October 14th 2008, 6.50am, on a gutted road in the valley of Kashmir, a group of six Kashmiri girls armed with cameras was traveling in a jeep. They pressed the trigger of their cameras pointing at everything that took their fancy. Every now and then, they screamed for the driver to stop the jeep, sprang out from all sides and shot photos to their heart’s content. The workshop was conducted by photographer Nitin Upadhye. Joy Dutta, Ritesh Menon, Saloni Gadgil and Hetal Bhavsar lent their expensive cameras for the workshop. The people of Kashmir enjoyed being captured on camera by these little ones who held cameras in their hands for the first time. It was a photography workshop of Basera-e-Tabassum (Abode of Smiles), an NGO formed under the larger umbrella of Borderless World Foundation.
These girl victims of J & K are looked after by Borderless World Foundation (BWF) in three different places in the valley. In 1998, a group of young persons headed by Gh. Mohiuddin Mir, a resident of Beerwah, decided to work for the uplift of socially ignored and under privileged. Alongwith like-minded people from Pune, the Borderless World Foundation (BWF) was born in 2002 . The project for J&K was named Basera-e-Tabassum (BeT). Its aim was to provide food, shelter and education to orphan girl children between 4 and 10 years in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The main emphasis is on the education of the girl children. In 2003, two Pune activists, Bharati Mamani and Adhik Kadam came to the valley to found an orphanage for girl children in the border district of Kupwara at Salkote Haihama, which had 24000 children just holding on to the edges of life.
But it was easier said than done. BeT faced relentless opposition from local groups who suspected their motives. Militancy in the area was another insurmountable obstacle. It took two long years for BeT to convince local opponents about their motives. Another blow fell when Gh.Mohiuddin Mir was killed by militants on 8th Feb. 2005. His son, Tanveer, alongwith Bharati, Adhik and Sheikh Zahoor, took on the task of taking on from where he had left off. An earlier 1998 short survey of Chewdara, Ohangam, Rathsun and Sanoor Kali Pora of Beerwah (A Tehsil Town of district Budgam) had revealed 70 families in need of immediate attention. The orphanage at Beerwah began to function in March 2006. One more home was started at Dialgam Anantnag with 10 inmates in December, the same year. BeT is a rights and needs-based project, working towards the physical and psychological recovery and the social reintegration of these children.
The past four months have been really bad. The biggest problem is the continuous disturbance in the valley by separatists bringing everyday life to a standstill, with on-and-off curfews putting life in complete disorder. A terrorist attack in Kupwara has threatened the safety of the girls. Many widows demanding shelter for their girl children are turned away for want of funds and accommodation. Currently, there are 83 girls in the three BeT centers and plans are afoot to take on more. But 83 is just the proverbial drop in the ocean of children in desperate need of putting their fragmented lives together. According to a survey by various government and private agencies, there are about 24000 orphans, male and female, in Kupwara of which BeT is able to take care of 40. Anantnag has 10.000 orphans and around 10,000 in Budgam.
The BeT aspires to add 25 girls to their Anantnag orphanage. The expenses per annum for each child are calculated at Rs.16, 800 per annum. This demands an additional Rs.4,20,000 per annum. BeT has also decided to expand its project by beginning another centre in J & K for Kashmiri Pandit girls from broken families living like migrants in their homeland. If 50 girl children are to be sheltered, the funds needed would be around Rs.13-14 lakh a year which covers boarding, lodging, education, warm clothes and administrative expenses.
Children are innocent and vulnerable victims of conflict anywhere and everywhere across the world. They are also are our only link to the future. Though we have no right to deprive them of a ‘normal’ and healthy future, they are being victimized by the conflict in J& K for no fault of theirs. In J & K, thousands of children have been orphaned due to violence. Millions of children have been stripped of their childhood. Hundreds have been orphaned. They are the worst victims of casualties in the ongoing turmoil as their rights to life, survival and development have been threatened. Their physical, psychological, social and economic well-being has been affected. Instead of going to school, playing football or cricket, they are forced to bear the unbearable. They live in a dangerous environment that teaches them an alphabet redefined by the situation of perennial violence where the letter A stands for “AK-47”, “B” stands for “Blast” and “C” for “Crackdown.” Little boys are potential recruits as child soldiers of the ongoing violence. The girl children, especially the orphans, are targets of cultural and moral policing and discrimination too. Basera-e-Tabassum is like that proverbial rainbow at the end of that dark tunnel.
INFORMATION ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shoma A. Chatteri won the second prize in Human Rights Defence Essay competition 2008 for this essay. She is a freelance journalist and author based in Kolkata, India. She holds a Ph.D. in History and writes prolifically on ciinema, gender issues, human rights and child rights for around ten Indian print media and electronic publications. She has authored 16 published books till date and has been writing for 30 years.