When I was thinking of the one person I would consider a hero, it was only natural that I turn towards Kashmir because of the time I have spent here. A Kashmiri journalist mentioned Javed Ahmad Tak and his work in Bijbehara, a town about 150 kms from the capital city of Srinagar. His story was incredible: here was a man who was shot by terrorists and now running a school where children of terrorists come to study. What a big heart he must have, I thought. I went to meet Javed bhai at Bijbehara. He was in a wheelchair.
Javed bhai was not born disabled. As he himself says, “I was a normal person until 14 years ago.” A militant attack by a gang who barged into his cousin’s house led to a bullet in Javed bhai’s spine. After being declared a paraplegic, he was bedridden for two long years. His world shrunk to his home, his room and the bed on which he lay all day and all night. His family were his only social contact. He had no idea what he could do with his life. He was only twenty-one years old.
Javed bhai sits before me, looking cheerful and exhibiting a calm and patience that is almost spiritual given his circumstances. In the course of our conversation, I find that several of the students in his school are children of militants. For me, that’s hard to stomach but to Javed bhai, there is nothing unusual about it. He bears no anger towards the militants nor towards life itself for the hand he has been dealt. “Why should they suffer for the sins of their fathers?” he asks.
I can see that Javed bhai is perpetually in pain. And yet, he never complains. Despite his physical limitations, he has taken up a task that has managed to bring back the smile on the faces of his students. Some are physically disabled while there are others with mental disabilities. And Javed bhai has provided them a space that will allow them to feel as close to normal as they possibly can. Each child here needs infinite patience and he has that; they need understanding and acceptance and he offers that; they need a reason to live and he provides them that. The man on the wheelchair has managed to do this and bring hope to these children. “My disability is my strongest ability,” he insists. Watching Javed bhai is a lesson in gratitude. He effortlessly reaches out to all the children, without bias. He treats all of them with equal affection. He never gets irritated or loses his temper. And perhaps most importantly he never loses hope.
Kashmir is not like the rest of India. Things here are not normal. Schools close every time there is a strike. (And there are 20-25 strikes a year). When the children return to school, the lessons have to be resumed from the beginning. But that’s only part of the challenge because Kashmir is not like the rest of India. Decades of militancy have unhinged it from normalcy. Disability here is a bigger problem than anywhere else in the country; it is much more prevalent here. And yet, so little has been done to address it. There is unease, there is trouble, there is trauma and depression. For the disabled, it is a far greater challenge to find a safe space for themselves. And that’s what Javed bhai has created in Bijbehara. A place of hope and peace.
“It was on the 21st of March, 1997. I was living with my cousin in Bijbehara. At midnight a group of militants entered the house and tried to kidnap my cousin. He was Block President of the National Conference and the militants opposed those affiliated with it. My family members retaliated and the militants started shooting indiscriminately. A bullet hit me. I was taken in a critical condition to a Hospital in Srinagar. My right kidney, liver and spleen were shattered. I needed surgeries. For the next seven months I remained in the hospital. My family closed the house and came to help me at my bedside. A final surgery on my spinal cord was done at the Bone & Joint Hospital. It was not successful and I was told that I would never walk again. The condition was irreversible, the doctors said. I was brought home and from that day on, confined to the bed. I was restless, sleepless and depressed. I had no money; I could not walk; I could not hope to get a job. I didn’t know how to start a new life. Two years went by and I didn’t feel any better.
Lying on my bed, I would hear the children outside. Every day I heard them. And one day I told my mother to go around the neighbourhood and collect the children who were not in school. She came back with two children and I decided to tutor them. I did this lying on the bed. By the end of the year I was tutoring 90 children from morning until night. It helped me to overcome my own pain and depression. Soon after, I enrolled for certificate courses in Computing and Human Rights from the Indira Gandhi National Open University. I had decided that I would work for the welfare of humanity. I set up a computer centre and many youth started coming there.
I registered a society, the Humanity Welfare Organisation. I also decided to enrol for a Masters in Social Work at Jammu University. It was 7-8 years before I stepped out of my home and immediate surroundings. And when I did, it bothered me that there were no disabled people on the streets. They seemed to have disappeared from mainstream life. I filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) on behalf of disabled people, to find out what our rights were. This simple step led to a census taking of persons with disability and AIDS in the state of Jammu & Kashmir. Among other things, it revealed 200,000 blind people and yet, no one was offering education in Braille. I became more and more depressed about the conditions for disabled people. When I met disabled people and asked them about their problems, they expressed the lack of education as a big one. They had nothing to help reclaim their lives, no job that would use their capacities and no opportunity that would help further it. We set up the Zebunnisa Helpline School. The first programme that we introduced was education in Braille. There are seven students who are learning through Braille.
The psychological effects of disability are real and it can break a person to a point of no return. That’s why my aim is to rehabilitate the disabled children towards integrating into the mainstream life, where they will be prepared for life in a regular school. My motto is ‘Be a part, not apart’. Children with disability need not be a burden on their families or society. When their capabilities are utilized they too can contribute and be productive. I am saying we can be a part of society. It is time for us to step out of the shadows into the light. ”
Javed Ahmed Tak