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A bridge to Kashmir’s past

A Facebook page tries to reconnect Kashmiri friends and neighbours who parted ways 28 years ago, when militancy hit the state

The Zaina Kadal bridge in Srinagar. Photo: iStockphoto
The Zaina Kadal bridge in Srinagar. Photo: iStockphoto

A post by Ashima Kaul on the Raabta Facebook page says, “...There is one boy Abbas (Hamid).... He had a small crew cut back then. I believe he’s a lawyer now. I really want to know what he’s been up to all these years and connect with him."

The two were neighbours in Baramulla. They lost touch when Kashmiri Pandits were forced to leave the militancy-torn valley. Since most did not know where they were headed, no addresses or phone numbers were exchanged with friends or neighbours.

Kaul and Hamid were reconnected by Raabta on 16 February. They spoke to each other on the phone on Radio Mirchi 98.3 FM Jammu, which did a show based on it. The video on the Raabta page shows Kaul talking about growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in Baramulla. Their neighbours downstairs were a Muslim family—Abbas and his two elder sisters, with whom she and her sister would play. She says she went back to her neighbourhood in the early 2000s, but could not find Hamid.

In the phone conversation, Kaul tells Hamid that she has seen his picture and he looks exactly like his dad. He asks her when she got married, she laughs and says, “Don’t ask these questions on the radio." In reference to their parents, Hamid, who lives in Anantnag, comments that they are also old now.

Twenty-eight years is a long time to bridge in a phone call.

The Raabta FB page went live on 11 February. It describes itself as a small endeavour to help search and reconnect old friends, neighbours and schoolmates who parted ways in 1990. Jaibeer Ahmad, the person behind Raabta, says he grew up in Kashmir in the 1980s, in Mattan, Anantnag. He says on email that he used to play with Pandit boys, go to a Pandit tutor, and “our lives were intertwined". He left home in 1991 to study at Aligarh Muslim University. “But whenever I go back to visit my parents, I always feel a deep sense of loss...," he says.

Ahmad, who is executive business director and vice-president at advertising agency J Walter Thompson in Gurugram, near Delhi, says that while there is bitterness, anger, even hatred, between Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits “which gets played out on social media every day, paradoxically, at an individual level, we are still very friendly and warm to each other". Incidentally, he was also responsible for the Jammu and Kashmir tourism department’s promotional film Warmest Place On Earth, which was released in September.

He says Raabta—which means connection—is about people we miss. “When they meet, politics and conflict are the last things on their mind. There is a feeling of loss, nostalgia and hope that brings them together," he adds.

He says most attempts to bridge the divide have been on a community-to-community level. “Unfortunately, despite the good intentions, they get dragged into politics and rigid stances." Raabta is only a friend-to-friend, people-to-people connect. “To that extent, Raabta is completely driven by organic search," Ahmad adds.

Raabta has Twitter and Instagram handles too. But it is mainly the FB page that is driving the platform. “Right now the focus is to get as many people as we can to reach out to their friends,"says Ahmad.

Kaul, who divides her time between Jammu, Srinagar and Delhi, says on the phone from Srinagar that talking to Hamid was an overwhelming experience, straight out of another lifetime. She says she doesn’t know when they will meet, and how it will go, or even what his political or ideological position is, which maybe “we will not even talk about". But, she says, it’s important to nurture spaces for dialogue and communication, and convey the message that there is a constituency which wants to reach out—their voices need to be heard.

“The divisive forces need to be challenged; that is not the only reality of Kashmir," she says. Kaul is the founder of the Yakjah Reconciliation and Development Network, a non-profit that brings together youth from the three regions of the state: Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh.

Much like Kaul, Dubai-based journalist Sameer Bhat, in a 3 March post, says it was cathartic, almost overwhelming, when he spoke on the phone to his neighbour Arun Koul from Sopore, who now lives in Chandigarh. “It felt like 28 days ago, not even 28 weeks," he says. As a young boy, he had last seen the family on a cold morning in January 1990.

To connect people is not an easy task. There are cases where people know only the nickname. Consider this post by Toronto-based Anamika Mujoo Girottee, who works for the Maquila Solidarity Network, a labour rights advocacy in the global garment industry. She says she would like to reconnect with Saeba (a nickname). “I don’t remember her real name, Asmat perhaps. Memory eludes, it’s fading." They used to live in Pathar Majid, Srinagar. Girottee writes in her post that when she went back to her neighbourhood in 2010, after 20 years, she found herself standing in unfamiliar surroundings—a place which had been home for 19 years. “I cried my heart out." She did not find Saeba.

But sometimes a last name is enough to ring a bell. On 15 February, Srinagar-based artist Suhail Naqshbandi wrote a post saying he’s looking for his schoolteacher Miss Mujju. “I hope I could meet her once and thank her for what she did for me," his post says. Soon someone responded, saying the person was her aunt and lived in Bengaluru now—a mobile number was provided.

These are feel-good stories, a throwback to a time that has passed. An 11 February post encapsulates it. Brega Apa writes about Dina Nath, who was like family. She says he left Siligam, Anantnag, in 1990 with a message for them that “we would meet soon". “I am 82 now and I wish I could meet him once." Brega Apa is Ahmad’s grandmother.

As Ahmad puts it, “(Before 1990) there were no acronyms of KP (Kashmiri Pandit) and KM (Kashmiri Muslim). We were all Kashmiris."

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