Born blind in a remote south Kashmir village, it was the mother who ensured that her children must study. Now, PhD scholars, the youngest is flying to Scotland for further studies, reports Babra Wani
On the border between Shopian and Kulgam districts lies the unassuming village of Hanjan literally on the shortest road connecting Anantnag with Shopian. In this seemingly routine apple village reside two remarkable siblings, Rohi and Aqib, who have battled visual impairment from birth.
Now, in their mid-twenties, their disability has not hindered them from pursuing their dreams. Rohi and Aqib are currently on their way to obtaining a Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD) from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Rohi is immersed in her PhD journey in Education, while Aqib has chosen International Relations as his academic path. Remarkably, both have secured the Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) as well.
Hanjan village boasts just three PhD scholars, with Rohi and Aqib proudly holding two of these positions. Their dedication can be attributed to their resolute mother, who served as their driving force.
It was their aunt who first noticed Rohi’s impairment at birth. “But other family members laughed at her. No one believed it,” Rohi said, “In those days, there was no ultrasound; so basically, no one could detect the defect when I was in my mother’s womb.” Born to Abdul Rehman Naikoo and Mahmooda Banu, the siblings have faced 100 per cent visual impairment since birth.
Born into a family of four, they had to fight for their education. “No schools, colleges, and universities in Kashmir have the necessary facilities. My mother tried a lot for my admission, she went to the nearest schools in our locality and tried to convince them but all in vain,” Rohi explained. Echoing her, Aqib added, “Because of their scepticism about our capabilities and their teaching methods, they refused the admission in the beginning because they argued that we did not know how to teach such children.”
Finally, Mahmooda talked to her father and asked him to convince the management. Fortunately, they agreed. However, the school administration made it clear that they do not have the facilities to meet the requirements.
Rohi’s admission paved the way for Aqib to join the school and start their educational journey. She was four years old when she began attending school. “I started to take my examinations orally, which continued until I reached my eighth standard.” Their eighth standard marked a turning point in their lives. “Till then, the teachers were unaware of the concept of a scribe in examinations,” Aqib explained.
Rohi recalled her shocking incident in school. “The school offered me my qualification certificate without the need for an examination, unaware of my need for a scribe,” she said. “They sent all the students, except for me, to collect their documents, such as Admit Cards. When I found out, I retreated to my room and wept profusely. It was then that I realised, for the first time, I was different from them.”
After relentless efforts, Rohi successfully appeared in the examination and excelled. Following her eighth grade, she enrolled in Army Goodwill Public School, located on a high ground not far away from their residence. “The situation there was no different; there were no facilities for disabled students.” Soon after, Aqib joined his sister after passing his eighth standard examinations.
In her tenth grade, Rohi encountered difficulties while studying mathematics. She expressed, “There was no technology available for us to simplify the complexities of mathematics, which presented a challenge not only for me but also for my parents.” But with her wit and grit, she qualified.
Following her tenth grade, she opted for social science subjects and enrolled in Girls Higher Secondary School, Yaripora.
Aqib recalled his school years. “The teachers did not know how to teach us. So, we just used to go to the classes and attend the classes like other students. No special attention or study material was provided to us whatsoever. We were reliant on our cousins and classmates who recorded the answers for us. We did not have access to Braille, which we came to know about in 2014.”
During Rohi’s time at Higher Secondary, Aqib, after passing his tenth grade, was enrolled in Government Boys Secondary School, Yaripora. “My enrolment in the boys’ secondary school was a turning point in my life,” Aqib said. “It was there that I discovered accessible technology, allowing me to use computers to access and read books.”
It was a teacher, Khurshid Ahmed, who mentored Aqib. The struggles for the siblings continued, and their father assisted Rohi with her commute to and from while Aqib enjoyed more freedom.
Upon completing their higher secondary examinations, both siblings secured admission to Government Degree College, Kulgam. Rohi was fortunate to discover a close friend in her cousin’s sister, who happened to be in the same class, offering her valuable companionship. Meanwhile, Aqib, although equally determined, did not have the privilege of such companionship.
Following their graduation, Rohi embarked on a journey of academic excellence by pursuing a Master’s degree in Education at the University of Kashmir. In contrast, Aqib encountered his own set of challenges during his undergraduate studies and, due to the limitations of the college infrastructure, decided to pursue his education from the comfort of his home, where he could better manage his daily commitments.
Rohi was introduced to the National Eligibility Test (NET) through a friend and embarked on diligent preparations, relying on her friend’s assistance and educational resources available on YouTube. Miraculously, she not only passed the examination but excelled in it. Her brother, Aqib, took the initiative to enrol her at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), where Rohi’s academic journey took a remarkable turn.
In her journey at JNU, Rohi achieved another significant milestone by qualifying for the Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) and commenced her PhD studies. “I attribute my accomplishments to the blessings of Allah and the unwavering support of my parents as well as the collective effort of my brother and me, that we have completed this arduous journey. Throughout my struggles, I received no external guidance or support from NGOs, organisations, associations, or educational institutions.” Rohi asserted.
In contrast, Aqib embarked on a different path, preparing for the UPSC exams following his graduation. Impressively, he aced the prelims in his very first attempt and made commendable progress towards passing the mains. Unfortunately, his journey was interrupted by the unforeseen challenges posed by the Covid19 pandemic.
Upon a second attempt at the UPSC exams, Aqib decided to alter his course. When he secured admission to JNU for a master’s programme in politics with a specialisation in International Relations (IR), he made the deliberate choice to focus on his academic pursuits and set aside the UPSC journey.
For both, JNU is their haven. “When I reached JNU, I learned about actual reading and writing. In my centre, every person helps me understand how to read and write. All the faculties understand my problem,” Rohi said. Aqib shared the same sentiment, praising the university’s infrastructure for its support and accessibility.
Following the successful completion of his Master’s degree, Aqib continued to excel academically, securing admission for his doctoral studies, and earning the Junior Research Fellowship (JRF). As an exciting new chapter unfolds, in January 2024, he will set off on a new journey to Scotland to pursue another Master’s degree, fully funded through a scholarship granted by the Ministry of Social Justice, Government of India.
The unwavering support and strength of their mother have been the cornerstone of the siblings’ success. “She consistently believed in our abilities and treated us just like any other children. Her message was clear: whatever others can achieve, so can we. She never wavered in this belief,” affirmed both siblings.
They also expressed deep gratitude for their father, highlighting his unwavering presence and continuous support, both in terms of finances and emotional well-being. “He is always been there for us,” they acknowledged.
In addition to their educational endeavours, their parents also played a significant role in imparting valuable religious knowledge, instilling a holistic foundation that goes beyond academic accomplishments.
Rohi expressed deep gratitude to her cousin, who plays a vital role in assisting her with travelling, enabling her to pursue her ambitions. Remarkably, both siblings have harnessed the power of technology and gadgets independently, showcasing their self-sufficiency and self-reliance. An intriguing and unique aspect of their abilities is their shared culinary skills; both are skilled cooks.
Rohi fondly recalled her parents’ concern when they were children, often grappling with emotional worries about how their lives would unfold. However, with determination and resilience, they have now overcome those challenges, and an enthusiastic Rohi proclaimed, “We have come a long way, and we are both here, thriving.”
Rohi also shed light on the prevailing lack of awareness about disabilities and the associated rights in Kashmir. “Individuals with any form of impairment face significant challenges in our region. None of the departments seemed to be well-informed about our disabilities,” Rohi said. “We encountered hurdles not only within the educational sector but also across various other domains. People often struggle to comprehend how to effectively interact with someone with a disability. Moreover, during examinations, officials have consistently failed to implement the necessary reservations as mandated by the law.”
Aqib reflected on their family’s esteemed reputation, which shielded them from outright bullying. However, he acknowledged the presence of passing comments as a part of their experience.
Aqib said that the way society perceives disability is distinct. He explained that in their society or the village where he resides when there were discussions about their future during their childhood, people would often contend that due to their inability to see the world, their prospects appeared grim. “Even if we were pursuing education, it was believed that we would not fully benefit from our studies and would end up relying on others.”
The society’s perception of disability, he believes “was and continues to be very negative.” Aqib mentioned that in Kashmiri society, individuals with disabilities are often seen as something unique, who are bestowed with God’s blessings. “I do not believe that you are blessed when a part of your body is taken away,” he asserted.
Aqib dislikes the discourse around disability within Kashmiri society. Even newspapers carry some items on specific dates. “I believe that there should be, at the very least, one news item or op-ed each month addressing the concerns of individuals with disabilities,” he asserted.