O compromisso de Susheela Bhan com a identidade cultural já salvou centenas de vidas. Impulsionada pela paixão em restaurar a humanidade, a fé e a integridade da sua Caxemira natal destruída pela guerra, Bhan embarcou numa missão, de escola em escola, para transformar essa comunidade devastada.
Susheela Bhan’s commitment to cultural identity has saved hundreds of lives. Fueled by a passion to restore humanity, faith, and integrity in her war-torn homeland of Kashmir, Bhan embarked on a mission to transform her ravaged community—one school at a time.
This former college professor established the Institute of Peace Research and Action (IPRA) to develop a comprehensive curriculum inculcating democracy, secularism, social justice, and human rights into the hearts and minds of Kashmiri youth. The program helps keep kids off the battlefield too.
Deep in the heart of the Kashmir Valley, where militant Islamic groups recruit young people and armed clashes have killed more than 70,000 youths in the past decade, Bhan's program is active in more than 200 schools in six districts. Miraculously, not a single student from these schools has been recruited by militants since her program was established in 1999. Although proving a direct link between the IPRA and the drop in militant recruiting is difficult if not impossible, there does appear to be a high correlation between the two.
Although Kashmir has been a flashpoint between India and Pakistan since the partition of 1947, things worsened considerably in the 1990s after militant Islamic groups began attacking the civilian population. Kashmir imploded into sectarian violence and Bhan's own minority Hindu Pandit community was targeted by Islamic militants. They fled in large numbers, including Bhan's family.
Students and youth have suffered disproportionately. In addition to being exposed to bloodshed and brutality almost daily, they are targeted for recruitment by armed groups. Today, every young person in Kashmir has somehow been scarred by violence, either as a participant or an inadvertent bystander.
Recovering Lost Traditions
But Bhan remembers growing up in a more diverse and tolerant Kashmir shaped by Kashmiriyat, the Kashmiri Sufi-based heritage. Encompassing history, religion, ethnicity and language (Kashmiri) yet transcending all of them, Kashmiriyat is based on Islamic Sufi teachings but draws lessons from both Shaivite Hindu values of asceticism as well as Buddhist renunciation; it also emphasizes a universal humanity that abhors intolerance and exploitation.
As Kashmir descended into conflict, Kashmiriyat became distorted beyond recognition. A new concept of Kashmiriyat was promoted, one that was manipulated according to the nefarious interests of a few, as tolerance and trust waned. Simultaneously, schools became hollow institutions and teachers became isolated individuals not knowing how to respond to the morass of corruption, criminality, unemployment, and despair surrounding and slowly engulfing them.
Bhan however, saw an opportunity to improve the situation through the school system. Working with government, teachers and students in Kashmir, Bhan's organization, the Institute of Peace Research and Action (IPRA) has developed a curriculum that integrates the four pillars on which Kashmiriyat stands—democracy, secularism, social justice, and human rights—through lessons, cultural activities, skill building opportunities, and inter-school competitions in government schools and villages.
Bhan's focus on government schools as the ground for action is strategic because these institutions have also been the primary avenues through which militants have recruited their cadres. By focusing strongly on the pillars of Kashmiriyat, Bhan deepens empathetic understanding and fosters the growth of value-based decision making.
Significantly in this politically charged atmosphere, her approach is non-partisan (favoring neither India nor Pakistan, the militants nor the army) and its cultural core is non-threatening and universal, which also makes it ostensibly apolitical. Yet, it works to provide another alternative to militancy for youth at these schools.
Culture Clubs: Shoring Up Eroding Values
It was in a rapidly deteriorating atmosphere that Bhan began working to forge new connections between youth in the Kashmir valley by probing deep into their eroding common heritage, Kashmiriyat, and urging them to internalize and connect through their Kashmiriyat. Bahn's program has formed a partnership with the government. Together, they selected schools that will incorporate the program based on criteria that require schools have equal numbers of males and females, that some are located in rural or terrorist-infested areas, that the principals are willing to adopt the program, and that the district education officer will provide support.
Bhan then convenes a meeting with the principles of the schools and shares the tenets and methodology of the program. Her goal is to persuade the leaders of these schools that the government supports her project and to get their buy-in at the start. Each school forms a cultural committee that consists of the principal and interested teachers, one of whom acts as program coordinator. This job takes a fair amount of time so the coordinators are paid an honorarium in addition to their salary.
The coordinator administers the program through a cultural club that consists of secondary school and senior school students. There is one club per school. The students in the club organize cultural programs, debates, symposiums, theater, and a variety of inter-school competitions with the guidance of the coordinator. The guiding principle for all activities is that they must promote and reinforce the values of democracy, secularism, social justice and human rights. For example, a debate topic in an inter-school competition could be "Human rights go hand-in-hand with responsibilities. Argue for or against." Thus, the students think deeply about and internalize these values as they compete for prizes.
Empathy: Key to Harmony and Success
Bhan offers anecdotal evidence that the program is making a difference. For example, a young woman who used to wear the burkha (veil) to school stopped doing so after a militant group announced that any woman not wearing a burkha would be killed. The girl had reflected deeply on her reasons for wearing the burkha, discussed it with her friends and family in light of the militants' threat, and come to the conclusion that morality is a reflection of a person's character, not the clothes they wear.
Another example occurred when Bhan was encouraging some female students to start a women's group to work on community issues. She suggested they take a few days to think about whether they wanted to do this or not, but they telephoned her after one day and told her they were ready to begin and didn't need time to think about it. Students who graduate from the program have formed community groups or have continued on to university where they have replicated some of the activities they learned in their cultural clubs.
Although her attempts to foster empathy in Kashmir, where the stakes are so high, have produced encouraging results, Bhan is under no illusions about the difficulty of ensuring that the lessons learned in school "stick" after these youths go out into Kashmir's harsh social landscape. Empathy is a life skill and will be crucial to these students throughout their lives. But, Bhan notes, "they also need tangible economic opportunities to pursue after they graduate from school or college, and this is my main challenge from now on." She hopes to begin persuading businesses to invest in Kashmir. Empathy is just as essential to success in business as it is to reforming violent societies, so the skills and values these youth gain in school will be a source of strength for them no matter what they do.