Among the newly-constructed, dust-layered structures in Bemina’s Khomeini Chowk, one sunlit office block works like a literal destitution depository. After organising mass marriages for the last four years in Kashmir, the office frontman is now looking forward to host another auspicious event on a much larger scale.
Omar Abdullah’s government had vanished when a grandfatherly figure began rowing his ark laden with emergency relief in the flooded fall of 2014. Amid desolation created by the deluge, he saw the trapped citizenry crying desperately for help.
Early that year, the rower and a retired headmaster from Uri’s Kamalkote had opened Jaffria Council in Bemina with a ‘larger social service’ motto.
But now, his own office was inundated in the flood waters as the brimmed Jhelum had spilled across the length and breadth of South Asia’s second oldest city.
Amid shouts for survival, as Haji Musadiq Hussain rowed to distribute the relief, he encountered with the heart-numbing episodes, which would soon translate into mass marriages.
Somewhere in the Nowgam belt, he met eight families who were looking forward to the weddings of their wards, before floods struck and held them captive in their own attics.
They were crying their hearts out, Haji recalls his interaction with the families, after the deluge devoured their lifetime savings, besides making a mess of their marriage material.
“It was a big crisis,” Haji says, sitting inside the Jaffria Council office, intermittently rattled by speedy vehicles down the street. “Flood wasn’t going to stay forever, but what those families had lost in it was difficult to recover.”
By resorting to pr-stunts and photo-ops in the name of relief distributing events post-flood, even the government failed to come to their rescue.
But as desperate times were calling for desperate measures, Haji saw a larger role for his council in the entire crisis.
For the next three months, he carried out a marital mess fact-finding exercise in the flood-affected Sonawari-Nowgam belt of district Bandipora. Leading a team of volunteers, he wanted to help the destitute families to organise marriages.
By the end of January 2015, Haji and his men had identified 38 couples and decided to organise a mass marriage for them inside the Govt. Higher Secondary, Nowgam.
“But it wasn’t easy for us,” Haji glowers over recollection. “Since it was a new concept, many people rubbished it and debarred their wards from taking part in the event.”
In the times of the great crisis handing a loss of $16 billion (1,04,000 crore INR) to Kashmir, it was a problematic mindset, he says. But sanity prevailed once local clerics intervened and motivated people for the event.
On close heels of the great tragedy, the event hardly made it to the front-pages, as, Haji says, it was not an attempt to play to the gallery.
Next year, Haji’s troupe focussed on the Pattan belt—which has been a favourite hunting ground for many NGOs since long now, because of its ‘pervasive poverty’. By the end of 2016, Haji’s Jaffria Council had improved their previous record, by getting 70 underprivileged couples married.
Kashmir Valley’s invasive marital mess—compelling an over-aged and low-income group to bring brides from Bengal—and the society’s larger lament bereft of any backup plan gave Haji’s Council a new job. Although the body was essentially floated to improve education, poverty, destitution, welfare and other developmental activities in the society, it was the mass marriages which became its new identity.
By 2017, Haji had taken the mass marriage campaign to Srinagar’s Amar Singh Club. That year, he organised a mass wedding for 75 couples there. A year later, in the summer of 2018, he was organising marriages of 105 couples at the same venue. But this time around, the event fared well on the media.
As the images of the red-suit dressed brides—some of them capturing their auspicious moment through Selfies—were splashed over social media, web-portals and newsprints, everyone thought it was a colourful event. But basically, as Haji explains, it was more about the hidden contrast.
That day, on July 15, among those beaming faces inside Amar Singh Club, one bride had already spent her 40 years in acute poverty and helplessness.
Since the past six years, her marriage was arranged — but absence of a helping hand had forced her to sit at home, where she was attending to her cancer-afflicted mother. Grappling with poverty himself, her 46-year-old groom was unable to tie the knot with her.
After Haji’s Council came to their rescue, the couple finally united.
“30 brides and 12 grooms in that mass marriage were orphans,” Haji continues. “Almost every bride and groom had their own sob stories of poverty and the larger societal snub to tell.”
Most of them were in the age group of 30-45 and hailing from five districts of Kashmir and 11 constituencies, including Uri (3), Sangrama (1), Pattan (28), Tangmarg (4), Khan Sahab (5), Beerwah (17), Budgam (16), Zadibal (5), Ganderbal (2) and Sonawari (22).
To trace these families, Haji and his men frequented the grassroots. The real crisis exists beyond the bustle of the towns, he says. His exhaustive interactions made him realise that poverty is still marring marital prospects in Kashmir.
Perhaps the revelation is a telling comment on the society which is pumping millions of rupees annually as donation into different destitute management institutions and welfare bodies. Without grumbling over it, Haji decided to lead by an example. His move was bound to inspire people.
As his group of volunteers grew, some big names also became the part of the process. From Poonch, a former deputy commissioner (retd.), Anwar Hussain Shirazi helped him trace the distressed cases from Pir Panjal region. One former zonal education officer is managing Jaffria Council’s affairs in Kulgam.
“When we first came up with idea of the Council in Jammu’s Batindi four years back, we hadn’t anticipated that we’ll soon have a pan-Kashmir presence,” Haji smiles over the progress. “But I believe, every crisis situation is a chance to contribute. That’s what we’re doing.”
Without getting involved into match-matching, his volunteers follow a simple modus operandi: identify the poverty-misfortune-ridden families, get their photographs, Aadhaar cards and school certificates and dispatch it to their HQ at Bemina. Haji checks the proper marital age of the prospective couple—18 in case of the girl and 21 in case of the boy—before taking up their case.
“Then we give them 70 wedding gift hampers,” he says. “We only provide the necessary wedding items to make it a simple affair.” Among the gift items is a briefcase containing 27 items.
On the wedding day, each bride and groom is supposed to invite 20 kith and kins. They’re served with, at least, 7 Wazwan dishes.
But perhaps the biggest beauty of the mass marriage is the Sunni-Shia unity.
Each couple is allowed to invite their own clerics, for presiding over their Nikkah ceremony. Some big religious figures turn up to bless the couples.
“A single marriage doesn’t cost us beyond Rs 40,000,” Haji says. “This tells us that marriage isn’t as costly an affair as we’ve made it. As a society, we must come together to weed out the marital complications. Even our beloved Prophet Muhammad [PBUH] termed the austere marriage as the best marriage.”
But sadly, Haji says, the society is yet to open up to his initiative, as none of his donors are from Kashmir.
His contributors come from Gujarat and Mumbai, who annually send him truckloads of wedding items.
“Last year when we organised 75 weddings, a Mumbai donor gave a sewing machine to each bride as a gift,” Haji says.
Outside contribution is fine, but the society—especially in Srinagar which is reportedly sitting over a ticking bomb of over-aged unmarried men and women—has to respond, he says.
“We can’t afford to stay indifferent to the marital crisis around us,” Haji says. “All of us must play our part. Especially the affluent families must spare some contributions for the unprivileged sections of the society while marrying off their wards in a very lavish manner. As a society, which is scattered right now, we must make a resolve to come on a single platform for the larger good.”
As Haji’s Council has already become one such platform, it lately brought together two over-aged carpet-weaving sisters from Sonawari, along with their spouses. For years, they were weaving carpets and yet, weren’t hopeful of their marital prospects — until Haji and his men spotted them, and got them married.
After showing the way, Haji is hopeful that others will follow suit and help the society to come out of the marital mess.
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