That which dies when a teacher is killed

At a time when the age of violence has reduced death to just a number to be added to the official statistics, we will soon forget Rajni Bala, the 36-year-old teacher who was shot by terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir’s Kulgam district. And possibly, because of our psychic and spiritual impoverishment, many of us will plead for yet another form of violence — militarism as an answer to terrorism. However, it is really difficult to understand what it means when violence enters the corridors of a school, and children, irrespective of their religious identities, see their affectionate teacher killed by terrorists. The reason is that we have almost forgotten to value the healing power of education or say, the possibility in an act of communion between a “Hindu” teacher and “Muslim” students. As the terrorists kill Rajni Bala, they try to kill this emancipatory possibility. Because terrorism is essentially a despiritualised and nihilistic act; it instils fear and negates the art of communication. Like any other extremist doctrine, it cannot go beyond the violence of stereotyping “enemies”.

However, as a teacher, it is exceedingly difficult for me to forget Rajni Bala. Nor can I find some sort of vicarious pleasure in consuming a counter-narrative like this — “Two Jaish-e-Muhammad militants were shot dead in the anti-militancy operation in Pulwama”! In fact, the vicious cycle of violence and counter-violence further brutalises our consciousness, and takes us nowhere. Furthermore, as a teacher, I have learned what toxic militants or non-reflexive generals often fail to understand — the realization of our shared humanity is the ultimate gift of meaningful and dialogic education; and a classroom, unlike the battlefield, can take us to the fusion of horizons. For instance, in my class, I have seen bright and sensitive Kashmiri “Muslim” students; we have walked together, and learned and unlearned together. Neither the terrorists nor the militaristic state can conceive of this possibility. And hence, as I feel, the killing of Rajni Bala ought to disturb all those who value the healing power of education.

Imagine that traumatic morning on May 31. She was just about to enter the school; children were ready for the assembly and then, they saw their teacher being shot and killed. Possibly, these children were waiting eagerly for this history teacher to illuminate their minds; Possibly, Mrs Bala too was waiting for the moment that every genuine teacher loves — the art of discovering what Khalil Gibran said – Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself. But then, terrorism, even if it wears the uniform of some religion or other, has no religiosity; it is against life; it moves towards collective suicide. And those wonderful children who were about to begin their morning prayers, as every good teacher would like to believe, are still endowed with creative possibilities, the possibilities that gave us a mystic like Jalaluddin Rumi, a peace activist like Martin Luther King (Jr) , or a singer like John Lennon. And terrorists are afraid of these possibilities.

As they kill Rajni Bala, they seek to convey a message to these children: Abhor all noble dreams; negate the spirit of dialogue and communication; your teacher can be your enemy; and accept that violence is normal, inevitable and desirable for creating a “free” land. In fact, unless these children are adequately counseled, loved and nurtured by great teachers, many of them might become emotionally crippled and psychologically wounded. When extremist violence, encounter deaths and targeted killings pollute the cultural environment and cause widespread fear, suspicion and broken communication, will it be possible to imagine the praxis of liberating education?

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Rajni Bala was not a celebrity. And even though all major political personalities in Kashmir — from Mehbooba Mufti to Omar Abdullah — condemned this terrorist act, she would soon be forgotten. And possibly, representatives of the Indian state would arrange yet another press conference, and give us the new statistics — the number of terrorists arrested or killed, and the way they are dealing with the “Pakistan factor” in this conspiracy against India. The ruling regime with its discourse of hyper-nationalism would continue to convince us that the abrogation of Article 370 was the right step to restore “normalcy” in Kashmir. Meanwhile, Kashmiri Pandits would threaten to undertake mass migration from the Valley if the government does not relocate them to “safe” places.

Amid this rapid flow of events, why should we allow the tragedy of a simple/unknown schoolteacher like Rajni Bala to disturb us? In fact, the privileged ones who live in “mainstream” India would rather love to consume Kashmir as just a tourism spectacle. Amid the instantaneity of social media and the act of sharing their “happy” moments at Dal Lake and Sonamarg, they would possibly thank the brigade of hyper-nationalists sitting in Delhi to restore “normalcy” in the Valley. Or for that matter, our noisy television anchors — the new educators in this toxic age — would ask us to believe that the only answer is heightened militarism or the reduction of the entire territory into a site of surveillance.

However, Rajni Bala was different. She was truly in the “field”. She left her home at Samba district — she was living in a rented house in Kulgam for the past 14 years; and above all, she was a teacher. And despite the psychology of fear that naturally enveloped her being at this time of targeted killings, she was, as my own identity as a teacher makes me believe, trying to accomplish what every sane person should do — seeing children as flowers to bloom, or sowing the seeds of love in that school in a disturbed territory. This was like seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary. No wonder, the terrorists– the bearers of the Thanatos, the death instinct — killed her.

The writer taught sociology at JNU for more than three decades

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