Altruism/ Charity/ Sadqa/ Dhaan/alms giving is a process where one gives something to another person especially weak/ poor/ destitute/ orphan without expecting reciprocity. It is probably as old as human civilization and has been so as an integral element of people growing in small communities for common survival. It gives humans joy/pleasure/ satisfaction when they practice it and has been sanctioned by all religions as a moral virtue. Yet there is another view that says that it offers the donor an excuse and an escape from the guilt for the very existence and continuance of poverty and resultant misery around her/him. So while humans may endevour towards the goal of eradicating poverty everywhere and even when that goal is achieved there still shall be people needing emotional and other support and therefore, charity/ altruism is to stay with humans as a virtue.
In our society we often maintain that the hand that gives is more virtuous than the one receiving, may be, without realizing or understanding the pain a person has to suffer while crossing the threshold of self respect and dignity to seek alms. At the same time it is true that it is altruism that has played a vital role in the very survival of the population through ages in this tiny valley, often secluded, in times of extreme adversity brought about by recurrent floods, tremors, droughts, disease, invasions, political repression and conflicts and strife. Devastation by natural calamities and the resultant wiping out of huge chunks of population during the last one thousand years is fairly well documented and that should give enough insight of similar consequences in earlier centuries. Similarly there is sufficient material to find the disasters suffered due to political oppression, strife and conflicts. It has always been the society in general that has come to the rescue of the deserving and the needy. In one of my earlier pieces in this newspaper I had referred to such disasters;
“Kashmir has all along its history been inundated by major or minor floods, followed usually by tremors but always by the calamity of cholera and dysentery resulting in lethal death and destruction. Even thirty/ forty years back we would witness annual flash floods during the moths between May and August that would bring along huge debris of sediments and plants from the mountains and deposit them in the plains of the Valley in and around the main rivers. These floods would also deposit carcasses of dead animals that would in due course decay and infect the whole water system causing cholera and other waterborne diseases. Besides floods famine seems to have been a regular feature that would occur every two to three decades, either due to untimely snowfall or due to the overflow from rivers getting stagnated in large portions of culturable crop yielding land. Except for a few occasions, the rulers and their administrative personnel would generally add to the misery of the masses by robbing and hoarding whatever grain was available with a heavy might. A mere glimpse of the records available conveys that population during some of these periods would perish by one half to two thirds or more. Besides Kashmir has witnessed some of the worst fires and occasionally plagues that would create havoc.
During the famine of 1576 more than half of the population perished. In 1622 it was the plague that wiped a huge chunk and the famine of 1831 destroyed two thirds to three forths of the population. And then we have had at least two occasions when similar or greater miseries were inflicted on the general masses by rulers/ invaders Mihirkula and Zulju.”
It is quite possible that such calamities have had their own role to play in strengthening and ingraining altruism into the very fabric of Kashmiri society/ culture both at the individual and the institutional level thereby creating a special social bond that is surviving and thriving till date. While we may be witnessing an intense debate between the two largest communities of the valley after the recent conflict when one of the communities had to migrate from the valley, one can still feel the bond whenever and wherever members of the two communities interact. Given the current conflict that has lasted for over 70 years with varying degrees of intensity it would be difficult to imagine the population thriving with little or no homelessness or hunger around, if it were not for the selfless charity displayed by the society. I wish and hope that some one among us formally investigates and examines this phenomenon and its contours in ancient and medieval history. It would be a wonderful filed of research.
Here I would like to note some of my personal observations relating to the field as a first hand witness particularly in the villages of the valley where I have spent most of my life. While the local Baitul-maal is administered by the men and some of it is spent as charity, it is the women folk who are the real donors and who have made an integral part of their daily lives to donate without the slightest of whisper. Untill some forty years ago when there was almost nonexistent cash economy these women would round the clock in filed to grow extra vegetables and at times dry them for winter use but would ensure that a lot of it was distributed among the needy. Besides a rice bowl would be distributed as many times a day as a deserving visitor would be around. In every village there were some women who were specialists in growing herbs with medicinal qualities to be distributed as and when required by anyone whosoever it be. Be it spices, milk, sugar or clothes it would be given as charity. I remember an old lady neighbor in her eighties in my neighborhood who would buy sugar on ration all through the year only to distribute in winters to children who would add it to snow to enjoy it as an ice cream. I remember during the mini drought like situation, I think it was the year 1969, when early snow had damaged the crops, the whole village would ensure that each family had at least something to eat. The practice still continues in all the villages. I as well remember that people living in the hills and “Kandi” areas would often fall short of grain but the villages would ensure that the deserving visitors had enough to feed their children.
In the cities and towns I have observed that despite charity being fairly organised as compared to the villages individual charity by the women folk is a daily routine who ensure that there is enough in store so that no one in need goes without help. As I said in the recent past we have had some formal institutionalized structures like the Yateem Trust, the Cancer Society etc doing tremendous charitable work yet it is the local and small mohalla organizations who do the bulk of work in this field with utmost sincerity and dedication.
In short Kashmir does lead by example and probably always has been at the forefront of donating the needy without seeking anything in recompense except at times for some reward in the hereafter. I wish poverty is eradicated sometime soon but we shall still have to ensure that people who may need emotional and other support are assisted well. Yes a word of caution. Charitable organizations need to be vigilant while accepting donations from people/ states that sometimes have an agenda as it can break the very fabric of the humane society that we have developed over tens of centuries. We can’t afford to ignore the negative effects of petrocharity of the later part of the last century, like it or not.