‘I was born in Hindustan. Why do we have to prove our Indianness every time? Would you ask this of a Bihari?’
Six Kashmiri Muslim students belonging to Sarhad, an organisation which brings semi-orphans from strife-torn regions to live and study at their school and college in Pune, share their hopes for their state and their experiences outside it. Jyoti Punwani reports.
They are young Kashmiri Muslims who have lost fathers or close relatives in the unending conflict in the Valley. Some were killed by the army, some by militants.
Yet, it is only when goaded into spelling out their stand on the current azaadi movement in Kashmir, as they were in a press conference in Mumbai's Press Club on Thursday, that they mention their own tragedy.
Their obsession is not azaadi, or the Army's long presence in their state, though the latter is never far from their mind. Their mission is different -- how to get as many youth as they can out of Kashmir so that they can also avail of the opportunities they themselves have.
Six students belonging to Sarhad, an organisation which has been bringing semi-orphans from strife-torn regions such as Punjab and the north-east to live and study at their school and college in Pune, were in Mumbai to share their hopes for Kashmir.
They admitted their aims were limited. But, quoting Rabindranath Tagore, they said that a lamp may not dispel the darkness completely, but it can at least light up its surroundings.
These six have spent their childhood far away from the war zone.
Unlike most Kashmiris, they can read and write not just Hindi, but even Marathi. They help in Ganpati and Dahi Handi celebrations, despite knowing that's forbidden in Islam.
"But we do so from a humanitarian point of view, not from religious," said Zahid Bhatt, a law graduate doing his Masters in Political Science from Pune University.
The message these boys and girls want to convey is simple: Kashmir is not just terrorism or natural beauty.
There are ordinary Kashmiris who have normal aspirations which have never been fulfilled, who neither throw stones nor join the azaadi protesters. And the message they carry when they go home every year is that India is not just the Army and the para-military forces.
There are ordinary Indians who are ready to treat them with affection.
These six students were part of the first batch of 114 students from Kashmir who came to Sarhad in 2003 as children.
Their families sent them with Sarhad's founder Sanjay Nahar because they wanted them to get away from their violent surroundings.
Two of Zahid Bhatt's uncles were shot by the Army; the 12-year-old had started talking of taking to the gun.
Mushtaq Khoja's father was killed by the security forces; his family committed him to Sanjay Nahar's care when he was just 7.
He hails from Dardpura, a village separated from Pakistan by just one mountain and one river.
The journey to Pune from their villages was traumatic, recalls Rubina Mir from Kupwara, who was just 5 then.
"I had only been told that I was being taken to Srinagar. I cried all the way to Pune and for months after that,'' she recalls.
She and Nasreen Bano, who's from Kargil and a year older, were kept together in the train, yet they could not communicate with each other because their languages were different.
Language became the biggest barrier in Pune. Those from village schools spoke only Kashmiri. To add to their bewilderment was Pune's climate, its buildings, its traffic. Perhaps the biggest adjustment was the food, which was not only vegetarian but completely different.
Most of the children came down with chicken pox and other skin diseases.
It took them six months to settle down.
"Sanjay sir and his wife treated us like their own children. And our teachers were very nice, teaching us Hindi with so much patience," recalls Rubina.
Dilbar Khwaja, a student of their batch, this year scored 89% in Marathi, they say.
"A Kashmiri scoring so much in Marathi, imagine!" They can barely hide their pride.
Not everything about Pune was unpleasant, though.
Javed Wani recalls the amazement he felt at not seeing a single gun on the streets. "Even the policemen didn't carry guns,'' he remembers telling his family on the phone. "And no one stopped us and asked for ID cards when we stepped out!"
"We couldn't believe that six months could pass without a single bandh,'' says Zahid. "Back home, every week there used to be a call for a strike. It took us time to get used to living in an open society.''
If Pune was another world to them, they found that Kashmir was also alien to the average Punekar.
At first, parents in Pune didn't want to send their children to a school where 114 Kashmir children had been admitted.
Zahid Bhatt recalls being told off when he accidentally collided with someone on a public bus: "You outsiders come to our city and bully us."
"I am not an outsider, I am from Kashmir," Zahid replied in Marathi.
"Of course you're an outsider; Kashmir is in Afghanistan."
While villagers were even more ignorant about Kashmir, Rubina found even her classmates in college (she's in Standard XI) vague about Kashmir's location, her language and her head scarf.
With Sarhad, they toured Maharashtra, living with locals, specially those notoriously averse to Muslims and to Kashmiri Muslims.
"After living with them for a few days, these people would tell us how mistaken they had been. Our mindsets also began changing," they recounted.
"For most Kashmiris, Jammu is all they know outside the Valley. Beyond that is India, and India for them is the army and para military forces. We discovered a different India.''
The first few times they went home, they were looked upon with suspicion by their neighbours.
"Have they converted you," was the commonest question.
Ironically, as Zahid said, "I barely knew how to do namaaz when I left my village. It was a maulana in Pune who was called by Sarhad to teach me everything about Islam.''
However, after some years, the suspicion changed to envy.
"My classmates dropped out of school; some work as drivers despite being educated,'' revealed Javed.
"My village has three PhDs; seeing them jobless, 40 other youth decided to drop out of college,'' said Mushtaq.
Javed, who is pursuing his Bachelors degree, ascribes much of Kashmir's unrest to joblessness.
"Given our climate, pharmaceutical industries could have been set up. Apples are plentiful; we could've had fruit processing factories. The government keeps claiming it's invested huge amounts in Kashmir. Where have the crores gone?''
According to them, the hopeless employment situation in Kashmir makes most youngsters long for jobs in India -- not Pakistan, they point out.
"From the security guards at Srinagar airport to the youngsters in villages -- all beseech us with 'tell us if you know of any openings in India'. They come to study in Bengaluru, Bhopal, Pune, no one goes to Karachi. Whoever's got the chance, has proved himself in India. Unfortunately, Kashmiri students are not welcome everywhere. If you reject them, where will they go, and what do you think they will do?"
As you talk to them, it becomes clear that it's not just the lack of jobs that agitates them. The lack of "dignity" angers them as much.
The constant checking of ID cards by the security forces when they go home; and when they are outside Kashmir, the frequent questions about whether they want to be with India, are things they find intolerable.
Rubina left her village this time after Ramzan Eid, amid the ongoing unrest. There were no buses to Srinagar; she had to take an ambulance at night.
They were stopped by security forces frequently, and once even made to get off since there was no patient among them. "I showed them my ID card, told them I had to go back to college; but they refused to believe me. The journey took the entire night."
Zahid recalls a similar brush with the police in interior Maharashtra. "My university ID card was not enough for them. Finally, I was taken to the police station. It's such things that can make teenagers hate India.''
Even at the press conference in Mumbai, a journalist asked Javed in private whether he wanted to remain with Hindustan.
"What does he mean? I was born in Hindustan. Would you ask this of a Bihari? Why do we have to prove our Indianness every time?"
But their years in Sarhad have given them a grounding so solid that none of this moves them from their goal: to bring as many youth as they can to Sarhad so that they can experience the India like they have.
"If Burhan Wani had just stepped out beyond Jammu and lived anywhere in India, he wouldn't have become a militant,'' says Javed.
Their long term goal is to go back and work in Kashmir, where Sarhad has centres. Javed wants to become a lecturer; Manzoor Bashir, who's doing his Masters in English Literature, is a choreographer and dancer; he has also made a short film and acted in it.
"There is no dearth of talent in Kashmir; it just needs to be brought forward,'' says Manzoor, whose father, a policeman, was killed by militants.
These youngsters, who are on a Jago Bharat yatra across Maharashtra, have no solution to the current unrest, for according to them, none of those who have the power to resolve the crisis want to do so.
"How come that despite the presence of the army everywhere, a Kashmiri can get a gun in 24 hours? Who is supplying these weapons and why are they not being stopped," asks Javed.
"Everyone knows what's going on in Kashmir; we sometimes feel they want it to go on."
Hence, their conviction that it's apolitical people like themselves who can make a difference to the youth.