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Kashmir: what you and I can do?
By Yoginder Sikand

Few people can outshine the Kashmiris in hospitality and kindness, despite the horrendous sufferings that they have had to undergo in the course of more than a decade now. Fifty thousand Kashmiris are said to have lost their precious lives and scores more maimed for good, widowed, raped and orphaned.
Not a day passes without a mention in the newspapers (generally tucked away in some obscure corner) of at least one Kashmiri having been done to death in cold blood. Yet, call it typical Indian amnesia or a total lack of concern, few Indians seem to be really perturbed by the continuing and seemingly never-ending deaths of civilians in the area.

In the past five years I have paid more than ten visits to Kashmir, and each time I go there I see the same helplessness, the same fear, and yet the same determination writ large on the faces of its hapless people. But there is little that ordinary Kashmiris seem able to do, as sinister, anonymous forces in Islamabad and New Delhi dictate their fate. A state government with little or no popular support and an unaccountable, notoriously corrupt administration have seen to it that development, welfare and relief work have come to an almost complete stand-still. Widows, orphans and the injured have little recourse for help, and with economic activity being so badly affected, craftsmen, house-boat owners and people dependent on the tourist trade have been reduced to penury.

The last time I was in Kashmir--five months ago--I was working with a friend in compiling a directory of social work and non-governmental organizations in the Kashmir valley. The idea of compiling such a directory had struck us when, after a random search on the Internet, we discovered, much to our surprise (and horror) that not a single such organization was listed. This only confirmed what numerous Kashmiri friends and respondents had told me on my previous visits--that few, if any, established NGOs were working in the region. We have, it seemed to me, a veritable NGO industry in India, raking in crores of rupees every year, and yet almost none of the big-wigs among them had considered extending their services to Kashmir, where they were needed most. Was it because most Kashmiris and most victims of the violence there are Muslims, I asked myself? Was it because of any restrictions imposed by the government? Was it for fear of the wrath of the State? I have no answers, but it seems to me that the absence of any major initiatives from Indian NGOs in Kashmir reflects the way many Indians see the Kashmir question--as a real estate dispute, coveting the land but conveniently dispensing with its people.

In preparing our directory, we travelled to various parts of Kashmir, to small towns and little villages tucked away high in the mountains. We came across numerous local-level initiatives started by men and women, working with meagre resources, helping such vulnerable groups as widows and orphans, providing them education, food and occasionally, financial help. Most of these groups were starved for funds and barely managed to survive on the goodwill of friends and neighbours. Lacking resources, equipment and training, these local groups can reach only a small number of people, a minuscule proportion of the hundreds of thousands of people who really need urgent help.

One takes it as a fact that the State and the administration are incapable, even if they wanted to, to address the pressing problems of relief and rehabilitation in Kashmir. Despite this, there is much that could be done at the local level by private individuals and groups to reach out to the victims of violence. First and foremost, information about existing local-level relief groups needs to be widely disseminated, and that is what we intended our directory to help do. People and agencies who are in a position to help these groups can establish contact with them and launch various programmes. I recall meeting a director of a leading NGO in Delhi, who said that she wished to start a project in Kashmir but had no idea of any local groups she could work with. Information on these groups, then, is the first step, through which links could be established with other organizations, both inside and outside Kashmir, and relief and development programmes started. Such programmes must, however, have no hidden political agenda, an obvious point but one which needs to be stressed, I fear, given the widely-held, though mistaken, assumption, that economic development is an alternative to a political solution to the Kashmir dispute.

During my travels in Kashmir I have met numerous young men and women actively engaged in relief work of some sort or the other. Typically, such work takes the form of blood donation or collecting money for a child whose parents have been shot dead or providing a sewing machine to a woman whose husband has gone 'missing' for years and is presumed to have been killed. Clearly, such charitable works have their own place and importance, but they cannot substitute for organized, community-level initiatives on a wider scale. There, however, seem to be almost no such organizations in Kashmir.

This is hardly surprising--Kashmir University, Srinagar, the only university in the Valley, boasts of a Department of Business Management which churns out tens of graduates every year trained for jobs in a modern industrial sector that is barely existent in the region, while it has no similar Department of Social Work. Given the almost total absence of professionally-run NGOs in Kashmir, few social workers I have met there seem to know anything about how an organized NGO is to be run, how resources can be generated and how relief and rehabilitation work can be done on a wider and more effective scale. A simple, yet immensely helpful, way in which established NGOs could assist in this regard is by inviting young Kashmiris engaged in some form of social work to spend some time with them in order to gain an understanding of fund-raising, and project formulation and implementation.

A small example would make the point clearer. A friend of mine from Srinagar recently came down to Bangalore to be with me for a month. While in Kashmir, he and some of his friends would collect money from their relatives and use it to buy medicines and clothes for widows and orphans. While in Bangalore, he visited numerous local NGOs engaged in a variety of development programmes. He spent a week at a rural development project in Andhra Pradesh, three days with a Dalit activist group and a fortnight at a tribal school in Kerala. He is now back in Srinagar, and is in the process of starting an NGO to work among orphan children. 'I would never have known how to go about it had I not spent all that time with groups in the south', he writes to me in his latest letter.

Setting up new organizations may be necessary in a region where NGOs are almost non-existent (we managed to make a list of just 34 groups for the whole Valley), but so also is the need for a revival of traditional charitable institutions. Kashmir's numerous Sufi shrines can play a major role in this regard. Almost every locality and village in Kashmir has a shrine built over the grave of a Sufi preceptor. Traditionally, Sufi lodges (khanqahs) were centres of religious instruction, in addition to providing relief and help to the poor, in the form of education and free food in community kitchens (langars). Today, they are, for the most part, mere centres of mediation, where people go to ask for the saints' intercession with God to have their requests granted. Few, if any, run community kitchens or engage in any other form of community service. Devout believers donate large sums to the shrines, but as to how these resources are used is any one's guess. How these resources could be used to help the poor and alleviate their suffering is an issue that urgently needs to be addressed. If the Sufis themselves dedicated their lives to the service of the poor, tragic indeed it is that the custodians of their shrines seem, by and large, concerned more about filling their own purses than anything else.

Another major institution that has its command over resources extending into crores of rupees is the Jammu and Kashmir Awqaf Trust. The Trust, a creation of Shaikh Abdullah, administers numerous Muslim endowments all over the state. Its functioning, I have been told, leaves much to be desired. Stories of political interference, nepotism and corruption in the Trust are too numerous to recount here. The Trust seems to be doing precious little to help the victims of violence in the region. Granting small stipends to widows and orphans, one of the few relief programmes actually undertaken by the Trust, may indeed be a valuable service but such charity can hardly take the place of development initiatives, such as setting up schools, orphan homes, industrial training centres and such like. 'If the Vaishno Devi Temple Trust in Jammu can start a university, why can't the Awqaf, with much more funds at its disposal, do so, too?', is a point that I have repeatedly heard being made.

Resources for funding social work projects can also be generated locally from zakat funds. Zakat, a tithe payable by all Muslims whose wealth exceeds a basic minimum, is one of the five 'pillars' of Islam. I have no idea how many Kashmiris regularly pay their zakat, but many Muslim organizations elsewhere have experimented with new ways of using zakat funds, which could be adopted in Kashmir as well. Rather than distributing the money to individuals in need, it could be paid into community-controlled local level zakat committees (bait-ul mals) which, in turn, could use the resources to start education and training schemes and income-generation projects for the needy.

Self-help cannot absolve the State of its responsibility of providing essential services to those who need them most, nor can relief or economic development take the place of a political solution to the Kashmir dispute, but yet, in the absence of any meaningful and sincere efforts of the State, there is much, as I have stressed, that ordinary individuals, both in Kashmir as well as outside, can do to help relieve the suffering of thousands of hapless Kashmiris. All it takes is a modicum of time and effort and bucket-loads of enthusiasm and concern.

Copies of the Directory of Social Work Organizations in Kashmir, prepared by the author may be had by sending Rs.8 in the form of unused postage stamps or by money order, to: HIMAYAT c/o Yoginder Sikand, 4304 Oakwood Apts.,8th Main, 1st Cross, Koramangala-III, Bangalore-560034.
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