His mother’s death in 2000 changed the course of his life, but 18 years later Sanjay Verma, a Kashmiri Hindu is happy spreading amity between communities and building bridges through education. Verma was at the cusp of getting into the corporate world pursuing a course in Company Secretaryship in Jammu when his mother Vijay Lakshmi Verma, a teacher, died in her native village of Beehama.
Educating the young was Vijay Lakshmi’s passion and she taught and nurtured many children in Beehama and surrounding villages. Today, Vijay Memorial Educational Institute started and nourished by her son, and named after her, is a living testimony of Vijay Lakshmi’s passion and belief.
“I vividly remember a phone call that I got in the evening on May 13 in 2000, while I was studying at GCM College Jammu. It was about my mother’s death,” recalls Verma, warming himself with Kangri (Kashmiri firepot) at his cozy school office.
Devastated and desperate to see his mother one last time, Verma reached his home in Beehama the next day. What he saw made Verma think.His home was full of grieving Muslim neighbours and his mother’s students some of whom he had grown up with.
“There were tears in their eyes. I could sense gloom on their faces. For some time I forgot that only my mother had expired. They all looked inconsolable and visibly more grieved than me,” said Verma.“At that moment I realised what the legacy of my mother was”.
After mourning was over, Verma’s relatives, Kashmiri Pandits, most of whom were settled in many of India’s metropolitan cities, started insisting for him to sell off his property in Beehama and move out like them.But he thought differently.
“How could I have betrayed my mother? On one side I was on the brink of getting a lucrative corporate job, while on the other there was my mother’s legacy. Her mission: enlightening people through education. Moreover, they (relatives) were of this view that living among Kashmiri Muslims was fraught with danger,” Verma said.
Even in 1990, when majority of Kashmiri Pandits left the valley, Verma’s family, the only one of Pandits in Beehama chose to stay in their ancestral village among their Kashmiri Muslim neighbors, whom they knew well.
“My father died when I was still a kid. My mother raised me single handedly. There were all these neighbors who treated me as their own child. They held my mother in high esteem. Even known militant commanders of our area during 90’s used to hide their guns if by chance they came across my mother,” Verma said. “We lived in this village like one big family. How could someone’s propaganda have made to suspect our own people? My mother always had this belief.”
Besides, Verma felt no fear as he knew well, and had grown up and studied alongside boys who after 1990s became known names in Kashmir’s “Azadi movement”.
One of Verma’s closest “buddies” in Tyndale Biscoe School was Masraat Alam Bhat.
“Alam and I were closest of friends. We used to eat from each other’s tiffin. We used to together do those childish naughty things in the class. He was somewhat rebellious and street smart from childhood. We studied together till 10th standard,” recalled Verma, stressing he never felt alienated at any point of time in Kashmir.
The only distress his family faced was when his siter after her marriage stopped visiting. “She was married off in Jammu. Her in-laws barred her visiting the valley. They were apprehensive about tense situation here at that point of time. My mother used to miss her a lot.”
But Verma stood focused on his mother’s passion and dream of educating the young. For the next four years, with help from neighbours her made some four or five classrooms on a hilly patch of land and started a school.“Finally, in 2004 the school was ready. In the first year seven students got enrolled in our school,” chuckled Verma.
Today the Vijay Memorial Educational Institute has 1000 students in grade one to Matriculation, has facilities for specially-abled and children from economically weak backgrounds , and staffed with mostly Kashmiri Muslims. The school’s motto is “dream of a mother, duty of a son, better education to everyone”.
But that is not all.Verma simultaneously works to ward off “false notions” among Kashmiri Pandit community who fled the valley.
“Since 2008, I ensure to bring in a KP teacher living outside. I make the teacher live among Kashmiri Muslims to clear his misconceptions,” Verma says with pride. “Recently, we got in Mr Koul who feared to visit valley. After I got him here, his mindset changed all together.”