Majid Maqbool, on a remarkable young man who lost his father, left his village to study in an orphanage, only to come back after graduation to fulfill his father’s dream of establishing a middle school for children from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds.
In Bhabore, a remote, hilly village in the mountainous Doda region of Jammu and Kashmir, 28-year-old, Umar Iqbal makes sure children attend their classes every day at the Iqbal Memorial School. The school was set up by Iqbal in 2012, in a single storey building donated by his aunt, with just 20 students and a few teachers.
Umar worked hard, going door to door, to request parents to trust him and enroll their children in his newly established school. In the five years that have followed since, his hard work and dedication seemed to slowly pay off. Today, the school has a roll of more than 170 local students who are taught by 11 teachers. Umar lost his father, Mohammad Iqbal, a respected local teacher, when he was just 7 years old. Umar says his father was devoted towards spreading education in his area. He would often travel to far off villages in the district to help children from disadvantaged background, enrolling many of them in neighboring schools. He was also instrumental in establishing many schools in far flung villages of his district. Umar’s uncle was a militant commander in the early 90s. He says his father would often be harassed and arrested on that account. Their house raided by the police and armed forces seeking the whereabouts of his uncle.
“My father and my uncle were working on two different and unrelated fronts. My uncle joined Hizb when I was 3 or 4 years old. There was hardly any day when my father was not called by the army for questioning,” recalls Umar. “There was hardly any day or night when our neighborhood and house was not cordoned off for search operations.” Even though his father was often beaten and taken into custody ` regularly, he never abandoned teaching in several schools in his district through the turbulent 90s, recalls Umar. “It was normal in those days of militancy in this district. There was an environment of terror and fear.” On a cold February night in 1996, Umar and his family were having dinner at home when there were repeated knocks on their door. “Everyone was frightened, but my father and mother opened the door and found some masked and armed men in army uniform,” he recalls. “They took my father out as we tried to plead for his release but he was soon disappeared into the darkness of the night.” The family was told that he’ll be freed next morning. That was the last time Umar saw his father. He was in class 1 at the time.
They kept looking for him for the following two days but he couldn’t be traced. On the third day, they heard that a militant had been killed and his body was lying in the fields of Dashnan, a neighboring village. When they rushed to the spot, their worst fears came true. The dead body turned out to be that of his father. Next, he remembers many days of morning at his house as the news spread and people and students he had taught from neighboring villages poured in. “A gun battle was fought with a person having no gun but only a pen in his pocket,” laments Umar. He has faint memories of seeing torture marks on his father’s body, which was laid out in the garden of his home before the burial that was attended by hundreds of grieving people, including many students he had taught.
His father’s killing left him shattered. The family had also lost its only bread earner. Being the eldest son in the family, he was forced to rise to the occasion, losing his childhood in the process.“I was too young to help my family, but I had to take some responsibility and I tried my best to encourage my younger siblings in difficult circumstances,” he says. As he grew up in the absence of his father, Umar was often angry and would dream of revenge. He says, he even thought of going across the border and picking up arms to avenge his father. But in the end, seeing the poor condition of his family, he decided to work hard to support them. After completing his middle school education from a local school, he was unable to continue his studies because of financial constraints at home. A local activist then came to his help, arranging for him to join an orphanage away from his village in Srinagar. “It was a new chapter in my life. From a happy family life, to an orphanage far away from my home. It was difficult to adjust initially,” he says. “In the end I made peace with my new life and started focusing on my studies.”At The Jammu and Kashmir Yateem Khana orphanage in Bemina area of the city, he eventually made new friends. “I realised that I was not the only one who had suffered in the last 25 years of conflict, there were many other such children living with me whose entire families had been wiped off.”
More than a decade later, after completing his graduation from a city college, he returned home and thought of setting up a school in his village. He made it a point to support some orphans from his village by providing them free quality education. At the moment, he supports 7 such orphans from his village, who are getting free education, books and uniform in the school.
Initially he was skeptical about being able to run a school on his own. “Frankly I was afraid of failure,” he says, adding that he also had no teaching experience. “I was just another graduate.” But he was determined to do something for the poor children of his village who could not afford quality education.
He started by visiting some leading schools of the valley in order to learn how they were run. “I also talked to many educationists, experts and scholars and sought their advice,” he says, adding that he also read some literature about school curriculum etc. Then, a year later, he set out to establish the school in his village. Since he didn’t have large finances to construct a school building, his aunt came forward and offered him her building to house the school.
He made some changes insides, demarcating classrooms, procuring furniture, before he went door to door in his village, asking parents to trust him with their children. Umar says, given the hard work and dedication of the teachers in the subsequent years, many parents from neighboring villages came up to him, wanting to enroll their children in the school. “Our teachers pay individual attention to each child,” he says. He also says, the school charges only a nominal fee from the students, just enough to cover the teacher salaries. “That reflects in the results when our students do well in exams and other extracurricular activities, like district science exhibition, sports and debate competitions in which our students participate, compete with other big schools and also win prizes.”
Despite this, sometimes his friends are skeptical and encourage him to leave his village, but he remains undeterred. Focused only on running his school smoothly, “I’m just trying my best to give quality education to our kids here despite our limited resources,” he says. “And in future, hopefully with the help of our people and our well wishers, we would like to acquire some land and construct a proper school building.”
Twenty years have passed since his father’s death, but his memories are still fresh and while the scars are yet to heal, Umar now has a reason to move forward. “I want to keep him alive through this school.”