By Zafar Iqbal:
When I see politicians shout out from the television screens, I find it hard to take them seriously, knowing that our state is in the worst of political times. That an already strong oligarchy is closing its grip around our throats. Each and every one of us of course knows how political parties have won elections on the basis of pledges that often defy reality.
And yet, there is another story to be told, by hundreds among you, similar to the one I am about to tell you now. One that circulates the paragraphs of truth and supports the singular voice within each of us. About what I do, I am a social activist working in ultra-rural areas of Kashmir for better livelihood, proper usage and management of natural resources, production system and better education.
For my story, I take you straight to Kalaroose – a veritable political hotbed, 20 miles north east of Kupwara, in what is an otherwise desolate and unincorporated stretch. A roughed-out grid of unnamed, dirty roads cuts through a maze of half-built wooden homes and dilapidated dhokes.
As I linger at the side of the road, a passenger bus inches past, taking care not to savage its struts on a path rutted by poor drainage and cycles of fierce, mud-churning rain and chilling shadows.
To be precise, this is my third day of PRA (Participatory Rural Appraisal) with the community, and I am accompanied by a group of residents for my transit analysis.
Ab Rashid calls from the side of his tidy dhoke where he is chatting with his wife, Zareefa. The couple invites me inside. Like most of the homes in this ostensibly planned block, Rashid’s new house, with its exposed beams and unroofed space, is a work in progress. The family is blessed with wooden electricity poles and wiring – still a luxury for some impoverished communities living there -but nobody know if the wire is good conductor of electricity.
Running water is in abundance but has a melancholic timeline embedded with it. Residents queue up, sometimes for hours, at a spigot of the flowing creeks, where they fill huge plastic drums of varying shapes and vintage, with foul-smelling water. Ateeqa and Saleema, like most residents, won’t drink it, preferring to visit a natural spring two miles away from the village, to satisfy their thirst.
Since the community is hardly involved in any kind of secondary activity, therefore the entire populace is unequivocally dependent on land and water resources for their meagre livelihoods. Sadly however, various phenomena, including deforestation, floods and soil erosion have resulted in decreased incomes for these families. Chronic poverty persists followed by a breath taking literacy ratio.
It has never been our tradition to attribute the problems with our politics to the quality of our politicians. But after a sound PRA with the villagers, I find that the slogan of a singular voice is long gone from the community. The indifferences within the community are so disarming that I can see that they were not even ready to come together for their own development.
The problem as I can tell, is that they are hugely divided on the development pursuit. As I conducted the PRA, no one was really ready to accept what would be good for them. I even arrange a meeting for all the community members to participate and carve out a way to be united again in order to defeat this societal indifference and individual callousness.
Nevertheless, I try not to be surprised next day, but as a rule man is a fool. When it’s hot, he wants it cool. When it’s cool, he wants it hot, Always wanting what is not.
More than one thousand people were in front of my eyes and I stood completely shell shocked. I never really wanted that big a participation, fearing about getting preachy on them, and therefore the possibilities of gibbering about my profession was on the cards.
But then I realize that the people I am about to speak to are most certainly the oppressed and the divided – divided into a myriad sects, sects that dance to the tune of the politicians. It’s something that I’ve been witnessing for years now. Everytime a private agency or some department tries to do good for them, it all fails completely because the opposing sects won’t let anything go forward, fearing that the credit might go to the government in power at the time. What then remains behind each and every time, is such a village in rural Kashmir, devoid of development and growth.
That’s why I felt, that maybe I have a real chance here to knit them together to work for their future renewal.
In fact the process of bringing them on the same page, even involves the typical classroom tactic where a teacher would make students shake hands with each other in order to make them patch-up. I yearned to make them realise that when the modern world is busy in surveying the dizzying array of new technology based developments, they are busy in fighting with each other on issues which don’t really pertain to them.
And as I saw them in front of me, laughing and giggling together, united for once, the feeling is great. Great, but short lived, because just then come the political batons – all those political agents backed by mainstream parties, who are always there to create problems for the poor, not allowing any development in their respective villages, not unless it has their share cut out.
An old man next to me says in that moment , “These are the birds of prey. Watch out for their belligerent words.”
I pretend not to see them and continue my speech. But just then, one of them shouts out and asks me, “Who the hell are you to promote development in the village?”
I rather gingerly answer, “I am a social activist and I want you to come together on development pursuit”.
“What kind of development pursuit?”, he says, in a tone that gives away his insidious intentions.
As I try to answer, one of them pushes me to down onto the floor.
And suddenly, there is a ripple effect. There is chaos all around, and in the process, someone even strikes a blow on my neck.
I felt worried. I felt powerless. I was angry at my weakness. At my vulnerability to intimidation of sorts from my own people.
It was only then that I allowed myself to wipe my eyes with the back of my hand, clearing away little specks of water that had arisen, unknowingly and unconsciously, from somewhere deep within me.