About 7 months ago, when Arun Bhargava, DGE of RI District 3141, got a call from a “top army person posted along the Indo-Pak border in Kashmir, I was puzzled about why he was calling me, a person located a couple of thousand km away in Mumbai.” It was a long call and the officer on the other end, Col Pranay Pawar, explained to him in detail that representing the Indian Army as a top Army officer, he was seeking Rotary’s help to improve the lives of villagers staying in a group of remote villages located barely 8–10km from the LoC, in Kupwara district, Kashmir.
In that conversation, the colonel explained the GoI’s initiative launched a few years ago in Kashmir to combat the alienation of Kashmiris, end their enchantment with Pakistan, and reassure them that they were Indians and the rest of India was interested in their welfare. “He needed the help of some NGOs, had identified Rotary, and offered to take a flight to Mumbai and explain the whole initiative of the welfare measures the Indian Army has been asked to take in that area to win the hearts and minds of people.” This initiative was connected to incidents of stone throwing by the locals in the Kashmir valley, and controversies connected to the Army’s response.
When they performed the namaz, they invited us to join them, and meine meri zindagi ki sabse pehli namaz us din padhi.
– DGE Arun Bhargava
True to his promise Col Pawar flew down to Mumbai to meet a group of about 70 senior Rotarians from various clubs identified by DGE Bhargava. “I deliberately chose seniors and Rotarians from a mix of professions to watch the presentation by the colonel on how Rotary could help the GoI and the Army in their initiative in Kashmir. The gist of his presentation was that in order to prevent the locals from being sympathetic either to the militants or Pakistan, the Army is trying to win over their trust by taking care of their basic needs such as education, healthcare, women’s empowerment by enhancing their livelihood opportunities through adequate training, etc.”
During the last 5–6 years the Army personnel posted in this region are working on the mantra that by using love and affection, rather than the bullet or force, the Army can build a personal rapport with the villagers. Towards this end, the Army has been building Army Goodwill schools, with some of the jawans even contributing the children’s monthly fees of ₹150 from their pockets. Many of these villagers, who live close to the LoC, provide a lot of support and services to the Army, including acting as their eyes and ears and passing on vital and timely information on infiltration attempts from across the border.
Rotary clubs in Mumbai instantly raised ₹8 lakh to buy two motorcycle ambulances for the villages.
“But, as he explained, the primary job of the Army is to protect the country, and hence it was trying to forge partnerships with voluntary organisations, corporates and other civilian groups to help win over the hearts of the people in those villages,” says Bhargava. In the Army this project is called ‘national integration’ as it aims to give the alienated Kashmiris a feeling of belonging to India.
To establish a “personal rapport with the bunch of villages along the LoC, the Indian Army has now established the practice of undertaking every week a goodwill or khairiyat tour to the villagers’ homes. They inquire after the family’s health, ask if someone is sick and a doctor also accompanies them to treat sick members of the family, if any. In some places Army goodwill schools have been built and here quite often the teachers’ salaries are paid by the Army personnel themselves, Col Pawar explained in his presentation to the Rotarians.
It has also set up a women’s empowerment centre where training is given to women to enhance their skills in making handicrafts, food products, etc.
The Rotarians who form the core team of DGE Bhargava for his year as governor in 2023–24, were so enthused with this presentation and the Army’s invitation to help it improve people’s life in this region of Kashmir along the LoC, that several of them, including Anand Ramnani, past president of RC Mumbai Parleshwar, volunteered to take up this cause. “We got immediately interested as the Army, in collaboration with NGOs, wants to develop the villages close to the Indo-Pak border in Rotary’s core focus areas such as education, healthcare, women’s empowerment, etc,” he says.
The villagers felt a sense of belonging to India, and we all sang Jana gana mana together; some of these villagers sang the Indian national anthem for the first time ever!
So on April 30, 16 Rotarians, including Bhargava and Ramnani, from Mumbai set off to Kashmir to visit the remote villages, located about 45km from Kupwara. “We wanted to understand the needs of the villages and what kind of support was required, and thought it could be done best by visiting and staying in that place for a couple of days. We landed in Srinagar and after a 5–6-hour drive in the hilly terrain, reached the village Machhal, which is barely 10km from the LoC,” says Ramnani.
What they saw in those villages literally melted away the 2,300-odd-km distance between Mumbai and Kupwara. As the group was there even as the villagers were celebrating the end of Ramzan and the arrival of Eid, not only did the Rotarians participate in the Iftar party but on Eid day they went to the home of the top military commander who had hosted an Eid-milan for the villagers to celebrate Eid. “We took some gifts for the sarpanch and the maulvi of Machhal, and on receiving these gifts, they became very emotional and said: “Look at this miracle; people come to our village from thousands of km and give us Eid ka tohfa… imagine Mumbai se Rotarians aatey hei aur hamein Eid ka tohfa detey hei.” They felt a sense of belonging to India, and we all sang Jana gana mana together.” Later they learnt that some of these villagers had sung the Indian national anthem for the first time ever!
The primary job of the Indian Army is to protect the country, and hence it was trying to forge partnerships with voluntary organisations, and other civilian groups to help win over the hearts of the Kashmiri villagers.
For the Rotarians themselves there was a first! “When they performed the namaz, they invited us to join them, and meine meri zindagi ki sabse pehli namaz us din padhi. (I performed my life’s first ever namaz on that day),” says an excited Bhargava. Needless to say, he was guided by both the sarpanch and maulvi, who prayed on either side of him!
When he asked the top officer in charge, Maj Gen Abhijit Pendharkar, YSM GOC, Vajr Division, what more the Rotarians could do for the villagers, he said that when there was a medical emergency, as the terrain was hilly and narrow, an ambulance could not reach the villagers’ homes. “They needed a motorcycle ambulance, at the back of which is attached a stretcher on which a person can be carried.” The power and influence of Rotary came into play; some calls were placed to clubs in Mumbai, and on the spot ₹8 lakh were raised to buy two such ambulances for the villages.
Subsequently, the officer presented the two motorcycle ambulances to the sarpanch and maulvi of Machhal village in the presence of the 16 Rotarians from Mumbai.
Later this news was carried on the Facebook page of Voice of Kalaroos, a local Kupwara media group, describing how the Army and Rotary had collaborated to provide two motorcycle ambulances for the Machhal sector of Kupwara district. The post explained how located about 45km from Kupwara, “the entire population is spread all over the mountains with limited accessibility to healthcare services. The roads are narrow and during bad weather, cannot be accessed by four wheelers. Hence these two motorcycle ambulances will improve the Machhal bowl’s accessibility to medical assistance in this far-flung area.”
The Rotarians stayed in the accommodation provided by the Army for three days, and gauged for themselves the kind of help the locals need, said Ramnani. “We were also taken by the Army personnel to see the women’s empowerment centre built by the Army. Here the local women make shawls, gloves, carpets etc and the Army is trying to establish channels to market their products at a good price, and has sought help from Rotarians for this venture as well. And we will now explore options to help market these products,” he said.
His club, RC Mumbai Parleshwar has been doing projects for the Indian Army since 2014. “We were first introduced to the 36 Maratha Regiment and every year since 2014 we’ve been doing fundraising of around ₹3 lakh for them. This money goes into the Army Welfare Fund and is used to help the families of veteran soldiers for paying their children’s fees, home repairs, marriage expenses, etc.”
The Rotarians have offered to bring some midwives from Kupwara to Mumbai and put them through a six-month training course in private hospitals.
With the Army having established a good rapport with these Rotarians from Mumbai, on July 30, the club received a request from the 56 Rashtriya Rifles for 300 solar lamps to be distributed by the Army to the Bhakarwals, a nomadic tribe who rear cattle in remote mountain areas and “collect information to help the Army keep a check on the infiltration of militants from across the border,” he says.
The amount required, just about ₹2 lakh, was raised by RC Mumbai Parleshwar and the club took the responsibility of arranging and transporting the solar lamps to Machhal immediately, as they were to be distributed at an event on the eve of Independence Day by the Area Commander. As Aug 11 was Raksha Bandhan, the club also organised 300 rakhis for the jawans and the goods were loaded on the Jammu Tawi Express. Fortunately, a jawan from the same regiment was travelling by the same train to Jammu, so he took responsibility to reach the solar lamps and rakhis, says Ramnani. He adds that a Rotary club from Chennai, RID 3232, sent an additional 200 solar lamps.
Now that they have established a rapport with the villagers in Kupwara, what more are the Rotarians of District 3141 planning to do for them, in partnership with the Indian Army, I ask DGE Arun Bhargava, RID 3141.
The excited governor-elect whose core team on this “national integration” project is brimming with ideas, discloses his plans. First of all, the monthly fee of `150 in the Army Goodwill schools is not affordable to all children. Hence they attend the madrasas, where the education is free. “We have decided to undertake the responsibility of paying this fee of `150 a month for 1,000 children for four years, to begin with. We hope this will encourage more children to join these schools and get a decent education,” he responds.
Next, the Rotarians want to tackle the grave issue of a very high maternal mortality rate. They learnt that every year in one sector alone which has 10–15 villages, 10–12 women die during pregnancy and childbirth because of dismal medical facilities and ill-trained midwives. The Rotarians, after speaking to large private hospitals in
Mumbai, have offered to get some midwives from Kupwara to Mumbai and put them through a six-month training course in these hospitals. They will also set up facilities for telemedicine and long-distance consultation on complicated illnesses.
Bhargava adds that the Army has also told them about the need for a small stadium where the local children can play some sport. This will engage them during their free time and divert them from misadventures that beckon them. The Rotarians are examining ways to get this done.