Insha Mustaq, 16, had always wanted to study medicine but when she was blinded in both eyes by pellets fired by the Indian army at protesters in Indian-administered Kashmir in 2016, she gave up that ambition and chose music instead. The BBC’s Abid Bhat spoke to her after she passed crucial exams about her journey over the last 18 months.
“This is the happiest I have felt in a long time,” says Ms Mushtaq, her eyes masked by the black sunglasses she wears.
“This is no less than a miracle,” her father, Mushtaq Ahmad Lone, adds.
“She has made all of us so proud. It’s a great achievement considering the trauma she had to go through.”
On the evening of 11 July 2016, Ms Mushtaq had heard loud noises and opened one of the windows in her house in a village in Shopian district to look outside. She was immediately hit by pellets, causing her to lose her vision in both eyes.
She spent the next three months in and out of hospitals hoping to regain her sight but nothing worked.
An ambitious student, when she spoke to the BBC in 2016, she had flipped through her text books in despair, tearfully adding, “I can only feel them now.”
And now, despite her exam result, she still has a lot to think about. “I wanted to study medicine but that won’t be possible now,” she says, adding that she has not decided what to do as an alternative.
She appeared for the exam in November 2017, a little more than a year since her blinding. An “examination helper,” another student from a lower class, was selected by authorities to read the questions aloud and write the answers that Ms Mushtaq dictated.
Her success has made her the talk of her village but for a positive reason this time. Family, friends, neighbours and reporters have been flocking to her home to congratulate her since the results were announced on Tuesday evening.
‘Face of a tragedy’
Ms Mushtaq’s injuries made her the face of a tragedy that sparked international outrage and led to criticism over what many called India’s “disproportionate reaction” to civilian protests.
Security forces used “pellet guns”, a kind of shotgun, against the protesters. The Indian army had said that the pellets, made of rubber-encased steel, were not lethal.
But the pellets killed dozens of people and injured more than 1,500 others – bystanders, including children, were often caught in the crossfire. Many suffered severe eye injuries.
Ms Mushtaq was among the hundreds who were injured in the clashes against Indian rule.
Kashmir has been a flashpoint between India and Pakistan for more than 60 years, sparking two wars between the nuclear-armed neighbours. Both countries claim the region in its entirety but only control portions of it.
Delhi blames Pakistan for inciting violence in Indian-administered Kashmir, a charge denied by Islamabad.
Ms Mushtaq’s injuries made headlines because she lost vision in both her eyes. The extent of her trauma made it unimaginable that she would be able to finish her studies, let alone pass her tenth standard examination.
“If she was killed, I would have been able to overcome the grief but the sight of her blinded eyes kills me every day,” Mr Lone told the BBC in 2016, while showing pictures of his daughter in the hospital ICU.
Doctors treating pellet gun wounds in Kashmir at the time told the Indian Express newspaper the pellets used were “more irregular” and with “sharp edges”, causing more damage to the eyes.
After several rounds of unsuccessful surgeries to improve her sight, she says she chose to focus on her future.
When she had to choose between music and mathematics, she says she picked the former because as much as she liked math, she believed it would have been “harder” for her because of her blindness.
She started studying while recuperating at home. “I faced a lot of difficulties,” she told BBC Hindi.
“My teacher had to repeat everything at least four times for me to remember something. And still I would forget.”
Before she was hurt, she says, she had no trouble memorising her lessons. “Sometimes she would get irritated and say she doesn’t want to study,” her tutor, Muzaffar Bhat, told the BBC.
“Then I would stop and talk to her about something else to relax her. I had to be more patient with her but she did well. She did really well. She passed the exams with sheer willpower and hard work.”
Additional reporting by Majid Jahangir.