Rallying to the call of hope

Innumerable tragic stories emerge from regions afflicted with conflict, and Indian-administered Kashmir is no exception. But there are a few who use their misfortune to turn things around for others. Javed Ahmad Tak is one such individual.

The 37-year-old’s life changed on 21 March, 1997, when, as a 21-year old college senior majoring in science, he decided to visit his uncle’s place not far from his home. A resident of Bijbehara town in South Kashmir’s Anantnag district, he was never the same after that visit.

“At night, the militants tried to kidnap my cousin who was a member of a local political party. The militants told us to step out of the house. When the family started to raise their voices, they fired at me from a pistol and fled.”

Tak said a bullet entered the left side of his abdomen, brushing past his ribs, ultimately costing him part of his kidney, liver and spleen. He spent the next six months recuperating in a hospital in Srinagar. When he regained his senses, he realized the incident had crippled him for life.

“I couldn’t use my legs anymore. I needed spinal fixation, so I was in the hospital for a whole year for that. Almost 40 percent of my spinal cord was damaged,” he says. Nor was that the end to his ordeal. The medical complications had only begun. He spent the next few months in the Bone and Joints hospital in the city.

“I had 14 wounds on my body,” he said. “Due to the unhygienic conditions in the hospital, I would suffer from infections and that would only make this harder from my family and me.”

A few months later, Tak came home. “When I returned home, I realized that my mood dictated everybody else’s mood,” he says. “If I was depressed, everyone would be depressed. That’s when I decided to use my time productively.”

He started what would become a comprehensive project years later, teaching children during their winter vacations at home. Four years later, more and more kids joined his coaching class and he branched out to cope with the growing numbers.

“We ended up with 90 children in different batches. I had to look for an alternate place, so we rented nearby. I started venturing out with the help of my students,” Tak said from his bed at home. He later secured admission at University of Kashmir for a Master’s degree in Social Work. There he grappled with the administration and turned the University campus into a disabled-friendly place.

With his free coaching classes running for the town’s children, he set out to address structural problems of those with disabilities. He has succeeded. He is now known all over the valley for his advocacy on disability rights, education for disabled children, workshops with children and adults, organizing protests to highlight issues, heath checks for the elderly, livelihood generation techniques to empower them and make them independent, sensitizing workshops for government employees and accessibility issues. Kashmir's disabled community, he says, is being denied reservations in professional courses and competitive exams.

“This is because there are no proper facilities for children with disabilities at primary schooling level.” As a result, most of the children with disabilities turn to be dropouts and few reach to secondary level and fewer to the higher education level, he feels.

The Valley has no specialized centers for those with disabilities, and there’s very little help from the government as “it is a non-priority sector” Tak says.

“We used to call the group Helping Hand, but now we’re being registered as Humanity Welfare Helpline. We can boast of the fact that 90 percent of those differently-abled have disability certificates in our area. We are working on raising awareness in other regions of the Valley too,” he says.

With 18 specialized staff on his payroll, the organization has 30 volunteers in Bijbehara and its adjoining pockets. Hehas also used public interest litigation to further the cause for the disabled. He is instrumental in pushing for an exam fee waiver for those with disabilities. His organization has started community-based rehabilitation centers in the villages. In his neighborhood, he runs a school for 40 children.

Tak has been advocating at various forums, locally and at the national level against small arms and weapons. He has travelled all over India, attending workshops and learning skills to support others. He also won the ninth National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People-Shell Helen Keller award in 2007.

Despite his horrific injuries and his disabilities, he feels he is lucky. “I was lucky as my family was supportive. I had to do something for others with no such support.”

Tak is renting the two buildings to run his school. Funded by well-wishers and friends, he has managed to arrange for transport for the students. “Parents don’t want to take the extra effort. They don’t even want to invest time or money in these kids as they feel they won’t be productive. Right now, we are looking for someone to donate a bus. We have a small van to ferry the kids back and forth.”

He calls the lack of attention to the disabled children “wastage of human resources. There is so much potential that needs to be extracted from this section of society. People have started to realize that someday that these kids will make a difference.”

He has proved the doubtful wrong. Masarat Tabassum, a special educator at the school, testifies to the fact that some students have picked up skills at the school and now they are teaching others.

“For example, this teenager who has partially lost her eyesight studied Braille with us, now she teaches others. This work is very rewarding to say the least,” she admits.

There appear to be no hurdles for Tak, only solutions. Through his extensive network and joining hands with other organizations outside the Valley including Child Rights and You (CRY), he has managed to solidify his base and give more back to his community than he had ever imagined. “Had it not been for my disability, life would have been very different,” he says.