have ridiculous rules to follow. For instance, you cannot fail a child, which is stupid. If a child is not doing well, and the parents are agreeing to repeat the class, why is the government interfering? It’s pointless, because he’s not really prepared for the next class in which he, again, has problems.” And so, generations of poorly taught students in resource-deprived regions of the country are pointlessly promoted to create fluffed up literacy rates.


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No home for teachers

With new roads, Sabbah hopes to enrol more students. Yet, her greatest wish is for her school to ignite an interest in young graduates in this state to teach rural and small town children. “The biggest thing here is being a doctor or engineer, and that’s great if you actually become doctors and engineers, and do something for the people here. That’s not there.

“Even in India,” Sabbah says, “there are good colleges, but people prefer going out. Basic education in Jammu & Kashmir is not good. Nobody cares about schools here, and setting up something is impossible for outsiders.”


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Image against reality

Jammu & Kashmir is seldom remembered, if at all. The only time it’s ever in the news is when something bad happens. Ground reality in the crown of Mother India is far different. “That’s so much bullsh*t!” laughs Sabbah. “There’s no correlation between the media and the village. For them, Kashmir is one place. To us, we’re Paharis; we have our own culture. There’s no terror. We’re insulated from a lot of politics. The only time the media comes here is when something happens, which is mostly near the borders.” During elections is when the villages and towns of Jammu, distinct in culture and heritage from Kashmir, awaken. “Politicians throw bags of money at us. It’s interesting for villagers because they never have so much liquid cash. When you ask them what elections mean, they say, ‘We get cash.’ ”

Though largely peaceful, in times of turmoil, the sarpanch get together to maintain a semblance of order. “Villagers read all these scary things on their phones, rumours spread and people start to panic. We have to chastise them for believing these things. But the school remains unaffected. Doda is very peaceful. Nothing much happens here.”

And it’s this question of safety that worries many a volunteers’ mothers. “It’s far safer in Doda than Bangalore,” Sabbah says jokingly. Though Srinagar, in the Kashmir Valley, has gone through its share of deep troubles and pain, many parts of Jammu, like the Doda district, manage to sequester themselves from the violence and upheaval, thanks in part to Jammu’s fierce geography.

More than just buildings

“I really believe buildings are not schools. It’s good enough to study under a tree – what I need is good teachers.” More than 70 per cent of Haji Public School’s revenue and financial donations go into paying staff salaries, the rest in buying books. Sabbah’s uncle, Nasir Haji, Founder of the Haji Amina Charity Trust and a deeply charitable man, pumps a major share of donations into the school. “People are always ready to give whatever they have. That’s how we have a library.”

With only classes up to VII grade, Haji Public School ensures the children are later placed into good schools or even boarding schools that are economically viable for parents.

The school has a diverse staff of rigorously trained men and women from the village, who started out not speaking a word of English. For the volunteers, the process is equally stringent. “The priorities are kids. You’re here for three months, so give it your all. The volunteers are young; they want to help out. I can’t have people come up and cry about home or the weather. You need to be grown up and clean up after yourself. We provide you with meals, a place to stay and fun. When I get applications, I get the marks cards, because I don’t take poor students as teachers unless it’s a lower class.

But if you’re coming here for woman’s emancipation, if you want to come to the village to rebel, then don’t come. We don’t need you to rescue us at all,” puts Sabbah bluntly. “We’ve had one or two cases where it’s become awkward, and I’ve asked them to leave.”


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Just homeward bound

Eight years ago, did Sabbah think she’d be running a remote mountain-top school? “I never thought I’d be living in Doda! The first time I lived in the village was in 2010, but we’ve always been tied to the village growing up. We were middle class and grounded. We were always fond of the village and meeting villagers.” To Sabbah, she wasn’t going to a new place, she was simply homeward bound after having lived in Dubai and Bangalore for so long.

Today, all my cousins’ children are my students. These are my relatives who’ve never studied. And that’s the difference between them and me. They’re just so hungry for their children to study and be something,” says Sabbah.

It’s one of the greatest driving factors in teaching children more than 8,000 feet above civilisation.

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