Winning Hearts and Mind

Operation Sadbhavna wins over the locals

In the cloud of dust raised by the notorious Ladakhi wind ring the cackle of women much before you enter the building, which houses the Adult Literacy Centre run by the army in 14 Corps. Though meant for both men and women, the Centre is flushed with the fairer sex. Giggles one young woman, “My husband does not have time to come here.” The other one says, “My husband can read and write, so he does not need to come.” Clearly, the Centre is a rage among women, each of whom has her own reason to come here. While the elderly come because they want to read their religious texts, others want to learn how to calculate. Mugging up ‘A for Apple’ from a primer, the biggest high for most of them is to write their names in English. In this respect, the Sadbhavana Adult Literacy Centre is like any other such school in any part of the country. The only difference being that this is run by the men in the uniform and not some non-government organization.

Where you go in Ladakh, Sadbhavna is a recurring theme. Though the army runs a similar programme in the Valley as well, in Ladakh it has been an indisputable success. As Lt. Gen. Arvind Sharma says, “Unlike they Valley, militancy is not an issue here. We draw our strength from the locals and the vice versa.” Though the Sadbhavna or the military civic action had been going on for many years, in Ladakh it got an impetus under the command of Lt.Gen. Arjun Ray, who was the second GoC of 14 Corps. Even today, the locals and the officials refer to his efforts with something bordering on awe. “He really put his heart and soul in the project,” says one officer.

The results are there to see. Today, there is a network of 13 Army Goodwill Schools (AGS), 13 Women Empowerment Centres (WEC), six Medical Aid Centres, three Information Technology Centres, a special centre for mentally challenged children, a hostel each for boys and girls at Dress and Leh respectively, an orphanage in Kargil and a leather goods factory in Trespone. The army is committed to provide electricity and clean drinking water to even the remote villages. That the spirit of goodwill had trickled down is evident by the fact that each brigade commander in Ladakh takes a personal initiative to ensure that the people stay on the right side. For instance, one brigadier, who hails from Pune, has send five Buddhist and five Muslim girls to Pune for education. And despite the medical centres, the army has given clear instruction to its General Hospital in Leh that all local patients have to be treated free of cost. In case, serious patients have to be sent to bigger hospitals in Chandigarh or Delhi the army foots the bill. Moreover, the locals also get the basics like kerosene at a subsidized rate from the army. Little wonder then, for the local poor, the army is the government by default. Spalzes Angmo, a councillor with Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), justifies Project Sadbhavna, “These are border areas. The army has to do this for the simple reason that it has to maintain it presence here for security reasons. Moreover, developed infrastructure helps the army as well.”

Project Sadbhavna is funded by the ministry of defence. In 2004 alone, the MoD has so far given an aid of Rs 40 million. And according to Brigadier N.B Patel, who apart form being the chief engineer of 14 corps is also the director of Sadbhavna, “Rs 100 milion will come in a month’s time. The government is serious about developing these remote border areas.”

It is not difficult to see why. Ladakh consists of two main districts: While Leh is predominantly Buddhist with only 15.32 per cent of Muslim population, Kargil has a Shia-Muslim and the people share the same ethnicity. Though the region has not witnessed any communal problems, the two communities generally stay out of each other’s way, not only socially and culturally, but geographically as well. In fact, travelling in Ladakh by road is quite educative as one sees the distinct Buddhist and Muslim culture in the layout of the villages, architecture, costume, language, eating habits and the economy. Leh not only gets generous aid from abroad. It also gets more tourists than Kargil, where the economy still remains largely agro-based. Since the 1948 war, Pakistan has been trying to make inroads in this region with little or no success. For obvious reasons, the government is determined to ensure that there is no spill-over of the militancy in Ladakh. According to one intelligence officer, many former militants have sneaked into Kargil and the army is keeping a close watch on them Their purpose is not clear. Maybe they want to start life afresh, or maybe they are laying low waiting for an opportune moment to start creating awareness about their cause among the local people. If latter is true then it is certainly a matter of concern. “Sadbhavna plays a dual role,” says one brigadier. “It helps in developing the region, empowering the people and creating employment opportunities, but it also helps us keep a hand on the pulse of the people.” Most of the Sadbhavna activities are conducted in the houses of the local people, who may or may not take rent from the army. Though the army wants to involve as many local people as possible in the running of these Centres, it does not give up complete control. “Even in Women Empowerment Centres (WEC), where we don’t want soldiers to hang around a woman officer remain in charge, “ says Brig. Patel.

Among the various programmes, the Goodwill Schools and the WECs have been very popular. It is clear, that even the army is very proud of the WECs because wherever one goes, the constant refrain is to visit one of these centres where women are taught various handicraft skills, such as weaving, knitting and stitching apart from lessons in computer science. It is heartening to see young enthusiastic girls, who can barely express themselves, merrily typing away on the computer. Recalls one officer, “One day, I quietly went behind a young girl to see what she was doing on the computer when she quickly minimized the page. When I questioned her. She sheepishly admitted that she was chatting with somebody in Bangalore.” If a girl in Drass can chat with somebody in Bangalore, can there be a greater integration?.



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