With over two lakh orphans in Jammu and Kashmir, the misery of these souls has no end. They have lost a parent, a guardian, a caretaker, and Kashmir seems to have lost its sense of responsibility.
A glare at a picture everyday has become routine for 13-year old Aqib Lateef of Pampore. Though the beckoning picture gives him a bout of joy for a moment, it also stirs a wave of dismay in him.
A person in this picture smiles at Aqib each times he looks at it. A smile of affection, responsibility and love but confined to just a frame forever.
The picture is of Mohammad Lateef, Aqib’s father, a truck driver who was lynched to death by a violent mob at Jammu in 2008 during the Amarnath land row agitation.
Every day, Aqib fastens his eyes on the picture and sees his father nicely posed with a benevolent smile spurring a responsive smile by Aqib.
The death of his father put an unending burden of responsibilities on these tender shoulders. An age meant to pursuit the joy of playing with friends has endured him to think and acts like a grown up man.
“If we don’t follow his orders,” says one of his elder sisters. “He gets upset and stops talking to us for days.”
The elders in the house have created an atmosphere to make Aqib believe that he is in-charge at the house and he can manage things as his father did.
Aqib’s mother, 28, with a stoic look listens to her children recite Quran from hallway. She sometimes repeats the verses with her three children. “I would recite this page before you,” Aqib says to his elder sisters as they sat together in a huddle. Two sisters adore their only brother so much that they never oppose him on any matter.
After an hour of recitation, Aqib puts the Quran on the shelf and rubs his tender hands onto his face. “Wiping hands over the face after reciting Allah’s words give strength and keep me away from sins,” he says.
He returns to his mother in the kitchen, asking her for money to bring food items meant for the lunch. “She doesn’t have money,” Aqib tells me later. “I know that. We are very poor. No one in our family earns.”
That day Aqib brought 1 kg cabbage and few onions. When a shopkeeper asked for money, he pledged to pay him later that month.
“I don’t know how I would pay him,” he says, “but Allah shall help me to pay his debt.”
Aqib is one among the thousands of unfortunate children in Kashmir who have lost their parents at a very tender age during all these years of conflict and violence. During the year in which his father died, more than sixty people lost their lives to government’s action against people protesting against transfer of land to the Amarnath Shrine Board by the then state government.
Aqib’s father was not the part of these protests. He was out of Valley to earn a living to sustain his family. He, in-fact, became a victim of the violence that escalated in Jammu after the government revoked the land transfer order.
He was killed and his children orphaned. A study in 2009 by UK-based child rights organization, Save the Children, has revealed that estimated population of orphans in Jammu and Kashmir is 2.14 lakh and 37 percent of them were orphaned due to the armed conflict.
The responsibility to take care of lakhs of children like Aqib was the duty of the orphanages and the society. However, both seem to shy away from their responsibility. According to a survey done recently, Orphanages in JK are a 120 crore business but only a few fortunate children benefit from them.
Aqib’s family gets paltry donations from the local mosques and neighbours, too meagre to sustain life. “Once we survived on only tea for many days until our relatives came to know about it. They brought us food. A friend of my father donated the house we live in,” he reveals.
Aqib studies in class six and likes science and mathematics. “School authorities, after learning that we have become orphans, stopped asking for fee. Principal is good man, and he profoundly would call me at school and ask me if I need anything.” Aqib says.
His school is 5-km away from his home. They have to board bus twice. He says, giggling, “When conductor would ask for the fare, which we don’t have, I would point my finger anywhere in the bus and tell him that there is my relative and he would pay. Most of the times he would believe me.”
He dreams of becoming a doctor one day and his sisters would spend two hours every day to help him study so that he can pursue the dream. “He likes science,” says his sister. He always talks about the human body parts and knows a lot about the organs and their working, she says.
“He tells me about heart. It pumps blood and he also knows a lot about kidney, lungs, spine, intestines and bones. He points his hands swiftly to show the organs on his own body,” the sister adds.
Children love to watch cartoon shows on TV but Aqib has no desire for that. He says he sometimes watch discovery channel at a neighbour’s house. “They show everything that I read in books. One day I would buy a television,” he says ardently.
His mother has a lot of hope in his son and sees a doctor in him. “Aqib will treat patients one day in his own clinic and will earn lots of money. He has to earn a lot of money to get his sisters married,” she says.
While the mothers was saying all this, Aqib interrupts saying his mother has many expectations. “If something happens to me, who will look after them,” a visible upset Aqib murmurs.
“Is there any part time job in the city so that I can earn few bucks and aid my hapless mother,” Aqib told me before bidding adieu.