Gandhi Fellow Younis Ahmad Kaloo shares his experiences and learnings from his 21-day-long community immersion in Baramulla
When my seniors broke the news that all Gandhi Fellows from Zone 1 (J&K, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand) would engage in a 21-day-long Community Immersion process from April 11, I decided then and there to give it my best shot. This part of the fellowship that I so looked forward to was at the back of my mind ever since my joining in June 2021, and it would come to my conscious mind every now and then in the form of pictures and videos shot somewhere in the mountains with people I had never seen before. One might find it weird but that is how I pictured it until I began to look for my host community.
I visited Tehsil office in Boniyar, about 25 km from Baramulla district headquarters, and asked for suggestions from the officials there as to which community I could be part of for 3 weeks. Baramulla is where I have been living and working on as part of Aspirational District Collaborative since last September.
They suggested two communities up in the mountains but said in the same breath that they are closer to the border with Pakistan, barely 15 kilometres away. I was thrilled to go there, and both the journalist as well as the fellow in me began to think this is going to be interesting, given that I have never in my life visited a border village, though in 2017 or 2018 when I was a defence correspondent and based in Delhi, my visit to the international Border in Kathua was approved by BSF, but then due to some other engagements, I couldn’t go.
The very next day, I was on the way to Chautali, the village where I had thought I will be doing my CI. But, I was stopped just a few kilometres before by the personnel of army who said that I had not informed them beforehand. They were right and we had a long conversation outside the camp till a captain spoke to me over the telephone and said that he was sorry as his seniors would ask him later as to why he allowed my into the village, had he done that on his own. There was a text printed on an A4-sized paper and pasted on a wall near which we were standing. It read, “Respect all. Suspect all”.
I remember one soldier from Punjab wondering while I was telling him that Moga, too, is one of the Aspirational Districts. He was in no mood to accept that. To him, Moga was better off than other districts which were not the Aspirational Districts. I told him there are several factors which decide whether a district gets on the list of Aspirational Districts or not, and promised to share with him in detail why Moga is an Aspirational District, if we met again, that is. Standing there with those soldiers, I noticed my phone had no network and the village where I was going had no network either. I returned to my Fellows’ house thinking I could do my CI elsewhere.
I met the Sarpanch of the village, which was on the same way as the previous village but nearer to the Tehsil headquarters and had no issues with the network whatsoever. He offered me to stay at a primary school, where according to him, beds and bathroom were available. “Food is on me,” he said. I thought to myself, “Well, everything seems taken care of now. I only have to bring my clothes.” I didn’t allow any questions arising in my head to kill my excitement. Questions like if I should take a look at the building first, the facilities it had, etc. I trusted the Sarpanch, because the way he said the school was fit for my lodging, I did not deem it appropriate to ask him to accompany me to the school to have a look.
When I returned to the village the next day and got closer to the school building, I decided right away this is not the place where I can stay because of very poor sanitary conditions. As I climbed the stairs and greeted the only two teachers busy with the students, I was looking for the room which was supposed to have beds. To my surprise, the room was occupied by the students from class 1 to 5, and apparently that looked to be the only room where there were students. I was still looking for the beds and when I asked one of the teachers about them, he pointed to the back of the room. There were students sitting on what appeared to be a slightly raised platform. I had a brief interaction with the students and the teachers, who too were not in favour of my stay at the school.
Then the letter from our organisation seeking support from the District Administration in case of an emergency changed everything. We (my co-fellow too had issues with finding a host) then received another letter from the Joint Director Planning of the district addressed to the Sub Divisional Magistrate Uri asking him to provide necessary support. We were offered shelter and food at the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya in Shahkote, a residential institution providing education to boys and girls from Class 6 to 12.
Can we skip to the main part?
If you ask me to describe the place where I completed my Community Immersion, words and phrases like lush-green mountains, snaking roads, valleys and more valleys, kind people, etc. will surface in my sentences. But that is less important than what actually I am here to talk about. And that begins with the endless suffering of my community (people from Limber, Shahkote, and Bimyar). I met and interacted with people from different walks of life and from different age groups: shopkeepers, contractors, students, housewives, sarpanchs, ward members, and unemployed youth. Together they helped me understand that life in these mountains is way more different and harder than what it appears to be at the first glance. I really felt that doing something tangible for the community in a span of 3 weeks was almost impossible. But then many fancy quotes from some scholars began to ring in my head in bits and pieces, and they all urged me to do something for the community, even if small.
Identification of problems
Yes, it is possible that some of the problems humans face whether they live in Delhi, Mumbai or, as in this case, in the remote areas of Kashmir may be common. But there is that slight difference of having your problems and being ignored not for weeks, not for months, but many, many years. That is what is wrong here.
One section of my community had no phone network and the people there told me that they have been “begging” the authorities for the installation of a tower for ten years, but nothing has happened so far. I remember asking a local resident if he was recording me while I was having an interaction with another person. What followed was funny and sad at the same time. “Brother, he is a cop from this village. He is searching for the network,” said the person who was interacting with me.
A special session
It is one thing when you hear a couple of persons talking about an issue, but when you hear the same thing and many more from 36 young minds who happen to be sitting together in the same classroom, you really start giving it a serious thought. I did an activity or an experiment of sorts with class 10 students of a high school, which was barely a kilometre from my CI residence. I named it Let’s Reflect. I asked them three questions, which many if not all of us have been once asked on different occasions, like during a job interview or on any other occasion. The questions were: Are you happy? Is there anything you don’t like about you and want to change it? Are you happy with the way things are there in your village? I told them to write in any language in which they were comfortable, and told them not to write their names on the paper, which they would later hand over to me, to conceal their identity.
All of them were happy except three, who had given their respective reasons. One student was unhappy because he/she was an orphan. The second one was not happy because his/her exam earlier that day had not gone well. The third student was unhappy because his/her family and friends did not approve of playing games. Almost everyone had a habit which they wanted to change. For example, waking up late in the morning or playing excessively on their phones. Most of the answers to the third question, which to me was the most important one concerning my CI, were rather disturbing. The problems listed by the students were: lack of drinking water, sports infrastructure, equipment and doctors in the primary health centre, roads and transport, fencing to prevent wild animal attacks, and an exclusive health and wellness centre for women.
About a week before our CI was going to end, I and my co-fellow, whose host community was nearby, decided to hold a joint health camp. We approached the concerned Block Medical Officer. He accepted our request and chose April 30 to conduct the said camp. 153 patients availed free services like screening, diagnostics and free medicines. I was later told by the nodal officer that medicines worth 50,000 INR were distributed among the patients.
I gained some empathy and understood the true meaning of “all that glitters is not gold”. I also learnt that if one has to deal with a problem, one must go head-to-head with it. Yes, it gets dangerous at times, but it is the right thing to do.
Will I ever return to the community?
Yes, I will return to the community either in the capacity of a fellow, if and when the fellowship permits, or in some other capacity in the future. There is a lot to be done.
Ideas expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect that of his organisation.