At seven his father became part of Kashmir’s surging collateral damage and at 14 he was formally admitted to an orphanage. Nine years later, he had his career script ready. Shams Irfan treks a long mountain ascent to meet Mohammad Umar Iqbal who pays back to the society in Doda by running a model school for the people surviving on the margins.
During 90s at the peak of armed militancy in Kashmir what happened across Pir Panjal remained unknown to the world. Geographically cut off from rest of Kashmir Chenab valley often suffered alone and silently.
On 5th February, 1996 in a small nondescript village called Bhabore near Ghat in Doda district, Mohammad Umar Iqbal, who was seven then, remembers exactly how soldiers from a nearby camp came and picked his father in the dead of night. The events of that night and the nights that followed refuse to fade from Umar’s memory. He remembers vividly how three days later (8th February) his father’s tortured body was found outside their house. He also remembers how his family was advised to hasten the burial and mourn silently and secretly. For young Umar, it was difficult to believe that his father was killed because his uncle was a Hizb-ul-Mujahideen militant. “My father taught at a private school in Bhabore. He had nothing to do with militancy,” said Umar after struggling for words for a while. “It pains when people try to justify my father’s killing because my uncle was a militant,” argues Umar. His uncle was killed in an encounter in Malna near his village in 2002.
As he grew up he began to understand that his father’s death was not a case of revenge killing for his uncle’s militant activities, which was a norm during 90’s. “He was killed because he knew education is the biggest tool to help a subjugated society get free,” feels Umar.
He remembers that his father was often called to Arnora camp, some three kilometres from Bhabore village, where he was detained for hours for questioning. “They used to harass my father as he was teaching at a Jamat-e-Islami backed school,” said Umar. During 90’s there were around 100 such schools in district Doda. These were looked after by Saadullah Tantray, a local Jamat-e-Islami head who later formed Jammu and Kashmir Freedom Movement party.
Umar’s father Mohammad Iqbal Bhat, who was posted across the region in Jamat-e-Islami schools, was a famous figure among villagers in Bhabore and its surrounding areas. “My father wanted to see every kid in this area get an education,” said Umar. “I think they (army) were more afraid of my father’s pen then my uncle’s gun.”
The images of his father’s blood-soaked body remained etched in Umar’s memory. “It was hard for a seven-year-old kid like me to bear that sight. But then we are all helpless,” says Umar.
From district Kishtwar, it takes around one and a half hour to reach Ghat, a small village located on top of an isolated hill with steep sides and a flat top. But in order to reach Bhabore village one has to travel further 6 kilometres uphill through a rough mountain road that passes through the thick cover of bushes.
Midway between Ghat and Babhore village, on a flat piece of land that once belonged to locals who alleged that it was taken forcefully against a meagre compensation, stands Arnora army camp. The camp is visible from a distance because of the large buildings that it houses. Such large buildings are uncommon in this part of Chenab valley. The camp also houses Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya School (estd. 1986) where, students, mostly from Chandigarh study..
“Earlier it used to be just a school. But in 1995 or 96, the army came here and fenced the adjoining areas which belonged to people from Ghat and Bhabore villages. Now it is a garrison,” says Umar while giving an overview of the area.
With around a hundred fifty-odd households, Bhabore is a small village situated away from the bustling life of Doda town. One can stand on top of any house in Babhore village and see Chenab River flowing like a snake silently through narrow gorges below.
Mohammad Iqbal Bhat’s killing left his family shattered. He left behind a family of four to feed including his wife, his two sons and a daughter. Being the eldest son in the family Umar was forced to act like a grownup. “I am too young to help my family in any way. But still, I tried my best to encourage my siblings to act strong,” he recalls.
After completing his 8th standard from a local school, Umar was unable to continue his studies because of financial constraints.
Akram Sahab, a local Jamat activist arranged for Umar to join an orphanage in Srinagar. “I had completed my 8th standard examination and then left for Srinagar,” Umar explains. “It was a new chapter in my life. From happy family life to an orphanage in an alien land was difficult to adjust with initially,” Umar feels.
Once in Srinagar, he worked hard to realize his father’s incomplete dream. “My mother would often tell me that my father was keen to give me the best education so that I can help my people someday,” he says.
At Jammu and Kashmir Yateem Khana, Bemina (Chattabal), Umar made new friends. “I realised that I am not the only one who has suffered in the last 25 years of conflict. There were those kids whose entire families were erased because of their ideology or affiliations,” says Umar.
Life in the orphanage taught Umar the art of survival. He says he learned how important it is to survive in the face of danger.
During vacations, Umar used to visit his family in Bhabore. On one such journey, while walking past the Arnora camp where he believes his father was killed, Umar remembers promising himself that he will not let his father fade in time. “I wanted to keep his memory alive but had no idea how,” says Umar. It was a youngster’s desperate attempt against time to preserve his father’s memory. But as he left the orphanage, things finally started to unfold before him.
After completing his graduation in 2012 from Yateem Khana, Bemina (Chattabal) Srinagar, Umar came back to his village and started a school. “It was my father’s unfulfilled dream,” says Umar.
Initially, Umar was sceptic about being able to run a school on his own. “Frankly I was afraid of failure. I had no teaching experience. I was just another graduate.”
But the feeling of doing something for children who have lost their parents and who cannot afford quality education made Umar stronger. Next, Umar approached his paternal aunt with a proposal to start a school for poor and needy children of Chenab valley. She readily agreed and gave Umar a six-room commercial building she owned near main market Bhabore. Umar named his school after his late father Mohammad Iqbal Bhat. Within one year of its start, Iqbal Memorial School has a hundred students who are taught both modern and religious literature. “Right now it is only a primary school (up to 5th standard). We are in a process to upgrade it to the middle school level,” informs Umar.
Until last year Babhore was just another village in district Doda that hardly attracted any visitors. But now a single storey yellow building that houses Iqbal Memorial School, has become a new identity of Babhore. The building which has been originally constructed with an aim to house commercial shops is seen as a symbol of hope by villagers. This hope is reflected in one of Alama Iqbal’s couplets written in bold Urdu letters on the outer walls of one of the shops, which serves as the office for Umar’s school:
“Fearth me not, the ambient darkness, for purity and dazzle lies in my essence. Oh, the traveller of night be your own candle, brighten thy night with the laceration of your heart.”
(Mujhe daara nahi sakti fiza ki tarekei, meri sarshasht mai hai paaki wa darakshani. Tu ae musafir shab khud chirag ban apna, kar apni raat ko daage jigaar se noorani)
Sitting in his small office that doubles as a computer lab for students Umar says, “I wanted to be a teacher since my childhood.”
Iqbal Memorial School is run by a team of seven local teachers including Umar. Just a year old, Umar’s initiative has earned him respect from both the communities. “I don’t differentiate between students on the basis of their religion. Anybody is welcome to join this institute. We have a lady teacher who is a Hindu. It doesn’t bother anybody here,” says Umar.
Being an orphan himself, Umar’s school offers free education to such kids irrespective of their religion. “I have myself been part of an orphanage. I know how it feels.
Not everybody can go to Srinagar. And there are no other good orphanages in Chenab valley,” says Umar.
It was his experience at Yateem Khana Srinagar that helped Umar in understanding the pain and desperation of orphans who don’t have means but urge to get an education.
At present, there are four orphans from nearby villages who study at Umar’s school. In the last 25 years of conflict Bhabore village and its adjoining areas bore the brunt of both insurgency and counter-insurgency operations. “If you go further up from here (Bhabore) towards remote villages you will come across more painful stories and even more orphans. I want to reach to those kids who have lost their parents as well as hope,” he says.
In order to dedicate himself completely to his mission, Umar is currently pursuing B ed from Kashmir University’s distant education mode.
Since Umar came back from Srinagar usually gloomy faces of his villagers are now lit with hope most of the time. People who felt cut off from the outside world hope that things will change for better soon. “Our aim is to make this school a self-sustaining institution. I want to see my father’s dream come true. He always wanted to see people of this region get an education,” he says.
Umar understands that this is just the beginning of a long and difficult journey. But he says that he draws his inspiration from children who have lost their parents early in life but still manage to live with dignity and self-respect. “When I see these kids (orphans) I become more resolute in my mission,” says Umar.
Till recently the Chenab valley was accessible through Srinagar Jammu highway only. One had to travel to Batote first, a small hill station some 160 kilometres from Srinagar, and then take a diversion from there to reach Doda district through one of the toughest motorable terrains that run along river Chenab. It was only after the opening of Islamabad-Kishtwar road, which passes through Simthan Top (3748 metres above sea level), for small light vehicular traffic that Chenab valley got connected to Kashmir valley. The travel distance is reduced by around 60 kilometres. “The new road will help us connect with Kashmir in a better way. People now hope of rekindling the long lost connections with Kashmir valley,” feels Umar.
Ask him how it feels to be an icon among his people at such a young age and a shy smile flashes across his face. “I have done nothing remarkable yet. I am just trying to make our lives better through education,” he says in a matter of fact manner.
When asked how he manages both students and teachers despite being a fresh pass-out himself, he says, “Spending your childhood in an orphanage teaches you a lot. Trust me!”
Umar is happy to be back among his people after spending nine years in what he calls forced exile. But there are some questions that still haunt his young mind. “I still fail to understand why my father was such a big threat to them (Army) that they eliminated him. He was a teacher for God sake. He never picked up a gun. He simply wanted to educate kids from this area.”
Seventeen years have passed since his father was killed but the memories and scars are still fresh. “I want to keep him (his father) alive through this school.”