A Shelter From the Storm

Sanjay Nahar (in white shirt), founder of Sarhad, with students in Pune
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Sarhad, a Pune-based NGO, is helping children affected by violence in the border areas of the country

In Pune, a young boy from Kashmir studies in a school coming to terms with his anger at the violence ravaging the state. His father was killed by militants and he wants peace there. Until that comes, he cannot go back to Kupwara, one of the worst affected areas of militancy. Born to the sound of gunshots a decade-and-a-half ago, all this teenager remembers is staying indoors for a better part of his life. The boy’s life changed when his family met Sanjay Nahar, founder of Sarhad, a Pune-based NGO set up in 1995 to help people living in the violence-prone border regions of India.

Convincing the family to send their 10-year old to Pune to and be schooled with Sarhad was a challenge for Nahar, but five years later, at least the boy is safely out of harm’s way, given the ongoing turmoil in his home state.

Sarhad is the result of Nahar’s visits to Kashmir in the early 1990s, when militancy was at its peak. “Children born after 1990 have only seen violence and heard gunshots,” says Nahar. “When people congregated, it was to mourn the dead. It was rarely for a celebration. My wife and I wondered if we could give such children a better life somewhere else. That’s how Sarhad was born.”

Nahar’s first brush with large-scale violence was as a college student in 1980, when Pune was hit by communal riots. Though not directly affected, he was shocked that innocents could be attacked with such hatred. His family of social workers went onto the streets to help victims and he trailed along.

When Punjab was riven by terrorism, Nahar and a few friends went there to work with those affected by the violence. Using that experience as a blueprint, he extended his peace and welfare initiatives to Kashmir and then went on to include children affected by militancy in Assam and Manipur.

Sarhad provides an educational, social and cultural platform for these children. “This generation of children was born amid blasts and only saw police, military and militants around them as they grew up. We organise Know India Tours for these children, especially orphans and the children of poor families, to show them the peaceful, accommodative and tolerant side of India. This became a regular annual event,” says Nahar.

It was the late Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed who chose the first batch of 105 Kashmiri children for Sarhad in 1995. Presently, there are 150 children— both boys and girls—studying at the Sarhad facility in Pune. Of these, 18 are Bodo children from the Kokrajhar jungles who came to Pune in 2015, and 21 are from Manipur who started studying at Sarhad in 2012. The Kashmiri children are from Kargil, Dardpura, Kupwara, Bandipore, Handwara, Srinagar, Anantnag, Baramullah and Sopore.

Though parents are willing to send their sons to Sarhad, it is not so with daughters, whose education is not a priority for them. As foster parents to these children, Nahar and his wife’s main concern is to make them feel safe and protected.

At the Sarhad school, children are taught the state SSC syllabus. No fees are charged, since expenses are taken care of by private funding. The initiative, which started out as an educational experiment, saw its first batch of graduates about seven years ago. Since then, a number of students have gone on to get their degrees. Since admission to colleges in Pune wasn’t easy for them, as they did not have money for fees, Nahar established Sarhad College near Katraj. This college is open to local students too. “We charge fees from local students. This helps [subsidise the education] of the children from border areas. We have graduates in Medicine, Engineering, Tourism and some other streams,” says Nahar. Since Kashmiri livelihoods depend so heavily on tourism, many of the students from that state want to study related subjects.

Many of the children at Sarhad have a single parent because the other has been gunned down by militants or security forces. The idea is to give the students an environment sans violence where they can make a life and fulfil a dream. Staying together helps children from different conflict zones bond over the similarity of their experiences. Many need counselling in the initial months when they come from their homes. They wake up crying at night, are scared of people and tend to stick with others from their states.

With violence taking a heavy toll on Kashmir, some of the Sarhad graduates want to go back and work for peace there. A child sent to Sarhad by Mehbooba Mufti before she became the state’s Chief Minister, and who once revered the leader, has now turned her bitter critic following the recent outbreak. “Sarhad builds on the trust deficit and makes them believe that they are safe,” says Nahar, “They are worried about their families back home, so we ensure that they are in regular touch with them.” Every bullet fired in the Valley from either side makes the job of bridging the trust gap that much tougher.