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Return of trust and hope


For the widows and children of Kashmiri militants, who are beyond the reach of government schemes, the Maqbool National Welfare Association offers a chance to start afresh.

The day had started early for Adil and Zubeir, 10-year-old twins. They were not too sure what the occasion was but they knew that they were going all the way to Srinagar. Many people would be gathered there and they were going to recite poetry they h ad been memorising for days on end. But, most importantly for them, there were prizes to be won! They washed themselves with extra care, dressed up in their best clothes and then together with their grandfather made their way to the Shere Kashmir Park in Srinagar, all the way from Uri.

The day had also begun early for Asifa Jan that day. She too was excited — she was going to speak before a large audience on the present status of women. She had been rehearsing her five-minute speech for a long time now. Speaking in English was not easy for her, it made her doubly nervous, but she was excited. Unlike Adil and Zubeir however, 16-year-old Asifa knew why she was going all the way from Khanabal to Srinagar, instead of to school.

A different congregation

The day in Srinagar dawned crisp and clear, with just a nip in the air. And Shere Kashmir Park, usually accustomed to seeing political rallies and meetings, saw a very different event. It was the bi-annual convention of the Maqbool National Welfare Association (MNWA). Set up in 1994 with the specific aim to assist victims of militancy in Kashmir, MNWA has an interesting history. It is the brainchild of Hashim Qureshi — yesteryear’s hijacker, turned today’s philanthropist and activist. Since fact is stranger than fiction, Qureshi, during his tenure in a Pakistan jail after the hijacking, underwent a change of heart and renounced violence. At the same time he “could not bear to see his beloved Kashmir bleed and do nothing” and so MNWA was born.

The first MNWA centre was established in 1994. Qureshi, then in exile in the Netherlands, had come down to Kathmandu and people from Kashmir adhering to his ideology joined him there and MNWA, named after Maqbool Butt, whom Qureshi considered his guru, was established. In a place where NGOs have mushroomed by the dozen, MNWA was one of the first ones to be established for dealing with victims of the conflict — widows and orphans from the families of militants, who were not eligible to receive government aid. Qureshi could not understand why these people had to suffer. Rarely did a militant seek his wife or children’s permission to become one. However, MNWA’s mandate was not just to help these victims, but to empower them with knowledge and skill.

Beginning small

Initially, it was Qureshi’s friends and family who were involved with MNWA. The first three centres were opened in downtown Srinagar — which had been a hotbed of militancy and subsequently had many widows and orphans. The centres taught the women it enrolled, after carefully screening their background, the art of making curtains and cushion covers. Qureshi and his family were also the first ones to buy the products.

Today, the MNWA runs centres in almost all the districts of Kashmir and even in Jammu benefiting more than 15,000 women. In turn, some of its beneficiaries are now training others or running successful enterprises on their own. Thirty-six-year-old Shehzada is one such entrepreneur. Her husband was a militant who had worked with the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). One evening in 1995, her husband was shot dead near their house. Semi-literate, with hardly any exposure beyond home and hearth, she suddenly found herself alone, saddled with two daughters aged two and five, and no income. She approached the JKLF for help but none came. Since her husband had been a militant, she was not eligible to receive government aid either. At a loss to know how to carry on, she heard about MNWA from a neighbour. Shehzada approached the organisation and today she embroiders beautiful shawls and runs her own business. Her daughters’ education, meanwhile, is being sponsored by the MNWA.

Diverse efforts

The MNWA’s other approach is educating orphans. Adil and Zubeir’s father was a member of the Hizbul Mujahidin and died in a shootout. Their mother soon remarried and her new husband refused to accept the twins. Saddled with the twins and no income, their grandfather approached the Hizbul Mujahidin for help but was turned away. He then approached the Hurriyat, who directed him to the MNWA. Today the MNWA pays for the education of the twins.

Then there is Javed from Budgam, the son of a slain militant. The Rajeev Gandhi Association helped Javed study till Class X. After that he was left without any financial assistance. The MNWA helped him get through college and earn a B.Sc. degree. Javed triumphantly announced at the convention that he had recently been appointed a constable in the district police force. Now the MNWA is taking care of the education of his younger sister.

Photos: Aditi Bhaduri

Foundation for a new life: At one of the MNWA training centres (left) and the bi-annual convention.

It was to share these stories of empowerment, survival and success, as also to stress the importance of education and women’s financial empowerment and independence, that the beneficiaries of MNWA had gathered that day at the Shere Kashmir Park. For those like little Adil and Zubeir, and even the teenagers present, it was more like a long-awaited picnic — stories were told, poetry was recited, songs were sung, prizes were won, and all followed by a good lunch. But it was their stories that were far more important. The meet gave those numerous women, and some men, gathered there a great deal of confidence in themselves. It raised their self-esteem, reinforced and bolstered their sense of usefulness, both to themselves and to society. These victim-survivors understood that they were not alone, and, above all, realised that there were those who cared. After all, it was not often that they were considered important enough for people to gather to hear their stories. Not common, that their stories, one of the hundreds emanating from the valley, were listened to and appreciated. And stories there were aplenty.

Another tragic story

When in 2001 a militant outfit had issued an edict asking all Muslim girls in Kashmir to wear the burkha or have acid thrown in their face, not many had taken it seriously. Certainly not 14-year-old Kulsum. One day, on her way to sc hool without the burkha, she had acid thrown on her face, disfiguring her for life. Not only did Kulsum have to cope with the pain and shock, her father died of heart failure on hearing the news. The government sanctioned a compensatio n of Rs.1.5 lakhs, but the amount is yet to be released. Kulsum does have to wear the burkha now, but the MNWA helps her to lead a dignified life by providing her with medical aid and also by training her to earn a livelihood by embroi dering and stitching salwar suits.

Spreading out

Though the MNWA was set up with the intention of helping victims of militancy, its mandate soon expanded to include others too, irrespective of religion, caste or political ideology. Balbir Kaur was born into a Sikh family in Anantnag but fell in love with Mushtaque Bhat, a Muslim. She converted to Islam, became Bilkis Begum, married Mushtaque, and was promptly disowned by her own family. Four years after her marriage her husband threw her out, charging her of not being a “true Muslim”. Balbir found herself alone, with three children and no money. Neither her family nor the village council came to her help. She turned to the MNWA and since 2001 the organisation has been funding her children’s education. For many like her, the MNWA is an “extended family”, the convention a “family reunion”.

The MNWA has also been helping children from families living below the poverty line, by paying for their education. Asifa Jan is one such recipient of financial help. Simultaneously, she is perfecting her knowledge of crewel embroidery at the MNWA training centre in her locality. The organisation has also been arranging blood donation camps, gifting hampers for the marriage of poor girls, and extending interest free loans to women wanting to start a business. About 200 people are also being sponsored medical aid for chronic diseases like diabetes as well as for trauma and nervous disorders.

The MNWA is fully staffed and manned by women, since it believes that women understand women better and also wants to encourage women to participate in the organisation’s work and assume leadership roles. The MNWA today is headed by 24-year-old Anita Kumari, a Kashmiri Pundit.

Kumari’s story perhaps best reflects the MNWA’s mission. For her, the MNWA has been a place of inner healing and reconciliation. Kumari’s family is one of the few hundred odd Pundit families left in the Kashmir valley. Growing up in the midst of the violence — her two uncles were kidnapped and tortured by the Hizbul Mujahidin — left Kumari emotionally scarred. Further physical dislocation and discomfort were caused when, after the Sangrampur massacre of Pundits in 1997, the family was made to shift by the local authorities from their village to the safer confines of Budgam proper. Four families were squeezed in each house, left behind by Pundits who had earlier fled Kashmir. All this bred fear and revulsion in Kumari for Muslims.

The other side of suffering

But at the MNWA, Kumari saw the other side of suffering, a suffering even greater than hers. She saw the people she had come to dislike as grieving parents, young widows, little orphans. She learnt to forgive, to forget her pain, to reach out to those in greater need, to be friends with those she had feared. The fact that she has also been made the overall head of the organisation, in spite of being a member of the minority community there, has also changed her perspective. Today she feels confident enough to hang a picture of Lord Shiva in her chamber in the office, opposite which hangs a picture of the Kaaba. “I rid my soul of all rancour. I am able to help people here, this in turn helps me be happier,” says Kumari. “For me, this place is like an ashram.”

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