“Is it a boy? Is he fair-skinned? Does he have any marks on his face? He isn’t crippled, is he?”—are stock questions asked from the ideal-baby-checklist that has echoed in Srinagar’s Govind Ballabh Pant Children hospital for years, when married couples pay a visit to take abandoned infants home.
Born to two unknown couples—or maybe not—somewhere in Kashmir, cruelty and humanity—interwoven—brought merely days-old Salman and Burhan together in the hospital’s Nutrition and Rehabilitation Centre (NRC) ward, after they were abandoned by each of their biological parents in February and August, respectively, of 2016.
The new-born duo—suffering from brain deformities—were raised by four unmarried nurses in the NRC ward—their first one-roomed, medicine-scented, love-filled home.
Weeks passed, months went by, but no couple found either Burhan or Salman clearing the checklist. “The moment we told them (visiting couples) about their health conditions, it took them hardly five minutes to walk out,” said one of the ‘godmothers’, wishing anonymity. “I remember thinking if ever, their biological parents were among the visitors.”
Nearly after two years, on an ordinary December day in 2017, a middle-aged couple came and went—the duo blinked at them from their cradles. After fifteen days, Appa, and her husband, Adnan Ahmad Nadvi, came back with legal papers, undersealed by the Srinagar High Court, and amid crying ‘godmothers’, the couple took the duo home. Fate, once again, brought Burhan and Salman together under one roof.
Burhan, who is six months younger to Salman, hasn’t spent a day without his big brother. Salman, born in February 2016, was diagnosed with the congenital neurological disorder at birth, leading to his abandonment in February’s chilling cold, at the footsteps of Makhdoom Sahib shrine, Srinagar. He was found by two locals, who brought him to the hospital.
As the nurses remember, his umbilical cord was yet to fall. After being received in critical condition, the staff, nurses and stranger’s breast milk, named and nourished him.
In August, the same year, another new-born was abandoned after birth, when the biological parents perhaps realized that he would never grow up to be ‘normal’, citing his hypoxemia brain injury, caused due to lack of oxygen during the time of birth. The nurses named him Burhan, inspired by the popular Hizbul Mujahideen militant commander Burhan Wani, who was killed by the government forces that July.
Home of Humanity
In an underlit room, Appa was offering prayers. As she stood, folding her mat, a motherly smile greeted me. While rattle toys soothed crying babies in another room, she said, “They (babies) were in the news for long because nobody was coming forward to adopt them. We thought of visiting them.”
Her eyes gleam, as she remembers the first time she saw them. She had an instinct, an ineffable ache, she says, “Like, Allah had put it in my heart to be their mother. He brought us all into this world for a purpose, and at that moment, I felt I knew my purpose.”
However, the couple had more love to give. In November 2018, they ventured back to Sonwar area of the capital city; only to welcome the newest, and youngest member of the family, then three-month-old Numan—another abandoned baby in GB Pant hospital, suffering from hypoxemia, caused due to complications during labor.
Talking to The Kashmir Walla, a senior nurse at the hospital, Zainab Rather*, expressed that she feels like the media had made a big mess by reporting extensively on the issue. “It only backfired,” she said. “People started thinking that our hospital was a safe haven to dump babies, knowing the nurses would take good care of them.”
By mid-2016, three abandoned babies had ended up in the GB Pant hospital, and two more would join them the following year. Lal Ded hospital, the other major childcare infirmary in Srinagar, also faced a similar scenario in 2018, with five babies abandoned in the premises within a span of twenty-five days.
“We talk so much about our Kashmiriyat that somewhere along the way we forget our insaaniyat (humanity),” Ms. Rather added.
She remembers how the absence of an adoption agency in Kashmir, which could have intervened in these situations, only added to the chaos. The amended Jammu-Kashmir Juvenile Justice (Care & Protection of Children) Act, 2013, required the J-K state to set up district-wise Child Welfare Committees (CWC) within a span of one year.
However, CWC only entered the scene in July 2018—the state government was only some four years behind schedule. Moreover, as per provisions of the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS), the cost of setting up CWCs in Jammu and Kashmir is shared by the center and state at a 90:10 ratio.
Before that, the state high courts directly handed over children to guardians. Hence, there was no licit body to take custody of the abandoned children—give them shelter, protection and bear their expenses until procedures for legal custody were done. Babies like Salman, Burhan and Numan were at the mercy of kind-hearted people like the ‘godmothers’, who rocked them to sleep, changed their diapers, and spent money from their own pockets.
The chairperson of the CWC Srinagar division, Farooq Ahmad, said that in the J&K JJ Act, 2013, there is no mention of the word ‘adoption’ in the text. “In (Islam) Sharia, the idea of adoption doesn’t exist,” he said. “That is why the adoption laws in Kashmir are different from the rest of India. Here, we only give ‘custody of children to fit persons or institutions’.”
Now, in their room in Barbar Shah, Srinagar, where a few toys lie scattered on the floor and it smells of baby food and medicines, Salman kisses the cheeks of his soundly sleeping little brothers—Burhan and Numan.
Although, the little boys can’t recognize or respond to Salman calling them “Bhai” (Brother); Salman, however, has learned to recognize faces. He looks at me, blinks in curiosity and says “Mama”. Appa laughs. “He calls any girl wearing a headscarf, mama,” she said. “Now watch, he will crawl onto your lap, demanding attention.”
As Salman rests his head on my shoulder and starts reciting the Urdu alphabets, only to get distracted by my earrings, till the letter jeem.
“Salman is going to be of four years soon,” said Appa. “We have started looking for special schools for him but there are hardly any in Kashmir.” She adds that a few schools that they found refused to take Burhan and Numan. According to the 2016 report, Disabled Persons in India, by Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation of the government of India, seventy-six percent of the state’s differently abled population discontinued their studies after primary grade, citing the lack of special schools.
But Burhan and Numan’s inability to, at least, stand, tenses Appa. “I don’t want them to lie like this their entire lives,” she said. “Today, they are little, so we can pick them up, change their diapers and feed them. But they are growing up so fast. When they will be older, it will become difficult—not for us, but for them.”
While Salman grew up showing “great improvements”, backed by surgery at Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Science, Soura in December 2018, the doctors told Appa that Burhan and Numan were beyond any help, even if they were taken abroad for treatment.
Now, on doctor’s recommendation, a physiotherapist, Dr. Henna Mushtaq, visits the brothers daily for a two-hour physio session. Salman is a little stubborn and only cooperates after Dr. Mushtaq plays his favorite nursery rhyme—of a talking parrot.
While Appa tells me about her religious boarding school, that she runs alongside her husband, her 19-year-old student Sabrina dresses up Burhan—a hairclip parting his tiny curls. “Look at his long eye-lashes,” admiring him, she continues, “I can gaze at them all day long.”
Meanwhile, a young girl brings a crying Numan to Appa—grins, and leaves. “She is my eldest daughter, Amatullah,” said Appa, about her ten-year-old daughter. “The younger two, Zikra and Mohammad, are playing outside. Mohammad is almost the same age as Salman.” She said that both of them are very attached. “The two play and watch cartoons together.”
Numan soon falls asleep on Appa’s lap as she rocks him.
Unlike Numan, another baby awaits at the recently built CWC cradle home in Srinagar. Six-month-old baby Naira, blind in both eyes, was abandoned at birth. According to an ICPS official, for what he calls, a normal baby, it just takes a week to get chosen. But, baby Naira has remained alone in the Cradle Baby Reception Centre building for five months now.
As per 2011 census, 7.7 percent of state’s differently abled population comprises of children between the ages of 0-6 years while 4.9 percent is comprised of the age group of 0-4. “Among so many abandoned babies, we observe a pattern—disability,” said the ICPS official. “Poverty and the societal stigma that surrounds a mentally ill child are the main factors.”
In a few cases, the biological parents go to extremes to get rid of their newborns. In January this year, a father of four teenage children in south Kashmir’s Shopian district, tried to bury his infant, born with a congenital deformity, due to the inability to pay medical fees.
It was only when the gravedigger lowered the infant in the grave that the sleeping baby wailed. Crowd took hold of the man and the police took the matter ahead.
A month ago, the baby’s 48-year-old uncle, Nazir Banyari, a laborer by profession, took his nephew’s legal custody from CWC, Shopian division. With four of his own teenage children—three daughters and a son—he welcomed his fifth child, Wasim Banyari, now 5 months old.
“Wasim is my own blood,” he added. “What cruel heart would not bring him home? My brother (Wasim’s biological father) lives nearby but he hasn’t shown his face. My children love him and my wife stays up all night, rocking him to sleep.”
When asked about Wasim’s health, Mr. Banyari hoped, “He is getting healthier day by day, and Inshallah, will grow up to be a normal and healthy child.” He is also counting on CWC and ICPS officials for a minimum monthly grant, though, he hasn’t received any so far.
Since the existence of CWC in Kashmir, thirteen healthy newborns, including eight girls, have been given to various couples across the state after completing the mandatory Home Study Report process and a monthly follow-up. “Since last year, we have received more than a hundred applications for custody from Srinagar alone,” said ICPS official. “It also includes international applications. Though, preference is given to J-K residents.”
Although, amidst all the bling-bling advertisements of adoption centers, it is babies like Burhan, Salman, Numan, Wasim and Naira who struggle to find a home.
In different corners of Kashmir—Wasim is rocked by his aunt-mother; Naira still awaits a home; Burhan plays with his newly found brothers and sisters while Numan sleeps safe and sound in Appa’s lap; Salman calls out to me, “Buh-bye Mama!”
This story originally appeared in 1-7 July 2019 print issue of The Kashmir Walla,