Sabbah Haji was working as a writer and editor in Bengaluru and looked forward to a career full of possibilities. But the Amarnath land transfer controversy and the resultant unrest in 2008 made her suddenly conscious of Breswana, her ancestral village in the Kashmir Valley. She rethought her priorities in life and soon packed her bags and moved back to the state.
Once back at her grandfather’s house in Breswana, located 139 km from Srinagar, she jumped at her uncle Nisar’s idea of setting up a primary school there.
The Haji Public School, which started in 2009 from the two-room Haji Cottage with two teachers and 29 students, has now developed into an institution with 15 teachers and 200 students. The school has computer labs, libraries and much more planned for the future. The USP of the school is a volunteer programme with young men and women from across India and the world coming in to teach there for a few months and live in the village.
“My family was running a trust in Doda city, providing charity on a small scale to whoever needed it — widows, orphans and poor people who were looking for financial help for educational or medical needs,” says Sabbah, 30, who was born and brought up in Dubai. “But we realised that to bring about any real change, this sort of charity work wasn’t enough. What was needed was a push from the ground level up and nothing better than education to bring about a lasting change.”
Therefore, Haji Public School was an attempt to give the village children access to good education.
“When we used to spend summer holidays in the village, my sister and I would notice a marked difference in our village cousins and friends of the same age,” recalls Sabbah. “We knew they were superior in every other way — physically, mentally, personality-wise — but because they were, for all practical purposes, uneducated, they had that diffidence; something holding them back and not being able to do anything with all that potential.”
But realising the dream of starting a school wasn’t easy. Sabbah and her mother had to plan a syllabus, procure furniture, materials, toys, uniforms, teachers and work on the thousands of details that go into running a school. “We handpicked two local boys, trained them intensively over the winter so that they would be ready to teach kindergarten classes,” says Sabbah. “Under my father’s and the trust’s guidance, the school building came up.”
When the gong is sounded in the morning to call the kids to school, it echoes through the mountains. The students soon file into the white building surrounded by deodars and their chatter in the classes can be heard from afar.
With a population of 1,500-2,000, Breswana is spread out across the mountain slopes of Doda, with the nearest road link located 8 km away. It is a predominantly Muslim village, but Sabbah’s school boasts of a mix of all communities, and many of the teachers come from the neighbouring Hindu village.
“There has never been any communal disharmony in our mountains, in spite of all the history of the state and political machinations elsewhere,” says Sabbah. “We are a simple mountain people with a good sense of humour.”
The school is making some redeeming difference. “I know firsthand how much change the school has brought about in not just our kids, but the village as a whole,” says Sabbah. “There is a heightened sense of confidence, awareness and hope among everyone in the village.”
Four years ago, Amjad, 11, would hide his face and run away if a stranger spoke to him. Now, the Class V student is the Head Boy, who speaks fearlessly to visiting foreigners and television crews coming to film the school.
Amjad’s father, Abdul Latief Lohar, is the local moulvi. He is a highly respected elder of the village and runs a grocery store from his house. His two sons are among the brightest and most active children in the school. Lohar often assists the school management in communicating with the parents and in procuring supplies and materials.
Another example is Sardaru Gujjar, whose four children study at the school. Gujjar is illiterate and works as a labourer in Ladakh. “He made it a point to send all his children to school from day one. They are among our brightest and best,” says Sabbah.
“The kids trek through the mountains for almost an hour to get to school, with the youngest — Abdul Kareem — just three years old.”
Breswana was not always the idyllic retreat it has become now. The villagers had to endure a difficult period through the 1990s and early 2000s when militancy was at its peak. Every villager lived through the armed conflict contending with the demands from militants, and the beatings and interrogations by the security forces.
“That time is over,” says Sabbah. “This new generation has never seen that darkness. With the tools of technology to open the world to them, one hopes they never have to face anything like that again.”
Sabbah says money was never a motivating factor to start the school. “We don’t make profits, far from it,” says Sabbah. “We are not running a business. We have no vested interest — be it religious, economic or political. My dream and goal are to empower these backward hilly villages through education. And I’m doing it without any prejudice. That is the plan. And slowly, it is working.”