Helping Kashmiri students, because this actor knows what suffering means

Komal RJ Panchal

“I know what suffering means…” That is the only reasoning actor Ashwath Bhat really needs to offer for helping Kashmiri students who were not having the best of times even before Article 370 took away their state’s special status almost six months back.

Bhat was abroad when the abrogation of Article 370 happened on August 5 last year. “When I came back, I realised nobody knew what was happening with Kashmiris. I felt a need to help the students who can’t reach their families (in Kashmir) and they were in real financial need,” says the actor, a Kashmiri Pandit who had to flee his homeland in then 1990s. “Having gone through that very early in my life, helping these students was a decision from my heart.”

But this is not something Bhat decided to do post the happenings of August 5. “Ashwath has been helping Kashmiri students from a very long time. He has been a constant,” explains Muzamil Bhavani, one of the youths mentored by Bhat. Bhavani is now a filmmaker and has also acted in movies like Kesari, Haider, Bajrangee Bhaijan, Jolly LLB 2, Rangoon and Padmavat.

Bhat has been acting since 2006, but was noticed for his roles in Haider, Raazi and Manto.

The National School of Drama alumnus says, “I used to do theatre in Kashmir in 2006. Bhat had come across my work and suggested that I apply for a fellowship, which would help me financially to pursue my acting dream further.” Bhavani got the Inlaks scholarship he applied for. “He has been a mentor, he has guided me in many ways. He does that, he counsels a lot of students too,” says Bhavani, adding how Bhat has in the past few months ramped up his efforts.

Bhat has been acting since 2006, but was noticed for his roles in Haider, Raazi and Manto. Being a Kashmiri Pandit, Bhat is often asked why he is helping these students, most of them Kashmiri Muslims. ”I know what suffering means, I have suffered brutal violence. My house was burnt, my extended family members were killed, and my family was on a hit-list. I had a very hard life, like other Kashmiri Pandits,” says Bhat, adding that if anyone feels pain for the Pandits, they should help them practically, with support for education of their children and healthcare.

“I feel a need to connect with the pain, to connect with the common masses,” Bhat says.

“I hear slogans like ‘Kashmiri Pandit ka kya hoga?’ and ‘Kashmiri Panditon ke saath kya hua?’, but then I ask them what they have done for these people who have suffered and for whom they ‘care’ so much? Don’t make us vote gaining machines, my pain is not up for sale. Now, 30 years down the line, what do I do? Take revenge and retribution? I don’t think that’s my cup of tea, that’s not my way.”

Irfan, one of the many students Ashwath managed to help, was unable to get in touch with his family after the new Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir was placed under lockdown. “Bhat financially helped me when I was not able to get in touch with my parents, I needed money to buy food and pay for other expenses,” says Irfan, who came to know about this Kashmiri Pandit who was helping students via Facebook. “Me and around 15 other Kashmiri students were staying in a private hostel in Gautam Buddha Nagar. I had paid Rs 10,000 hostel fees for eight months. But the hostel suddenly stopped providing us with basic amenities, we weren’t getting water in our bathrooms, neither did we get any food. We still stayed there for a month. When we confronted the hostel management and asked why we weren’t getting these facilities, they didn’t bother to give us an explanation,” he remembers.

Irfan says the hostel management started “blackmailing” the students when they expressed the desire to leave. “They said we had signed a bond that we cannot leave the hostel midway, and if we wanted to leave we would have to pay a fine of Rs 1 lakh. We tried to use the helpline numbers provided by the government, but it was of no use. That’s when we got in touch with Bhat again,” says Irfan. The student said Bhat then used his contacts, involved the Superintendent of Police and helped them get out of the Noida hostel. “He made sure we got a place to stay for a few days, we were taken care of, and now I am visiting my parents in Kashmir.”

“I feel a need to connect with the pain, to connect with the common masses,” explains Bhat, accepting that Kashmir also has a large radical segment. “But the point is that there are common people too, people who have suffered, specially these boys and girls we are trying to help. They are all born post 1990, they too didn’t have a normal childhood, they have suffered as well.”

A lot of people have been backing Bhat’s initiative. “I spoke to my good friend Rahul Dholakia and told him what is going on in Kashmir. Then I contacted other people in the industry like Rajit Kapoor. I connected with people through my circuit, a lot of people from theatre background like Danish Hussain, Yuki Ellias and Mahesh Dattani; so many people have contributed through the post I wrote on social media. A lot of people have contacted me and contributed to this cause.” Bhat says they organically came up with this group where we felt a need to help the students who can’t reach their families and were in real financial crisis.

Social worker Syed Suheel, who has worked with Bhat, narrates the story of a girl studying at Meerut University to underline the kind of problems that are cropping up. “She lost her father last year, and her mother has been managing a small shop in Kashmir, and paying her fees. Because of the lockdown, their shop has been closed for several months now, and the mother could not send money to pay her fees. But the girl has managed to get her mother to stay at the college campus with her, so she can be safe and is still trying to get help to pay her fees.”

Bhat says in the end it is all about empathy and compassion. “Of course, it is true that we Kashmiri Pandits have suffered for 30 years. But who is stopping us from showing empathy and compassion? No one. As I have have suffered violence, I should want to not support violence of any kind, no way, nowhere in the world.”

Bhat helps fellow Pandits too and has raised money for the Hee Maa Public School in Jammu’s Jagti locality where a huge population of Kashmiri Pandit migrants live. With this initiative people can sponsor education for students along with other activities. “I have been running theatre projects for some local schools, like Hee Maa school in Jagti. Once we took Clowns Without Borders to orphanages and poor schools in Kashmir. The students, the youth, the children of Kashmir are suffering so much, and need help from fellow humans.”