‘Worse Than Animals’: Inside Kashmir’s Deeply Distressed Disabled World

Representational Photo

Philauri Jaan, a resident of Nepora village in southern Kashmir, was shot at her right ribcage in 1996. Caught in a firefight between militants and military, she was termed as a “collateral damage”. The 12-year-old girl was immediately rushed to Srinagar and remained in a coma for almost two weeks. Due to the unavailability of adequate health services, she was referred to a Delhi Hospital. Although the doctors saved Jaan’s life, the bullet that hit her still lies inside her body. Jaan, who was in seventh class when she was shot, is still bed-ridden and is barely managing to eat and drink by herself.

Jaan’s brother Mohammed Rafiq Bhat says the family is still fighting for the rightful compensation. “Initially,” he says, “we got a meager amount of Rs. 25,000. To get that sum of money, we had to pay bribes of more than Rs. 15000.”

Jaan is not the only wounded victim of Kashmir conflict. Numerous people are living the life of a disabled person due to the regular faceoffs between armed forces and militants in Kashmir. But apart from the raging strife, there’re several other factors including the tough and treacherous topography of the region that cause severe physical injuries to people.

For cheerful and happy-go-lucky Aijaz Bhat, July 1, 2001 proved to be a crippling day.

It was raining and Bhat was coming back home in Anantnag town from Pahalgam. But after covering some distance, his bike skidded and he fell from a 25-feet high cliff. The accident fractured his spinal cord and rendered him immobile. “Since then I’m on the wheelchair,” Bhat rues. Luckily, he was appointed as a government teacher before his accident, which is now proving to be a bane in these tough times for him. “I’ve always received love, warmth and cooperation from my students and colleagues,” Bhat says with a smiling face. “But the crippling feeling is too hard to ignore.”

The major problem in Kashmir is the structure of buildings, which is mostly unfriendly for people with physical disabilities. Bhat also takes all his classes on the ground floor.

Asserting that people with disabilities need the right guidance at the right time, Padma Shri Javed Ahmed Tak bats for the larger public participation for the desirable change. Besides running an organisation called Humanity Welfare Organisation Helpline since 2003, Tak has dedicated a school for special children. The special school is registered till Class 8th and the biggest challenge Tak faces is getting the students enrolled in higher classes. “After 8th grade, we get our students enrolled in normal schools and give them tuitions,” Tak says, “Other than ours, there’s no such school in entire southern Kashmir.”

A majority of the specially-abled children drop out of schools every year. The social stigma attached to such children prevents them from studying in normal schools. “No one wants to be friends with them,”  Tak says. “We don’t even have the required number of rehabilitators.”

Another challenge faced by the disabled people of Kashmir is the paucity of transportation facilities. “We’ve hired a cab to bring students from far off locations,” Tak says. “Government needs to take note of these grey areas and address them. They need to understand that the condition of physically and mentally disabled persons of Kashmir is worse than animals.”

Illustration credits: Dadu Shin

Apart from unnatural causes, many kids are born deaf, mute and blind every year, but if given a chance, these students can also excel in different fields. While talking about one of his students named Saima Hussain, Tak says, “She’s now working in the J&K Cultural Academy. Since physical and mental disability is a very big problem in Kashmir, our focus remains to educate and empower these specially-abled children.”

Many prominent psychiatrists from time to time have suggested setting up of special centres for people with disabilities to ensure that they do not get exploited. The rigorous efforts put by various organisations have led to positive behavioral changes in many mentally-unstable children. “Now,” Tak says, “people regret saying bad things about these children. They’re handling them with more maturity and sensibility.”

Tak himself is a victim of fatal injuries caused due to the armed conflict in Kashmir. From a dreamy college-goer, he forever became a wheelchair-bound disabled person overnight. Later, his own plight would motivate him to start the welfare organisation for disable persons of Kashmir. “It was a humble beginning which touched many lives,” Tak says. “Our cause was also noticed by all and sundry. From 2009 to 2014, the Ministry of Youth Affairs asked us to encourage our special students to participate in games organized by them. They ended up winning medals at the National level.”

But despite such individual efforts, the plight of disabled persons of Kashmir remains pathetic. The community still awaits implementation of Disabilities Act 2016, special recruitment drive for qualified disabled persons, enhancement of monthly pension from Rs 1000 to Rs 4000, vertical reservation for persons with disabilities rather than horizontal in all government jobs, abolishment of SRO SW 59, 142 and 127 and 4 per cent promotion and transfer policy for disable persons.

These specially-abled people have also been campaigning for setting up of rehabilitation center in each district headquarters, health coverage of handicapped persons with special package, 11.4% reservation in Assembly, Municipalities and Panchayats, reservation in all colleges and universities for children of disable persons, setting up advisory board for economic and social development of physically challenged persons, 50 per cent concessions in electric and water fee charges and re-advertisement of backlog vacancies since 1993 to till date.

The community also seeks appointment of Disabilities Commissioner, fee exemption to handicapped persons applying for jobs, opening of separate counters in every Government and semi-Government department for disable persons, opening of Braille schools for blind persons in every district, exempting disable persons from all type of taxes including GST and reservation for disable persons in shopping complexes made by Government departments, etc.

Most of these demands, Tak believes, are likely to stay demands only. “I tell you something,” he says. “All these years, even my organisation never got any funds from the government for the welfare cause. I sent a project proposal to Union Ministry of Social Welfare once but the officials asked me to get a recommendation from the state government. Our file was kept on rotating in Secretariat but never got sanctioned.”

Only National level Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) supported his organisation, Tak says. “We wrote more than 2000 applications to various state ministers including successive chief ministers, but we always got negative response. Disability is the least priority for our politicians. But they also need to understand that we’re also humans. We should be part of the development, so that we can also contribute in the national productivity. I do not want physically challenged people to be at the receiving end. Among other things, social security pension should be immediately given to persons with complete disability.”

Tak’s efforts have already created a change on the ground and motivated Jigar Institute of Jammu to work for the welfare cause of disabled persons of J&K. “Our intervention is mostly within the collaboration with the education department through which we conduct hundreds of training programs to help the teachers to teach disabled students at par with normal students,” Tak says. “My organisation recently made a school in Bijbehara, which is fully accessible for students. At present, there are 110 students enrolled in the school. We also run Child-Friendly Spaces with UNICEF in 40 villages of southern Kashmir.”

But beyond the efforts of some dedicated welfare agents like Tak, Kashmir’s disability scenario awaits a larger societal and state intervention. Leading by the change is Voluntary Medicare Society (VMS), a Srinagar-based organisation working for the people with disabilities. The welfare body isn’t just touching the fractured lives, but also treats them.

Durdana Wani, a 17-year-old girl from Srinagar, had developed an ailment in right eye at the time of birth. The problem over time started taking a toll on her mental health. While her eyes got treated to some extent at All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi, the ailment left a deep impact on her. This is when she was enrolled in a special school run by VMS. “She initially did very well, but later when we put her in a normal school, few of her teachers did not cooperate, so we had to put her in a special school,” says Kaiser Jahan, Wan’s mother.

VMS was established by Dr. Maqbool Mir in the early 1970s. Dr. Mir was a professor in a medical college where he saw people with multiple disabilities. This motivated him to start a welfare body for them. He got help from his friend to get trained personnel for the organisation. Initially, a majority of cases were related to spinal injuries caused by falls, accidents, and firings. “Persons with disabilities need physiotherapy for getting back to near-normal life,” he says. “Just medical care is not enough.”

VMS runs a rehabilitation centre also, where various neurologists and psychiatrists come from time to time. Apart from various programs for mentally unstable children, the organisation also gives Ayurvedic and Unani treatment like massage. “Two of our trainers are visually challenged only and they are doing a wonderful job,” Dr. Mir says. “Our aim is to fully integrate the persons with disabilities with the society and its social institutes.”

But initially, says Basheer Lone, the welfare worker with VMS since 2005, Dr. Mir’s door-to-door campaign for medical intervention could not help. Later, in 1996, the medico would lay the foundation of the school for special children. “By the time I joined the organisation,” Lone says, “we did not have many therapists. Later we gave it the shape of a professional institute.”

At first, the institute had 24 kids and gradually the activities started expanding. “We started as a team of 7 and now we are a team 65,” Lone says. The organisation has sub-centres in Kupwara, Leh, Kargil, Ganderbal and Baramulla.

“Mental retardation is a huge problem for many kids and improving functional roles in such children is the need of the hour,” the welfare worker says. “Our expenses on a single child amounts to Rs. 5100 including transport. The government’s meagre support isn’t helping much. In order to evolve a robust welfare system for the disabled persons, we need an active participation of society and state.”

Philauri Jaan awaits the same participation while struggling to eat and drink in her bed since 1996. Her crippling state, says her cousin, is a comment on the community taking a great pride in its crisis-management ability. “We need to come out of our comfort zones and do something about this disability devouring a sense of normalcy of our loved ones,” she says. “Just look at this poor soul. Did she deserve this bedridden life she has been living from the last 26 years? We need to tackle and manage disabilities for the good of human life.”

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