What cultural values can Kashmiris apply to community service?
As a young university student, I was a member of the National Service Scheme (NSS), a government organization through which students help people in far flung areas or take trips to explore new places. One summer, we decided to trek from Shopian in the Kashmir valley up, via the highest pass known as Peer-ki-Galee, to Poonch in the Jammu province, and back down through Tangmarg, all on foot! Though the uphill as well as downhill journeys were very steep, three of us were a little faster than the rest of the team of 16 in climbing as well as descending. Not realizing how far ahead we had gone from the main team, we were halfway from the peak on the Tangmarg side when it started getting darker. We couldn’t see the tracks as clearly by this time and were looking for a safe place to take shelter for the night while waiting for the rest of the students and the group leader, along with a Jammu & Kashmir Police Officer who was assigned to our team by the Development Commissioner of Poonch as the return track was apparently very close to the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.
That was when we spotted a Gujjar dhoka (nomad hut) tucked away into the side of the mountain. When we approached the family living there, merely to ask how far we were from the town of Tangmarg and whether we could make it before nightfall, the head of the family greeted the three of us with kindness and suggested not to take the risk of continuing our journey to Tangmarg as it would take us another 2-3 hours and there was even a chance of encountering bears or wild mountain cats as night time approached. Not only did he offer a group of strangers shelter for the night with the little space and material comforts he had, but he assumed a fatherly responsibility and genuinely made it clear he couldn’t let us go out into the danger that presented itself at that hour. At a moment’s notice, his entire family tried their best to make us feel as comfortable as they could. We stayed for the night and in the morning they lovingly wouldn’t let us go without sharing in their simple breakfast of corn bread, honey, and Kashmiri tea. It has been several decades since that day but I can still never forget that trip because of the way we were treated with utmost respect and sincerity by this family who didn’t know us, and vice versa, in the middle of nowhere.
Kashmiris are a people long known for their hospitality and for always extending a helping hand with whatever limited resources they possess or services they can physically, materially, or monetarily extend to anyone seeking help. Geographically, Kashmir has been an important stop along major trade routes and religious diffusion paths since ancient times. Despite being enclosed by mountain ranges on all sides, the valley has been accustomed to the constant passage and, at times, invasion of foreigners from far and wide, making it a meeting point of distinct cultures and philosophies. The common teachings of Sufi saints and Hindu and Buddhist preachers over centuries have made the Kashmiri tolerant and accepting of outsiders, often referring to a guest as a “guest of God” (khudaiy’sund pochs). This unique trait makes it second nature for a Kashmiri to serve. It is then no surprise that such a people who are so hospitable to outsiders should take it upon themselves to aid their own community in times of need.
Anyone linked to or, at least, familiar with current affairs in the valley will remember a powerful testament to this fact in the selfless contributions made by Kashmiris – particularly youth – during the devastating floods of September 2014, which impacted the main city of Srinagar and the peripheries around it (approx. 65% of the populated area of the city). Local volunteers stepped up immediately when the flooding began and started working together to pull out people stranded on the upper levels and roofs of their homes. Countless pictures and videos of youth braving the gushing waters in makeshift boats to rescue people overwhelmed news and social media outlets in the immediate aftermath of the floods. Youth saved the lives of their neighbors, especially children, women, and the elderly, and mobilized resources to arrange food, water, and other daily necessities to survive the disaster. Meanwhile, others, including the sprawling Kashmiri diaspora overseas,immediately coordinated the collection, preparation, and distribution of clothing, blankets, and medication despite many hurdles.
So many put their own lives in danger and offered the limited resources they had. Many missing people were thought to have drowned but were surprisingly found helping elsewhere in the impacted areas, offering themselves in service to fellow Kashmiris. Open kitchens were set up at higher grounds by those who were either not impacted or could contribute their time, money, or other forms of resources like transportation, utensils, food supplies, and fuel for cooking, to provide shelter and meals to distressed people around the city.
Truckloads of food supplies were collected not only by people from the city and downtown areas, but in towns as far as Sopore, Baramulla, Kangan, Pahalgam, Shopian, Anantnag, and Qazigund, and shipped to areas where organizers of open kitchens ensured cooked meals were served to the displaced. Numerous local NGOs and overseas Kashmiri non-profit organizations, together with the help of Kashmiris around the globe, from all walks of life, also contributed a lot in ensuring that whatever was needed, in terms of medication, clothing, and monetary help, reached the impacted communities back home. If we can collaborate and coordinate in a time of dire crisis, then surely we can collaborate and coordinate under normal conditions to strengthen our institutions and build a just and orderly society.
It is these values that led the North American Kashmiri community to organize during the Kashmir floods in 2014. Never before have Kashmiris in North America. from all walks of life, joined together to organize so determinedly to locate missing family members for each other and mobilizing personal connections on the ground and around the world. We organized ourselves in committees, raised awareness in the international media, appealed to our elected officials for foreign aid and diplomatic assistance, and held drives for warm clothing and blankets to be shipped to Kashmir. Volunteers remembered the powerful words of John Lewis in their effort to serve their motherland, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”
Revive Kashmir was born out of this collaboration on September 29, 2014. It immediately became apparent that once the floodwaters receded, parts of an entire region would have to be rebuilt, and sustainably so. Along with other non-profit organizations that helped in their areas of expertise, Revive Kashmir conducted focused projects in three distinct phases following the flood: relief, recovery, and rehabilitation. In the immediate aftermath of the inundation, our clothing and medication drives in addition to media and government outreach brought attention and basic relief to the valley. As the water levels receded, leaving behind silt and rubble, our focus evolved towards the recovery phase wherein we provided microloans to local villages, procured ultrasounds for three hospitals, and helped families rebuild their homes damaged by the floods, under three programs (Revive Livelihood, Revive Healthcare, Revive a Home). In the third phase, we shifted our focus to long-term rehabilitation.
Having entered our fifth year of existence, we are proud to be at a place where our vision is to see an economically developed community of Kashmiris. To this end, we are keeping up with the needs in Kashmir while creating economic opportunities for our people in creative ways such as helping the visually impaired become independent through workshops and counselling. We are also engaging with the entrepreneurial community of the valley to set up and propel their ventures by providing training in business skills and networking opportunities. But none of this happens without that conviction, which lives in our volunteers, to extend a helping hand, to share from what we possess, to give ourselves in service to our community and beyond, and to make others feel comfortable and cared for when they need it the most.
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By Manzoor Mir