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Line of control

The Muskaan orphanage at the Tattoo ground army camp completes three years in June. Orphans growing up in its hostel say they want to join the army and wear the uniform. So does that make the project a success? Paramita Ghosh reports.
Hindustan Times | By Paramita Ghosh, Srinagar
UPDATED ON MAY 25, 2008 03:08 AM IST

In Kashmir, one gets used to orphans. This is perhaps why Muskaan — part of the army’s sadhbhavana project begun in 1998 — inside the Tattoo ground army camp has chosen 63 of them to support. Why are the children inside a cantonment? “Security can only be given in a secure area,” says Colonel Manjinder Singh, the defence spokesman in Srinagar.

Muskaan’s criteria for selection of its children, according to army records, are that they be militancy-affected, residents of far-flung regions and poverty-stricken. And the process of selection? “The kids are verified at various levels. Our units identify who is suitable, who needs help and nurturing,” says orphanage in-charge, Major AK Upadhyay, presenting stats, a power-point presentation — and some suitable boys. Fourteen-year-old Shahid Shah from Ganderbal is one of them. “Militants killed my father,” he says. “I want to join the army and serve the nation.” Mushtaq Bhat from Sopore also wants a uniform. “He thinks we have a nice lifestyle,” says a havildar kidding him. Mushtaq is already half a soldier. He speaks their language: “Faujis can save the nation, the police can save the state.”

What’s wrong

On the face of it, there’s nothing wrong. The orphanage is well-appointed and the children are fed, clothed and sent to school. They go on picnics. Learn computers. Watch the latest Bollywood flicks on DVD. Meet the President.

On the other hand, consider this: thrown into the army by circumstance, the children have begun thinking they are made for it. No less damaging is the schism that is being driven into a society that has, by and large, still not given up on the demand for self-determination. Sanjay Kak, director of Jashn-e-Azadi who had filmed Muskaan in 2005, says sadhbhavana centres were the first targets of mob fury in Trehgam, Maqbool Bhat’s village (one of Kashmir’s first militant leaders), after some boys were killed. “I saw the burnt-down sewing machines,” says Kak. “So does that make the children doing embroidery at the centres hypocrites? So why do they come to the army if they resent it? They don’t have too many avenues of livelihood that’s why.”

Future tense

Kashmir’s orphans are the wastes of war, tools of strategy. “General Zia flagged off Operation Topaz in the ‘80s which fuelled militancy,” says the commanding officer at Muskaan. “Long-term plans take time to ripen. The children are links. We are linking the army, and therefore, the nation, with the remotest regions of Kashmir. Think of that.”

But one day, these children will leave the camp. What will the future look like then? “Neighbours know we are staying in the army orphanage. If they pass me on the road, they now do salaam with respect,” says a child. For the moment, he is empowered and out of danger.

For the moment, the children are also singing songs. They begin their recital by saying “we will perform Bomro, written by Dina Nath Nadim.” (The song is rather high on the approval list — no visitor to Muskaan escapes it.) The reference to Nadim, a Pandit, each time it is performed is deliberate. Drawn from his opera Lotus and the bumble bee, about raiders (Pakistanis) who attacked Kashmir in ‘47, Bomro is one way to repeat and insist on the ‘facts’ of history, never mind popular sentiment. The other skits put up on the Hum ek Hain theme (in one skit, the children dressed as armymen, bandage the wounded after a militant attack; in another, they come and ask: “What are we fighting for? After all, we are Indian”) also, in a way, point to government policy marked by a lack of genuine dialogue. Goodwill gestures notwithstanding, the line that separates heroism from terrorism should be decided through discussion and not through the theatrics of socially engineered children.

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