Distress Calls

The aftermath of Burhan’s killing left families divided across Kashmir. There was no way one could have reached their loved ones studying outside Valley. To ease the pain a group of volunteers offered the much needed help, both emotional and monetarily. Aakash Hassan reports the group’s good, bad and ugly experiences

On July 8, after the news of Burhan Wani’s death became public, the first causality was communication. Except Government of India run BSNL, no other mobile network worked in Kashmir. Instantly, life was thrown out of gear, with people struggling to reach their loved ones, residing in and outside Kashmir valley.

Shakir Hussain Bhat, 25, a young businessman settled in Rohtak Haryana, couldn’t control his emotions when he talked to his parents after a long pause. “They too broke down over phone,” recalls Shakir.

Immediately Shakir made his mind to set a line of communication for people like him.

Same day, Shakir posted on his Facebook, ‘if someone is from my area post a message here for your family’.

After the message was posted Shakir would contact his friends in Kashmir, who had BSNL phones, and tell them pass the message to the family. “I released that most of the messages were from students studying outside, asking for money from their parents in Kashmir,” recalls Shakir.

“I came across a number of messages where students managed their expenses by selling their belongings.”

Shakir, a struggler himself, who started his business at very young age as a shawl vendor, turned nostalgic and decided to help.

“I wrote an email to Greater Kashmir newspaper and asked people to contact me if they need any immediate financial help,” recalls Shakir.

Once the message was published on the newspapers website, Shakir received hundreds of emails and calls.

There were all kinds of requests: students outside requested him for monentarily assistance while locals asked him to help pay their bills.

Shakir went on without refusing any request and begun paying bills and transferring money.

“I didn’t sleep for first couple of days due to the quantum of calls I received,” he recalls.

After a few days, Shakir got a call from likeminded group, who too wanted to help people in need. “Within no time the number of people offering help grew,” recalls Shakir.

The new faces in team were: Owais Qasim Mir, a Qazigund resident who was pursuing BDS from a Lucknow university; Mohammad Rafiq, a Soura Srinagar resident, who is a junior scientist in Chennai; Dibesh Pandita, from Pulwama, who studies at Ambala university; Shah Tawfeek, data scientist in Bangalore; Inam-ul-Haq and Muzaffar Ahmad, PHD scholars at Gujrat university; Dr Imtiyaz and Dr Zahoor, both living in Indore and a few others.

Spread across Indian cities these youngsters kept in touch with each other through a Whatsapp group. “Their aim was common. So we started working together, like a team,” said Shakir.

As they began working together, they shared their individual experiences of helping the unknown. “As the stories began to unfold we spotted a problem,” recalls Shakir.

There were a number of individuals who had sought help from more than one person. “We realized that there were people who were taking advantage of our help,” said Shakir.

So, in order to avoid confusion, Shakir and his friends began asking for ID proofs from individuals who sought help. As the requests heaped, they created a facebook page to manage the rush. “We were working round the clock from our respective locations,” said Shakir who took time off from his business to devote himself to project help.

With a number of students in the group now, it was easy to understand and relate with their issues, like payment of dues and rent. “I was caught in the same situation and left cashless,” said Owais. “Initially I sold some of my belongings and managed myself.”

But to help his friends and other Kashmiri students studying in Lucknow, Owais sold his bike and AC.

On the other hand, Mohammad Rafiq used his scholarship amount to help Kashmiris students.

“We got calls from Kashmiries who worked in foreign counties and India. They extended whatever help they could,” said Shakir. “We connected donors directly to the needy. It helped us save our time.”

Once the situation worsened back home, and Kashmiris became target of fanatic mobs in Indian cities, Shakir offered his place in Rohtak to the students who left their college in fear. “We left our college in fear and contacted Shakir on facebook. He welcomed us to his house,” said a Kashmiri student who studies in Haryana.

When Rafia, a postgraduate student at a Punjab college, was asked to pay her exam fee within five days, she had no option but to seek help. On a friends advice Rafia contacted one of the group members and shared her problem with him.

“I literally wept on phone while talking to him,” recalls Rafia, who refused to give her full name.

The same day money was transferred in Rafia’s account, saving a precious year of her studies.

But not all requests received by the group were meaningful; some of them left Shakir and his friends angry too. One such call came from Kashmir where a person asked Shakir to recharge his dishTV connection immediately.

“When I refused on the grounds that there are people who lack basic needs, the guy started abusing,” recalls Shakir.

On another occasion a girl called and asked for money as she wanted to go on a trip. “We are not millionaires. We were using our lifetime savings to help people,” said Mohammad Rafiq.

But despite the occasional letdowns the group continued with their noble work. “We collectively managed more than Rs 5 lakh,” said Shakir. “Most of the beneficiaries were students.”

Once the money would reach the needy, they would thank Shakir and his friends and assure them that once the system is restored in valley, they would pay back.

However, once the communication was restored in Kashmir, only thirty percent of the money was retuned.

Ironically, as the requests continued to reach, the group tried to contact people they had helped earlier, hoping they will payback so that more people could be helped.

“But nobody bothered to respond. Even some started abusing us, and would deny receiving anything at all,” said Shakir.

As the response from people left a bad taste among volunteers, a number of them left the group in disgust.

“I sold my belongings to help people. But when I contacted them after the situation improved, their behavior broke my heart,” recalls Owais.

“A girl had given number of her father and when I contacted that number, it was her boyfriend, who threatened me with FIR, if I contacted again,” said Shakir. “I gave around Rs 3 lakh to people during peak crisis, but only Rs 1 lakh and a few thousands were returned.”

If things would have worked smoothly as Shakir thought initially, there were plans of applying for a permanent toll free helpline number.

“I was also planning to open an account in the name of the group. The idea was to create a permanent trouble shooter for students studying outside,” said Shakir.

But as the group was duped by most of the people, the plan was dropped, said Shakir.

“I will not stop helping in future, but the response is certainly discouraging,” said Mohammad Rafiq.

Though the facebook page is still functional but the group is dejected and hurt.

“I helped not for reward, but to serve my people who genuinely suffered,” said Shakir “Our lord will reward us.”

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