As part of my Masters programme, I was placed with Borderless World Foundation in Kupwara, Kashmir for the block placement in April-May 2010. The organisation runs homes for girl children in three districts – Kupwara, Budgam and Anantnag. They had also started a home in Jammu by then and had started with the intention of caring for those girls who were half-orphans and were more vulnerable due to the militant situation in the region.
Having decided to launch community initiatives, the organisation focused on Emergency Medical Services and Vocational Training Programme. The student team from the College of Social Work, Nirmala Niketan was required to conduct surveys in the community regarding the aforesaid. The six students were divided into two teams. The teams were accompanied by students who were doing social work from the region as they could help us overcome the language barrier.
The first day was allotted to plan out the logistics of the survey. In the presence of local students, the team decided on the districts to be covered and the villages to be covered in the respective districts. To be precise, the districts were chosen by random sampling, the villages by convenient sampling and the respondents by snowball sampling. Each day, three villages had to be covered and 25 respondents had to be interviewed in each of the villages.
With the survey taking shape on one hand, the other exciting part was to build a rapport with the children in the home where we stayed. The biggest challenge we faced was to remember all their names – Shahida (3 of them), Isharat, Jamila, Afrooza (2 of them), Heena, Rubina, Tahera, Musrat, Nazma, Yasmina, Rabia and so on and so forth. They were 53 in all. As the children came to know that we were visiting different villages, some of them wanted to come along on the days when we went to their villages. It was later that we came to know that they actually wanted us to visit their places. Handling their possessiveness was quite a task. It would upset them if we did not remember their names. That was the sensitivity we had to deal with. Rehearsing sessions with the girls to wear the ‘chunni’ in the typical Kashmiri-style helped us a lot to mingle with them. Their intrigue about other cultures and their respect for our taste of food comforted us. They were as curious as us to know one and another’s way of life.
Most of all, I loved teaching the kids. Remembering squares of numbers up to 20 was so surprising for them. I was not happy with the way they were taught Mathematics in their schools. All the children wanted to speak English fluently. But how would they if it’s taught like a subject and not like a language? The survey on teacher training programme which was originally part of the tasks to be accomplished made more sense after having seen this.
In the field, it was all walk, talk, write and travelling back. Travelling in the buses was quite an experience – seeming to lead to an anesthesia like what their Director had earlier described to us. Although clad in their style of dressing, we were clearly outsiders, among the very few women who could be seen in public places. It got worse when I used to read on the bus. I was reading at that time ‘Three Cups of Tea’. The stares I got were unimaginable. At the end of it, we were used to it and also liked it.
Collecting information from the respondents was difficult only in 4 villages out of 45. Some of them refused to sit for the interview, while some walked out of the focused group discussion when their names were called for. May be it was because they were tired of interviews taken before – therefore, an informal talk had to precede the questions. Interestingly, some respondents joined the group after hearing some of the questions. This was when it struck us – the people here had answered too many surveys, most of which hardly had a follow up. The way in which some of the respondents answered, it seemed like they were tired of answering the questions, as it happened with the farmers who were under the Integrated Agricultural Development Programme. Although disappointing, wasn’t it quite natural to feel so? There was another incident where a man called up his friend in Sulkoote to verify if there was a home for girls (Baseera-e-Tabassum). That was a very responsible gesture I thought, wasn’t it? My friends commented that they were skeptical about our intentions. This is something that would happen anywhere. Unexpectedly, the local students who should have shared my view opined that the people there were like that only.
Besides these encounters, there was something that scared us – that a colleague of ours Mehman Nawazi had spoken about in his mail wishing us for Holi. He warned us on day one that it could get claustrophobic sometimes, and it did… many times! We just could not decline and move off. 12 cups of tea with biscuits and snacks was the max we could accommodate for a single day. One of the women whom we met, Khonum Aunty appreciated our work and promised to read Quran for us every day. In Hayatpora, the old man whom we met facilitated the entire survey there. He blessed us for being a part of such an initiative. My friend said, ‘we have touched people’s hearts’.
Amidst all the exciting work, we had the military vans driving past us – which reminded us that we were in ‘Kashmir’. Why can’t things just be normal here? Haven’t the people here already experienced enough? It reminded me of what one of the founders had said during our first meet “working in Kashmir is very much different from working for Kashmir”. It all seemed weird. As I was trying to comprehend further, the local students asked me what I thought about Article 370. Certainly, knowing about it and living according to it were miles apart, seemed like it gave the centre an excuse for not functioning properly. It got more tempting to discuss all that I had read about the situation here, but thankfully, I remembered that I was an ‘outsider’– the one that Robert Chambers describes precisely. Why can’t I accept the situation as it is?
All these questions in mind became more prominent when I heard one of the local students talking rudely to one of the girls in the home – because she wanted to pursue singing and had failed in class X exams. I reacted and told him that he was conservative too – which I shouldn’t have done. In fact, I completely agree with what he said… ‘Finish schooling properly and focus on other things’. But he was not ready to accept that some students just can’t study – it could be due to lack of interest or capacity. I wasn’t being professional when I reacted. At the end of the day, I apologised. Sometimes, we are very likely to rush our ways to say that someone else was wrong. He said that ‘we have seen a lot of people from India. They don’t quite understand our way of life here and what our priorities are’. It was then that I realised that I was partially wrong. I have always believed that reading about a community before working there would lead to preoccupations due to which I may not be able to grasp things straight from the field; I felt I would become too opinionated. That day, I realised that reading before could yield information that is very crucial to build rapport, going beyond the image of an outsider.
I once got into a shop to get change for hundred bucks, the notes given were so worn off that I asked for another… the shopkeeper said, “ye aapke Hindustan se hi aatha hai.” I remembered the founders’ words again. I only gave him a smile and moved away. When we visited a government middle school in Pathpora, the teachers there got a little emotional and said that nothing would change until the political situation stabilises and the politicians become more responsible. When we shared this with our supervisor, he said, ‘yaha kisi ke ghar me dal jal gaya, thab bhi politicians ko hi blame karthe hein’. That statement was a little disturbing. I could not infer what he actually meant. I rather grew more apprehensive about how the people would manage their state if they were given the independence they seek from India and Pakistan. Strangely, I remembered one of my school friends who said that India without Kashmir would look like a body without head. Why can’t it happen if it could bring peace to the people here? Greg Mortenson’s words were very true, ‘it all looks simple from outside’.
On the ninth day of the survey, my father made a frantic call… having seen the news on violence in Kupwara. ‘The media would not report that the people here slept peacefully’, said our supervisors. Was it only media that could be blamed for the perceptions many people across nations have about Kashmir? My dad was right. When my mother was completely against me coming to Kashmir, and that too for three full weeks, my father just said that there are people over there as well, living their way. But his call was testimony to the fact that there is ‘fear’ associated with going to Kashmir in everybody’s minds.
Besides the survey, there were a lot of observations that I wanted to communicate to the organisation. The communication channels were open and any comments or feedback was welcome. These include issues like hygiene and the role of the Local Coordinator in the homes. The students were given full freedom to mingle with the inmates. The other interesting thing was the session on career options with the older girls in the home. UPSC, law, photography, being an air hostess and music were the options in their minds. We had presented social work as a career option. After enquiring about it, they started shooting questions on their respective areas of interest. The session was unexpectedly long. We shared all the information we knew and gave them some web links from where they could read up later.
The day of report writing had arrived and we realised that we had just another day left. Three weeks had just flown away in a jiffy. The reports were hand-written as there was no power to use technology. I loved that – undoubtedly, there is nothing like a paper and a pen! The entire block experience was so enriching and enlivening. We did not visit any of the tourist spots. But, we visited families and spent time with people. This is what mattered to us at the end of the day. Whenever, we recount our experience in Kashmir, we talk about the people there and not just stop with describing the scenic beauty!