Kashmir bypoll: Burnt walls of Budgam schools reminder of normalcy being a distant dream

Nasrullahpora, Budgam: The government middle school in Nasrullahpora village in Budgam district functioned from a rented building. The ugly structure and second home to hundreds of students was going to be one of the polling station for Srinagar parliamentary constituency. When the arsonists, on the intervening night of Sunday, set the classrooms on fire,  Nida Hameed, a seventh class student at the school, watched the horror unfolding from her room.

“This was the place were we learnt to dream, it was not just a building,” Nida, 15, told Firstpost on Thursday morning, inside her house in Nasrullahpora village as she flipped through her notebooks. “With the fire my dreams went up in flames,”she said.

A polling station in a school in Budgam. Firstpost/ Sameer Yasir

A polling station in a school in Budgam. Firstpost/ Sameer Yasir

Nida wants to study law, go to a “big university” outside Kashmir, as the education scenario remains abysmal here. The teachers, she says, were comparatively better then the other government schools. And she loved playing koh koh with her friends inside the lawns of her school.

Now, the burnt walls of the school on the second story of the building and many others throughout the central and south Kashmir serve as a constant reminder of how educational institutions have become the new causality of this brutal conflict.

“It is heartbreaking and painful to see these burnt rooms,” says Nisar Ahmad, 35, a teacher at the government middle school Nasrullahpora. “It is like burning the future of our children and whom can we blame for this destruction, no one, but us,” he added.

Despite three decades of conflict in Kashmir valley, education had remained conflict-neutral till 2016 when unidentified men had started appearing in different areas of south Kashmir and razed more than 36 school buildings to the ground. The state government wanted to re-open schools to portray the return of normalcy after months of unrest in the valley following the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen Burhan Wani on 9 June. The unrest had left close to hundred of people dead and thousands injured.

Amid the perpetual closure of schools, government made appeals to parents asking them to send their children to schools. Later, the government passed a diktat to the teachers asking them to remain present in their respective schools during official hours but the class work in schools didn’t resume in the absence of students. However, as some government schools started silently opening the doors for children, arsonists started burning them down. The underlying massage was clear, the opening of the school was not acceptable, as it symbolized the return of normalcy.

But that was not the case on Sunday. instead, the Election Commission had decided to use school buildings for polling booths, and days ahead of the polling scores of schools in central and south Kashmir remained occupied by paramilitary forces taking a toll not just on academics, but also made these buildings soft targets. The prolonged occupation made these schools vulnerable to attacks of stone pelting.

“That is precisely the reason why many of the schools became target,” Haseeb Lone, a teacher in Government High School Bamurada, said. “All of these schools were hosting polling booths, staff and security forces. People just did not wanted to attack them but also damage the schools.”

The unprecedented violence that erupted on election day on Sunday left eight people dead and hundreds others injured and with them more 33 schools were either fully or partially damaged in Budgam district.

“We had requested but the deployment and accommodation of paramilitary forces is under the jurisdiction of Election Commission of India. It is not just loss of educational activity but more than that as we saw on Sunday,” Minister for Education, Syed Muhammad Altaf Bukhari, told Firstpost. “Many schools might remain occupied till 15 of this month,” he added.

The government high school in Bamurada village is locked from outside, the burnt walls of once a happening place, tells you the tales of the brutalisation of Kashmir. Its walls are terrifying and a frightening silence has overtaken the neighbourhood. It will take months, if not years, for this building to come to life.

“As if we were not suffering enough, now the children too have to suffer,” Ali Mohammad Wani, 52, a resident and a retired government employee, tells Firstpost. “It is a curse”.

The middle schools in Nasrullahpora village were perhaps the first schools to be burnt down. People were supposed to cast their democratic vote on the next day. But that day as a local newspaper put it aptly become the ‘black day for democracy.’

The Chief Educational Officer (CEO) Budgam, Inderjeet Sharma, says more than the infrastructural damage, it is the psychological one that would take months now to heal. “We have reports that more then 30 schools have been burnt or damaged by protesters. It is a heavy price we are paying in just a few months.”

On Thursday, as the repoll was being carried out here, intense clashes broke out in the village after protesters attempted to march towards a polling station.

Sunday elections have given rise to a new Budgam, which despite decades of poverty and underdevelopment had never risen against the state and participated in droves, unlike any other district, even during the heydays of the militancy in electoral process. But the streets and bylines of this district today symbolise a new rage, and a changed town.

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Updated Date: Apr 16, 2017 17:38:54 IST