The violence in Kashmir valley has unwittingly given birth to a culture of social activism, which has diversified over the years and is now playing an important supplementary role in checking the abuse of the executive authority. The phenomenon that began over three decades ago with the rise of human rights activism has now branched into other fields like environment, women and children, transgender community and anti-drug awareness. This is indeed an important development, which is only growing by the day. I am myself fortunate enough to have been actively associated with social activism for the last one decade as a youth activist and this is something that needs to be encouraged and given enhanced government support.
The history of political activism is over 100 year old in Kashmir — from the times of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, who jumped into student politics during the Dogra rule after completing his higher education from Aligarh Muslim University. While many Kashmiris over the decades since than have emerged in the field of political activism, not much was done in the field of social activism. While there were traditional Muslim charitable institutions catering to widows and orphans, there wasn’t any formal institutional culture of modern social activism in the valley.
The time when the culture of social activism started taking shape in India in early 1980s, Kashmir unfortunately plunged into turmoil and things just came to a standstill. There wasn’t any time or aptitude for cultivating an activist culture in the valley. However, also out of the turmoil sprouted the first seeds of modern social activism in the form of human rights activism.
Three decades of violence and turmoil left the region with a huge number of destitute women, orphaned children, missing persons and so on. This led to the emergence of a culture of human rights protection that saw emergence of many individuals, lawyers and youth activists legally pursuing cases of rights abuses. Whether it was a case of seeking habeus corpus petition or a simple bail, a thriving community of young legal activists emerged and slowly the focus shifted to other issues like women and child welfare, and cultural activities like song, music, literature and environment.
Environment protection activism has especially taken a very high-profile position, with many individuals, NGOs and civil organisations coming together and starting individual or collective endeavours covering a diverse range of issues, including preservation of lakes and water bodies, plantation drives, checking land, air and water pollution and fighting rapid proliferation of illegal brick kilns.
As a resident of Budgam district’s Beerwah division, I hail from one of the poorest parts of Kashmir, which has been devastated by the mushrooming of unauthorised brick kilns that have not only destroyed thousands of kanals of highly fertile agricultural and horticultural land, but have also led to high level of toxic air pollution in the district, polluting land as well as water resources and affecting the health of the local population.
The unchecked mushrooming of such kilns that supply bricks for construction activities in Srinagar and rest of the valley is operated by people with criminal and anti-social affiliations and, therefore, many locals have been reluctant to lodge a formal complaint with the law enforcement authorities as well as district officials. Hence, neither the local police nor administration could take any serious action against such activities.
That is where the civil society of Beerwah and I came into the picture and decided to lodge a formal complaint against the illegal operation with the local administration on behalf of the ‘civil society of Beerwah’. Our collective action reaped benefits and the local administration took cognisance of our petition and ordered swift and timely action. Soon after, a team of government and local police officials were deputed for the purpose and they not only put an end to under-construction illegal brick kilns, but also dismantled a large number of such illegally structures operating in the area. Several violators were also booked and orders have been given to restore the land to its original position.
The entire operation was covered widely by local social media networks and it surprised many in the area as they thought these kilns had become a permanent feature of their once pristine landscape, as they were run by powerful criminals, who could not be touched by ordinary people. The local, most of whom are extremely poor, thought they would have to endure the ill-effects of these kilns forever. This helpless feeling was challenged by the civil society. While I was also a part of it, the same would not have been possible without the collective efforts of a wide range of prominent residents of Beerwah, including lawyers, teachers and doctors, who lent their names to a cause that was important for their town, their people and their own health.
Social activism in Kashmir valley has come of age in recent times. It is of course not easy to be any kind of activist in a political turbulent, sensitive and unpredictable place such as Kashmir valley, but despite all these obstacles, social activism has found its niche in the valley’s modern discourse and that is indeed a welcome development. It can play an important role in supplementing and supporting administrative welfare measures and in smooth delivery of government schemes to the local population. It can also check any misuse, corruption or overuse of executive power. It is a powerful modern tool of polity that has served an important role in serving people like journalists and its is indeed a welcome development that Kashmir despite its turbulent modern history has finally seen the emergence of social activism.