Professor Susheela Bhan is working through government schools in war-ravaged Kashmir to forge a new nonviolent identity for citizens based on common secular and pluralistic traditions. Her method uses the very institutions and persons most seriously damaged by the conflict to address the confusion and hostility that continue to erode Kashmiri society.
The New Idea
While Kashmir has long been ripped apart by years of warfare, a period of calm now affords the opportunity for Susheela to begin rebuilding–starting from the places most damaged by the conflict–the schools. Working with government school students and teachers in Kashmir, she guides the development of a situated curriculum designed to help young people overcome years of endemic violence and lead the recovery of a tolerant and pluralistic society. Using students and teachers as an entry point, she aims to reach families, neighborhoods, mosques, and armed groups, challenging the hatred that has eaten away humane relations by reawakening citizens to their gentle traditions that afford practical alternatives to carnage and bigotry.
The key to Susheela's work is her strategic use of Kashmiri culture and identity. Whereas the conflict has been treated by the state as a problem of law and order, Susheela's program is the first cultural and educational scheme to help Kashmiris free themselves from their plight. Its "cultural" exterior is nonthreatening and universal. This is important. Even though conditions in Kashmir are now sufficiently stable to allow her work to move ahead, there are many risks. Susheela's team monitors every step of the work carefully and keeps the contents moving in response to the interests of the students and teachers, as well as the overall conditions. The curriculum is practical and evolving, informed by future needs and not romantic notions of the past. As Susheela explains, "My objective is not to organize some cultural programs but rather, starting with the students and teachers, to transform the society into something dynamic, secular and plural, so that people will never be exploited again, so that they will fight for their rights."
Equipped with new attitudes, knowledge, and skills, students and teachers become a force for positive change. Susheela's choice of government school students as the main catalysts for social renewal is significant, as they have also been the primary targets for recruitment by armed groups. In motivating them to stand for humanistic values as a cultural imperative, she is challenging them to become engaged citizens and leaders toward a new period of prosperity. However, they must be well trained and prepared–morally, intellectually, and professionally–for this daunting task. To that end, in addition to its cultural elements, an expanding proportion of the program's curriculum is being given over to skills training, thereby increasing participants' confidence in their ability to give direction to their damaged society.
Kashmir has been at the center of territorial disputes between India and Pakistan since partitioning in 1947, but the 1990s saw unparalleled savagery, and school students bore the brunt. In 1989 militant Islamic groups began an assault on the civilian population of Indian-occupied Kashmir. Apart from being exposed to the horrors of daily bloodshed and random brutality, government upper-school students were targeted for recruitment by armed groups. Adrift and without hope in a society torn from its moorings, students were ideal prey for recruiting agents offering them both a cause and money. Meanwhile, social inequity grew, as the elite–those who provoked others to violence for the sake of their vested interests–barricaded themselves and sent their children to study overseas. The government school students, caught up in a situation that they did not create or solicit, suffered disproportionately. Over the decade, more than 70,000 young people lost their lives, and every young person in Kashmir has somehow been scarred by the war, whether as a wholesale participant or reluctant observer.
As government schools were perverted from havens for learning to centers for militancy, Kashmiri cultural identity was distorted beyond recognition–from the benign to the malign. This unique heritage, the Kashmiriyat, is, a centuries-old blend of wisdom from some of the greatest religious and cultural traditions on earth: based on Islamic Sufi teachings, it draws lessons from Hindu values of asceticism and Buddhist renunciation. It speaks for a common humanity. Yet as institutions for imparting culture collapsed and its agents withdrew, "A new concept of Kashmiriyat was promoted," writes Susheela. "A form of ethnicity, which became situational, subservient to the specific times and interests, shifting, fleeting and illusory. The constituents of traditional Kashmiri identity and personality, the myths, memories, symbols and values were accorded new meanings and functions, and the young were fed on these."
As the fighting eased in 1996, buildings, roads, and bridges were reconstructed, but the social collapse persisted. Schools were repaired, but students were returning angry and disillusioned. For their part, Kashmir's once highly esteemed teachers now had little confidence in themselves, their profession, or their society. Rather than being communities for scholarship and growth, schools had become hollow institutions full of isolated individuals not knowing how to respond to pervasive corruption, criminality, exploitation, unemployment, and abnormality.
Susheela has set up the "Cultural Renewal of Kashmiri Youth" program in government schools of Kashmir to guide students and teachers in the rebuilding of a society with four core values: democracy, secularism, social justice, and human rights. The curriculum consists of 12 major areas with 300 subthemes determined through extensive ongoing studies by a team from her Institute of Peace Research and Action. Teachers and students choose areas and themes for study; they are also free to pursue their own interests but must adhere to the four key values. Subject matter includes architectural sites, poets, and Sufi saints. For instance, students may learn about Lalleshwari, a 14th century rebel against the repressive social order of her day, who utterly rejected caste, corrupted rituals, and religious discrimination. Students learn about her as both a female and social emancipator from whom they can draw lessons for their own lives. The teaching is pragmatic, the ideals reasonable, with a view toward incremental growth in a democratic ethos at home, in mosques, and marketplaces, introduced and advanced by students and teachers alike.
Although the program is integrated into the school day, it is organized through clubs of volunteers. Typically, when a new club is set up, a small number of bright and active students immediately become involved. Once they begin some activities, interest is generated and others join. To maintain good relations with the school administration, the clubs are watched over by a committee of teachers, each headed by the school principal. The committee includes the teacher-coordinator of the club. Coordinators hold monthly meetings at the district level to discuss work, compare notes, and share ideas about their activities. Hundreds of coordinators are also brought to Delhi for training on how to use culture as an instrument for social change. This approach also helps to keep the work autonomous: although it is being run through the government school system, the government is not responsible for its management and direction. It is important for the coordinators to see this, so they will understand that they have control over its contents and direction.
Rigorous evaluations of the program are made before school sessions end that include quantitative and qualitative assessment through surveys of both teachers and students. From these, Susheela's team is able to determine what motivates students to participate, which activities are preferred and why, how students and teachers are interacting, and what values they may or may not have internalized. The data is used to improve the curriculum in time for the coming semester. Additionally, Susheela has anecdotal evidence of the program effecting change. She fondly recalls a girl at one school who would wear a burkha throughout the whole day, refusing to take it off in class. A few months after Susheela encountered this student, a militant group threatened girls who failed to wear the burkha with death. The next time Susheela went to the school, she saw the same student without her burkha. When asked about this, the student said that the cultural club coordinator had explained how dress should be a matter of choice, not obligation. The student had discussed the matter with her father, who had agreed and advised her that morality is a reflection of a person's character, not clothes. Hence, she chose to remove the burkha, concluding, "I refuse to be pushed around by them. They don't know more about Islam than us."
An important aim in establishing the clubs is that participants soon get involved in work within their communities rather than remain behind the desks and walls of the school. Although this work is progressing slowly, Susheela is again encouraged by the prospects for change. She recalls how, talking with a group of female students at one school, she sought a promise from them to start a women's group that would work in the neighborhood to uncover problems and propose solutions. For her part, she promised that she would give guidance and put them in touch with persons in government and other agencies that could support their activities. Before leaving she told the students, "Next time I come back, tell me what you think about this idea." The students were not prepared to wait that long. After three days, she received a phone call, saying, "Please come back now. We are ready to start work."
Susheela's program is spreading rapidly within Kashmir, although many hurdles remain. While it aims to involve some 200,000 students and their teachers, these people are in turn responsible for influencing everyone else. Many have established neighborhood groups; others who have gone on to university have begun to replicate the work there. To support such initiatives, Susheela's team is beginning to publish newsletters and look at other media by which it can further the program's objectives. It is also turning to vocational training for graduating youth, so that their changing attitudes can be accompanied by marketable skills. However, Susheela has no illusions about the obstacles that remain, explaining that, "Between what I am trying to teach students and what they see in reality is a big gap." She is finding that one of the greatest challenges lies in identifying a way both to explain this gap and to bridge it sufficiently to make change possible. Nevertheless, she has a strong belief that substantial progress can be made within five years.
Outside of Kashmir, the program has attracted interest and Susheela is enthusiastically seeking collaborators. Regionally, she is willing for the model to be used elsewhere, but cautions that anybody wanting to undertake the work will have to begin from scratch, as it must be rooted in a specific cultural domain. Susheela is also contacting academics and activists in India, the region and beyond, to exchange ideas with experienced persons and to hook into the wider movement for ground-level social change. In this way, she hopes to give the clubs the durability necessary for a role in the long-term social reconstruction and development of Kashmir.
When massive sectarian violence engulfed Kashmir in the 1990s, Susheela experienced both a profoundly personal and professional crisis. Raised in the minority Hindu Pandit community there, she had always seen her homeland as diverse and tolerant. In 1989, however, 350,000 Pandits were forced out of Kashmir after Islamic militants ordered that they convert, leave, or die. Susheela was working with the Indian Council of Social Research in Delhi at the time, but her family was among those who fled. She realized that she had somehow failed to understand her own society. In response, she set up the Institute of Peace Research and Action, to examine the deleterious relationship between youth and violence in India. In the early 1990s, the institute worked in various places facing persistent communal conflict, including Andhra Pradesh, Hyderabad, and the northeast.
Susheela had an opportunity to return to Kashmir when the violence subsided in 1996. The experience shocked and moved her beyond all expectations but also prepared her to start work anew: "The devastation around was incredible. I talked to people and they narrated the vivid details of the hell they had gone through. I returned to Delhi with a numbness and hopelessness I had never experienced before. But then I knew I had to do something. I owed it to my people. The project emerged as the only response I was capable of. Looking back, I feel that the pain I suffered then put me on the right track."
In 1998 Susheela met with the Minister of Education and Home Secretary responsible for Kashmir, and discussed how to begin work. She visited Kashmir again and this time saw students and teachers returning to schools. There was a sense of possibility that needed to be acted on. In December, the state government of Jammu and Kashmir formally requested that the Institute of Peace Research and Action coordinate a program. In March 1999, the venture began in 30 schools of one district. It is now operating in 150 schools across five out of Kashmir's six districts. In March 2004, it will reach the last district, and colleagues in Jammu have expressed interest in replicating the model there.