The bus crawled, negotiating sharp curves, towards a destination I had never seen before. The evening sun gave way to shades of darkness, hiding steep valleys and a huge mountain range from the view. We were approaching the Pir Panjal mountain range, which separates Jammu and the rest of India from the picturesque valley of Kashmir. In a couple of hours, the bus would cross the Jawahar tunnel (Banihal road tunnel), located at a height of 2,194 metres, to enter a new territory - a landscape of heavenly beauty and endless bloodshed.
Leaving behind steep terrains and a treacherous mountain pass, the bus dropped us in Srinagar, the largest city and summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir Union Territory the next morning. We had the first glimpses of the uneasiness and uncertainty of life in Kashmir while travelling from the bus station towards the city centre. It was the fourth consecutive day of a shutdown called by the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an alliance of social, political and religious organisations pressing for the cause of Kashmir’s separation from India. The shutdown call was in response to the alleged killing of a young man by security forces during a protest march. Meanwhile, the state government clamped a curfew in downtown Srinagar. The main street and its arteries, adorned by Chinar trees on both sides, were empty except for a couple of pedestrians and cyclists. Carrying AK-47s and Self Loading Rifles, security personnel were patrolling all the major junctions on the way to our place of stay.
“Don't get scared of this,” young Hameed would say with a smile, a few minutes later, while helping us to settle down in a small room in the centre of the town. Coming from the nearby district of Budgam, 19-year-old Hameed has experienced the fragile nature of peace in the valley. Having finished his higher secondary schooling, Hameed is working for an NGO to support his family. He is going to guide us during our journeys across the lengths and breadths of the valley. Pleasantly speaking in Urdu minced with Hindi, Hameed would often express his dislike towards the current governance and security apparatus. “All are thieves, these politicians and police. Nobody trusts them,” he said with a hopeless look.
It was Hameed who took us to Daarul Ehsan, a boys’ home on the outskirts of Srinagar. Founded by a city-based NGO, Daarul Ehsan is one of the few institutions of that kind working in the valley to secure the future of conflict-affected children. Most of the boys in this institution are from the Baramulla and Kupwara districts of northern Kashmir, two major centres of armed conflict in the valley. “The background of conflict scares the parents so that they are reluctant to send their children to school. This affects the future of society as a whole,” said Adv. Hanjoora, founder of the Islamic Relief and Research Organisation which runs Daarul Ehsan. His claims are validated by the research carried out by the Working Group on Peace, Conflict and Education of Columbia University. This study found that ‘out of the thirty schools randomly selected for the research across the valley, 79% were at a distance of less than 1 km from the nearest military camp/bunker’. The report further claimed that some of the schools shared a common border with the camps. As many as 20% of the schools were just 2-3 kilometers away from the nearest military camp and 1% was partially occupied by the troops.
“Our children are born hearing gunshots,” Rasheed Ahmmed, a Srinagar resident, told us later about the fragile nature of peace in the valley. Even though Kashmir enjoyed relative peace during the period spanning from 1947- 1989, the advent of insurgency, often financed by cross-border guardians, brought onto its soil a large number of military and paramilitary forces, transforming Kashmir into one of the most militarised areas in the world. The last 25 years have seen numerous incidents of violence and human rights violations from the sides of both the militants and the military. Militants often use ordinary villagers as a human shield to fight their shadow war and this results in a large number of civilian casualties. Armed forces in Kashmir enjoy special powers to do search and arrest operations with the help of two draconian laws - the Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA) and the Public Safety Act (PSA) - which have invited wrath from civil society activists across the country for their misuses. Sandwiched between the devil and the sea, ordinary Kashmiris live an uncertain life in the middle of tremendous natural beauty.
A study in 2012 by the UK-based organisation Save the Children revealed that the estimated number of orphans in Jammu and Kashmir is 2, 14,000 and 37 percent of them became orphans because of armed conflict. “We are trying to give a new future to the children from conflict-affected areas. They all have aims and ambitions and are hopeful about life. Here they can laugh and play and study and lead a comfortable life unlike the thousands of orphan children in Kashmir,” Adv. Hanjoora said about Daarul Ehsan. Walking towards the playground in front of the small two-story building that houses the boys’ home, a boy came running towards Hameed asking him for his regular gift of chocolate. It was Maqsood Hamid from Kupwara. Just 10 years old and an orphan, he lost his parents at the very beginning of his life. Living in Srinagar far away from home has been difficult for him in the beginning. But now, he has earned new friends and enjoys living and playing with them. “I wish to be a doctor,” he revealed his ambition adding that he also wishes to be a cricketer.
The psychological effects of conflicts on ordinary citizens, especially children, have been a topic of wide research across the world. According to a research paper published by Farooq A. Rather in the International Journal of Scientific and Research Publications, the number of patients who visited Srinagar’s lone psychiatric hospital saw an increase of 250-300 per day in 2000 from 6 persons per day in 1990. “In a conflict zone, the first affected would be children and education. Psychological pressure on children in the valley is very high. This affects their academic career and future. Due to curfews and shutdowns, schools often get closed. Education of girls is the most affected area in Kashmir,” said Prof. Nazeem Rafiabadi of Kashmir University, Srinagar.
It was another journey to Baramulla, the heavily militarised border district, that gave us insights into the often neglected issue of education of girl children. Located at a distance of 55km from Srinagar, Baramulla is the fourth largest city in Jammu and Kashmir state. Its proximity to the Line of Control (LoC) has made it a centre point of insurgency and counter-insurgency actions. Militarization has made its biggest impact in this region, especially on the education of girls. Mufzina was just three years old when her father left home to look for a job. No one in the village ever heard about him after that. Her young mother has been forced to live her entire life waiting for her husband. She couldn't marry another person without knowing the whereabouts of her husband. The entire village would have damned her if she did that. Without the death certificate of the husband, she couldn't avail of any government benefit. In between the game of life and death, she became a half-widow, with the future of Mufzina in her hands. Mufzina’s future wouldn't have grown beyond that remote village if a few social activists hadn’t seen her plight. Looking at the pictures of birds and animals in her textbook, Mufzina is now safe in her classroom, away from the sounds of gunfights.