Deepika Pandita

Deepika Pandita – India

Leadership that empowers peaceful changes

“I was born and brought up in a refugee camp,” writes Deepika Pandita of the hastily built accommodations in what she describes as “the hot plains of Jammu” in India. The community mourned the loss of their homes roughly two hundred miles to the northwest in the beautiful Kashmir Valley between snow-capped ranges of the Himalayas. Kashmiri Pandits are native to a region known as “Paradise on Earth.” Her mother often described her own childhood spent among the apple and cherry orchards and tells how they grew walnuts and almonds. “She has never been to her home in the last twenty-six years, and her eyes often hide the grief of separation.”

In January of 1990, mosques and Urdu media broadcast hate messages, demanding that Pandits leave the Kashmir Valley. Hindu names appeared on hit lists and violence escalated. In the summer, Indian security forces opened fire on protesters, killing as many as a hundred people and unleashing revenge that devolved into total lawlessness. “Even women and children were murdered and raped by the terrorists in cold blood, and bullet-ridden bodies filled the streets of Kashmir,” Deepika says. “People saw their homes burning before their eyes.” Several hundred thousand Pandits were forced to flee what she refers to as a “horrific instance of ethnic cleansing” that took the lives of thousands. Her parents, still in their teens, both survived the brutality but fled their homeland in terror.

“Refugee camps are not happy places,” Deepika says. Upon arrival in Jammu, the elderly suffered sunstrokes and other health crises brought on by trauma and the oppressive heat. Shock and grief endured, carrying what seemed an almost physical miasma. Scars took a long time to form, and the memories, good and bad, were told and retold to the children. Deepika aims to right this wrong.

Catastrophe prevented her parents from attending college, so they prioritized education as “the only way to change your life,” Deepika says. They sacrificed to help her become the first person in the family to graduate from college, in this case the Model Institute of Engineering and Technology in Jammu. While there, she briefly enjoyed mountaineering and paragliding, and a literary club, but her main focus centered on helping people. She volunteered with the Red Cross Society for two years, earning a Young Women Achiever Award. Deepika was also chosen as a delegate to the Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations, sponsored by Harvard University.

She’d also been selected for a fellowship through the India Fellow program, which selects India’s brightest young people for social leadership in organizations working at the grassroots level. Deepika addressed skill development among rural youth through Ruralshores Skills Academy. “Young people from the far-flung villages often lose out on employment opportunities due to lack of skills and knowledge,” she says. “Thus skill development becomes a crucial aspect for their empowerment through better career prospects.”

Remarkably, she also set up an E-learning Centre in a rural college for girls to enhance skills through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), a large-scale mobilization that also offered a world class education through MOOCs from the best universities of the world. The region served is in the state of Haryana in Northern India, infamous for female feticides and skewed gender ratio. Young girls are deprived of basic education and married at a young age. “I engaged with several hundred girls and conducted workshops and seminars so that they could feel connected to the vision of their future,” Deepika says. Helping to empower these passionate and bright women proved not only valuable but a memorable experience, especially one young wife determined to pursue a degree in commerce. Tirelessly, the girl put in extra hours and then went home to do all her household chores and study, however, her family harassed her into dropping out.

Deepika deplores wasted potential, especially in the young people. Too many have lost their lives simply because they chose the way of violence. She is all too aware that India has been in conflict with Pakistan for seventy years. “I always feel a sense of responsibility to stop all this bloodshed and move forward towards the path of peace,” she says. Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha, or fighting for your cause through non-violent means, seems to Deepika to be the guiding principle, along with educating previously “uninterested youth” for positions of leadership. “My goal as a future change-maker would be to facilitate a peaceful dialogue with Pakistan.”

India is gaining the status of an economic giant, but Deepika believes that before it can gain superpower status, many issues need to be addressed. The government has lost the trust of many of its people, particularly the Pandit community. “I am of the fervent belief that a robust political leadership will play a significant role in reshaping the future of the world,” she says, “and I intend to take up the responsibility to serve as a representative of the community as well as the country.” A priority is reviving the dialogue process between her community and government agencies to solve the Kashmir problem.

“With sheer perseverance and grit, I will eventually make a difference in this world,” says Deepika. “I have this dream of seeing my community returning to our homeland, Kashmir, and till the last breath I won’t let go of this dream.”