A.S. Siddiqui travels 30 kilometres every day up Hill Kaka in Poonch district of Jammu and Kashmir. It’s the only way he can reach the government middle school where he teaches 91 odd students. Often, Siddiqui ends up teaching in a nearly empty classroom. Complaining to the Panchayat about lack of roads and accessibility is out of the question. It would require him to trek another 70 kilometres. After three years, Siddiqui decided to write about the daily ordeals of the students of Hill Kaka in local newspapers. His article caught the attention of the local authorities and a 30 km road was promised.
Siddiqui is one of the many Kashmiris who have been trained by the non-governmental organisation, CHARKHA. The NGO focuses on the developing a communication network. Through their workshops CHARKHA empowers people from neglected areas to give a voice to their problems. With a network in the remotest of areas of Ladakh, Poonch, Jammu, Bihar and Naxal-infested areas in Chhattisgarh, CHARKHA acts as a journalism school for the rural youth. In addition to teaching the basics of writing and reporting to locals, CHARKHA also provides them with a platform – Rural Voices – to write their articles in Hindi, English and Urdu.
In the past couple of years, CHARKHA has paid special attention to the Poonch and Kargil regions. Scouting for stories, the CHARKHA team of writers have written articles on a wide range of issues such as infrastructure, education, children’s and women’s issues. These stories show that infiltration, ceasefire violations and Article 370 aren’t the only issues which Kashmiris grapple with on a daily basis.
Geographical inaccessibility is never a hurdle for CHARKHA writers. Upper Murrah, an isolated hamlet located in the Peer Panjal range in Poonch district has rarely been reported on owing to its geographical inaccessibility. However, in December 2012, CHARKHA writers trekked several hours in peak winter and crossed a river to meet with locals there. This journey resulted in striking pictures and the story of an unfinished bridge over the river at Laadian between Kalaali and Upper Murrah, the absence of which has led to many deaths in the region. CHARKHA also made sure the stories reached the right authorities and in June 2013 published articles with pictures of the completed bridge.
Azra Khatoon, another contributor for CHARKHA from Kashmir usually writes on the subject of women’s empowerment in the Kargil region. In her news report, “Fighting the World” she wrote about Saida Banoo – “a sixteen year old Blue belter belonging to a place where girls have remained confined to their homes for several decades”. Her friend Gizala Shabnam also writes for CHARKHA and has the same beat. In an article, “Patriarchal Crescendo” about NGOs in Kargil which work for women’s empowerment, she wrote,“In a world patterned by assumptions and values of patriarchal culture, it’s an exceptionally challenging task for a woman to run an NGO, bearing the weight of the hopes of many. Despite the government having provided myriad schemes, grants-in-aid for NGOs and particularly women, these schemes have remained locked up in the policy sheets”. Her report relates the harrowing tale of FizaBano who runs the NGO Tribal Women Welfare Association and has been running from pillar to post get an approval for her project from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs for three years now. Her relentless efforts to give financial security and equal rights to women in Kargil while fighting patriarchy is a story that would rarely if ever find space in the mainstream media.
Both Khatoon and Bano are natives of Kargil and both are studying for their Masters in English from Delhi University. Despite being used to the comforts of Delhi, Bano says writing for “Rural Voice” is her way of doing something for the community she belongs to. Speaking to Newslaundry she expressed her dismay with the misplaced priorities of the mainstream media and its propensity to always associate Jammu and Kashmir with conflict alone. “The issues covered by the media may be important for Kashmir but as individuals these are not the issues that affect our lives on a daily basis. Maybe for the mainstream media our daily struggles aren’t an important issue. Maybe they do not have the space for these issues.”
This is precisely the reason why these two young girls took to writing about local people and issues. Bano adds, “These travels across the length and breadth of Kargil aren’t like one-off picnics for us. While it gives us a chance to interact with the local population and write about their problems and achievements it also gives the neglected community the opportunity to vent their anger. When we are not able to find solutions to a problem through conventional means, we need to find a different course to communicate with people”. Surprisingly, the two girls who are so well acquainted with local problems don’t even know about Article 370 and what it means for them as Kashmiris – a topic of debate on every panel discussion before election fever took over. The duo also says that despite the scope and range of journalism increasing with the advent of the internet age, online discourse is still focused on hatred, arguments and counter-arguments and not on telling the stories of ordinary people.
Siddiqui’s disillusionment with the mainstream media extends beyond the neglect of regional and real issues. He says, “I am happy working with limited resources and climbing hills to get my stories. Even if given a chance I would not work for the mainstream media because you have to work within set boundaries. Here we have no boundaries. I report on stories on my people and my region. I enjoy the independence to tell my stories without any intrusion or agendas. And I make sure that my stories make some real change. We don’t report and forget about issues. We make sure that issues see their logical end.”
Siddiqui has been pursuing the story of denial of compensation to people displaced from Hill Kaka because of Operation Sarp Vinash, which was launched in 2003 and touted to be one of the most high profile anti-insurgency operation of India. While news reports said that the operation was a successful one having killed 60 militants, an article written by Praveen Swami in Frontline stated otherwise. He wrote, “Now here is the unhappy truth: Operation Sarp Vinash is a hoax that is unprecedented in the annals of the Indian Army. It is a hoax that has brought its perpetrators one step closer to medals and promotions, but has undermined India’s claims on cross-border terrorism, dishonoured the sacrifices made by military and police personnel fighting in Jammu and Kashmir, and committed troops to a sapping and counter-productive mountain ground-holding commitment”.
Whatever the truth of Operation Sarp Vinash might be, the natives of Hill Kaka are still bearing the brunt of the operation. Siddiqui says these people lost their homes and livelihood because of the operation. Four people lost their lives. The central government promised Rs 7 crore 40 lakh as compensation. While the media highlighted the issue initially, the displaced families are yet to receive the money owed to them. An investigation was ordered and initial findings hinted at embezzlement of the compensation money by state Revenue Department officials. After the initial reports, both the media and the authorities lost track of the case. Siddiqui keeps talking to the local authorities about the status of the investigation into the swindling, and writing is the only way of making sure the matter remains alive and the people of Hill Kaka get justice.
The zeal and the dedication of the CHARKHA writers comes not just from the fact that they belong to the communities they report on, but also from the principles of the founder of CHARKHA, the late Sanjay Ghose. Ghose, a rural development activist conceived the idea of CHARKHA in October, 1994. Following the success of his monthly column “Village Voice” in The Indian Express, Ghose conceived the unique idea of getting people from the rural community to voice their stories and institutionalised the idea in the form of CHARKHA.
Unfortunately, it was his pursuit of providing a voice for people from the isolated regions of the country that led to his death. Ghose is believed to have been killed by the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) after being abducted in July 1997 by the militant group. CHARKHA, however, continues to work on his philosophy – “to change the world and make a difference in the lives of the ordinary people”.
Here’s a film on the life and work of CHARKHA writers from Poonch in Jammu and Kashmir.