The Eerie NGO Phenomenon in Kashmir

“Conflicts have always allowed very suitable ecosystems for Non Governmental Organisations or NGOs to flourish in. Embroiled with armed insurgency for about two decades now, Kashmir has attracted a plethora of organizations. But going by the numbers, the region seems to have become a heaven for NGO activity.”

By Parvaiz Bukhari

(This article was first published by The Honour Magazine, April 2010, (pg. 16-20).)

Kashmir as an Integral Part of India.  Cartoon by Mir Suhail Qadiri
Kashmir as an Integral Part of India. Cartoon by Mir Suhail Qadiri

Conflicts have always allowed very suitable ecosystems for Non Governmental Organisations or NGOs to flourish in. Embroiled with armed insurgency for about two decades now, Kashmir has attracted a plethora of organizations. But going by the numbers, the region seems to have become a heaven for NGO activity.

There is no central register for the NGOs operating here, no guidelines or any overt accountability. Various estimates put the figure of existing NGOs up to 16,000. Apart from the office of the Registrar of Societies, NGOs are registered for various non-profit activities as trusts and voluntary groups in the district courts. Besides, many NGOs from across the country operating in Kashmir are not registered here.

All you need is five persons and a draft of bylaws along with a declaration of supposed objectives that is then registered in any district court where no count is maintained.

Just what is this huge mass of NGOs doing and who are the people who run them? What is the real intent and incentive for this NGO boom in a region that is still considered business ‘unfriendly’? Where is the funding coming from? A superficial enquiry reveals a dizzying range of unclear activity bordering on subterfuge.

Government employees, close relatives of bureaucrats, politicians, well-off families and people who have been a part of counter insurgency think tanks, run a number of NGOs in the Valley. Kashmir Foundation for Peace and Developmental Studies (KFPDS) run by a former militant commander, Firdous Sayeed Baba alias Babar Badr, has been on the scene for many years now. Babar and four other former militant commanders were the first to enter into dialogue with New Delhi in 1995. He is also known to be very close to the former Intelligence Bureau (IB) chief A S Dullat, who for many years earlier and during NDA regime served as New Delhi’s point man on Kashmir affairs.

Going by its activity, Babar’s Foundation is political. Apart from publishing a quarterly magazine, “Hope”, this Foundation has organized many seminars on peace and reconciliation. Interestingly, editor of a prominent 24-hour English news channel and the Vice Chancellor of University of Jammu happen to be on the editorial advisory board of the New HOPE quarterly. It also aligned with a US based faith group International Centre for Religion and Diplomacy, and formed Institute for Reconciliation. Together they conducted “faith oriented” reconciliation workshops in both provinces of the state.

A study about the evolution of NGOs in Kashmir, published by New Delhi based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) in 2004 describes this Foundation as a group that “mainly undertakes projects given to them by the relevant official authorities, besides organizing public awareness campaigns.”

The IPCS study also revealed a dramatic increase in the sprouting of NGOs during mid nineties. The study points out that most of these NGOs were sponsored by the Government or one of the many governmental agencies working in J&K. “These NGOs, which have come to be called GONGOs or Governmental NGOs, sprang up in large numbers over a short span of time and exist till date, at least on paper,” Anirudh Suri of IPCS highlighted in the study.

This mushrooming of NGOs interestingly coincides with the emergence of ‘Ikhwani’ phenomenon, when surrendered militants, locally known as Ikhwanis, were patronized and used by the army and paramilitary forces in a big way for counter insurgency operations.

The latest to add to the already existing marathon list is ANHAD. Run by the breakaway group of SEHMAT, a Delhi based NGO ANHAD is known to be close to the Congress party. It engages young boys and girls from colleges and universities for promoting communal harmony. Some of the participants after returning from a tour of Delhi recently have started dissociating from the NGO raising questions about the real intent behind their activity. A young volunteer requested anonymity saying, “I am unhappy and nervous about the real agenda which I sense is being kept secret from us.”

This is not the first time that Kashmiri youth working with NGOs have been disgruntled with what they encountered during the course of their work. According to a young and experienced NGO worker, Shaik Nazir who worked for the ‘Other Media’, a Delhi based NGO operating in Nepal, Northeast of India and Kashmir, the organization carries out its activity in close connivance and co-ordination with politically motivated bureaucrats, the army and a prominent pro independence separatist group.

Shaik felt choked and left the Other Media. “I wanted to have a neutral image as a professional,” Shaik says and adds, “I didn’t want to be seen as aligned with any political interest.” Earlier Shaik had to leave another NGO, Confederation of Voluntary Associations (COVA), for the same reasons. Known to be close to the top leadership of the Congress party, the Hyderabad based NGO COVA has at times attempted to arrange meetings of civil society activists with the Congress leadership.

NGOs have become the preferred via media for many politicians to operate on the local political landscape. Head of his so called separatist outfit Democratic Liberation Party (DLP), Hashim Qureshi runs an NGO known as Maqbool National Welfare Association (MNWA). It started off with more than fifty vocational training centers spread across Kashmir mainly for widows.

Qureshi was a founder member of Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) and returned to Kashmir 2001 from Holland, three decades after hijacking an Indian Airlines plane to Lahore in 1971. It is common knowledge that people associated with MNWA form the bulk at Qureshi’s public events. During his court hearings related to cases about the hijacking, scores of MNWA beneficiaries come out in his support. MNWA has now significantly downscaled its centres to 19. “Earlier the cost of running these centres used to be 10 to 12 lakhs every month. Now it is down to 70000 rupees per month,” informs Qureshi. He denies any outside funding while asserting that all his activity is funded from his business in Europe.

President of the ruling coalition partner in the state government, People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Mehbooba Mufti also started an NGO ‘Umeed’ (hope) to provide medical care for widows, orphans and the poor. Umeed is dormant now for Mehbooba’s inability to devote any time for its running. More than a million rupees collected from individuals for Umeed is lying unused, according to Mehbooba. NGOs working for the care of orphans and widows have a lot of goodwill amongst the people. Prominent among them is ‘J&K Yateem Foundation’, run by Dr. Raouf Mohi-u-Din. Given the suspicious reputation of NGOs operating in Kashmir in general, Dr. Raouf tells people, “We are not an NGO, we are a voluntary group.”

Mehbooba who seems to be acutely aware of the influence NGOs have had on the political theatre in the state raised the issue during the second Round Table Conference on Kashmir convened by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi. “Unfortunately our state has become a hub of intrigue even at the international level,” says Mehbooba and adds while hyphenating the issue with Pakistan, “so many agencies from New Delhi and even Pakistan are working here in different garbs.”

SCOPE, an NGO patronized by Sri Sri Ravishankar, established it’s headquartered at Shivpora, an area in the cantonment considered ‘safe’. SCOPE runs International Human Value (IHV) School in the same premises. Children studying here are from far flung areas of Kashmir where they were already enrolled and studying in other schools.

Some NGOs in the popular perception are also a cover for amoral activities. Ghulam Mohi-u-Din Bhat alias Raja was arrested last year after a few young girls working for his NGO ‘Women’s Organisation and Arts Centre’ complained to police about sexual exploitation. Raja who was also editor of a local Urdu daily ‘Tameel-e-Irshad’, worked very closely with a lawyer-turned militant-turned politician Mir Khursheed. Mir is associated with United Janta Dal (UJD) and also used to run an NGO called ‘Women’s Welfare Organisation’ where he used to give out an impression that his NGO is affiliated with JDU and a housing scheme for four crore rupees was supposed to have been granted to it.

The October 8 earthquake that shook the region in 2005 brought in a number of international and Indian NGOs from all across to undertake relief and rehabilitation work. While a lot of good work was done in the initial phase, a few NGOs stayed back and started indulging in activities which in the eyes of many here are suspect. Suspicions mainly arose on account of some NGOs working through the army.

A Pune based organization known as Bhartiya Jan Sangathan (BJS) took 500 children, both boys and girls, from the worst hit border towns of Uri and Tangdhar to Pune for education. It became a scandal when money (amount?) from Prime Minister’s Relief Fund for the insurance of these children was deposited in the account of BJS. All the 500 children were then brought back after a PIL was filed in a court and the organization run by Sanjay Nihar was banned. The PIL had asked why should a Pune based organization take children from so far away and not take care of the street children of that city. It was a pure case of an NGO trying to make big bucks over the misery of these vulnerable children whose homes were leveled by the earthquake.

Ironically the declared purpose for most of the NGOs is welfare of women and orphans. But it is the effects of the prevalent situation in Kashmir on the mental health of large numbers of people and human rights situation that needs large scale attention. It is in this area international NGOs like Amnesty International have not been allowed entry. International Committee for Red Cross (ICRC) has been present but with a restricted mandate. The only global NGO allowed to function here without having entered into an MoU is MSF which provides mental health care in the province which otherwise has just one psychiatric hospital.

“It is highly likely that if a few letters of English alphabet are randomly put together in any combination it may turn out to be a name of some NGO functioning somewhere in Kashmir,” says Dr Sheikh Showkat who teaches at the Kashmir University. Perhaps most of the time the purpose of the NGOs is political and social engineering or simply to make money.

Note by Huma Dar: This important article by Parvaiz Bukhari becomes even more important now, in October 2013, three and a half years after it was first published, after some recent stunning revelations from General V.K. Singh, the Retired Chief of the Indian Army.  The revelations confirm the ugly details — details that have obviously never been a secret to Kashmiris — of the inner workings of a full-blown military Occupation.  An Occupation managed through buying off of collaborator Kashmiri politicians, sponsoring of NGOs to insidiously counter people’s resistance, in a process that has been in place ever since the Indian military arrived in Kashmir, October 27, 1947.  In other news, Gen. V.K. Singh had earlier called the current Agriculture Minister in Indian Occupied Kashmir, the recipient of a kickback worth 11.9 million INR [200,000 USD], a “God” — presumably a god of Big Occupations and of small people, for being “loyal” to India.  Of course, all this is done under under the garb of “democracy,” with the obsessively iterated claim: “Kashmir is an integral part of India”!

Here’s an excerpt from the leading Indian English daily The Hindu, Sept 24, 2013:

In his first proper interview to a newspaper since details of an internal inquiry into his conduct as Army chief were published in The Indian Express last week, General V.K. Singh (retd.) admitted that a secret intelligence unit set up by him had paid Rs.1.19 crore [11.9 million INR] to Jammu and Kashmir Agriculture Minister Ghulam Hassan Mir and several other politicians in the state to carry out “welfare programmes.”

Speaking to The Hindu, the former Army chief said: “[Mir] is one of the most nationalistic politicians in Kashmir today, whose work has been appreciated by other intelligence agencies too… He has organised youth programmes to direct the young men of Kashmir away from militancy, and those who say that he is trying to topple an elected State government do not know the reality,” he said, referring to the allegation that the Technical Services Division (TSD) he had set up as Army chief had sought to use Mir to destabilise the government of Omar Abdullah.

Admitting the money was paid but not for destabilising the J&K government, General Singh said the TSD had worked with politicians like Mir and some pro-India NGOs in Kashmir to blunt the “anti-India propaganda” of separatists from 2010. “It was all part of a larger game plan, and two major achievements of the TSD were the panchayat elections of 2011 and the sudden end to the stone-throwing agitation in Kashmir in 2010.”

He also said: “Not just Mir but many other politicians in J&K are paid by the Army and other intelligence agencies for nationalistic work aimed at maintaining peace in the State. I have served in Kashmir myself and am aware of it. I know which politicians have been paid during my tenures. It is not unusual…

Everyone in Kashmir, the police and other intelligence agencies know about the work of these NGOs and their role in keeping the people away from militant activities by organising social and sports programmes. Some of them were given money to conduct these activities and they were purely nation-building exercises.”

Gen.V.K. Singh described [TSD or Technical Services Department] as a humint, or human intelligence, organisation and not a technical outfit… “everyone knows that the TSD is not a technical outfit. The name was given only to keep its anonymity,” he said.

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