As a proposal to rehabilitate militants from POK gathers steam, Parvaiz Bukhari tracks the experience of those who have already made the journey home without permission
A QUIET MOVEMENT is underway in the Kashmir Valley — one that has no political father, although it is borne by a primal desire — that of a return to the homeland. Young Kashmiri men from Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (PoK), in their ones and twos, have been returning home to the Indian side after spending the prime of their lives in “training camps” there. They catch flights from Pakistan to Nepal and enter India via the border town of Sonali to reach the Kashmir Valley. Having given up militancy, most of these returnees turn themselves in at police stations, desirous of leading “normal” lives alongside their families. Some get arrested by the police before they can surrender.
There is no official data on how many have returned so far. Estimates suggest that some 80 such people have arrived since 2008. Many have brought with them wives and children raised across the Line of Control (Loc). These are people who went to PoK for arms training but never came back to fight the Indian forces as they had initially intended.
During the early 1990s, tens of thousands of Kashmiri youth made the most hazardous journey of their lives through the high mountain passes, to cross the heavily militarised Loc that divides the two sides — driven by the dream of “liberating” Kashmir from India. Now they return with cautious yet unambiguous political views, clear in their minds that an armed tehreek (movement) could never change their political status.
Shamim Ahmed Sheikh returned home to his impoverished Tchoont Pathri village, Baba Reshi, Baramulla District. Family members and relatives surrounded the happy-looking young man, now 34, at his single-storey village house, to congratulate the family for their son’s return. He was showered with sweets and almonds and handed over small amounts of money — traditional Kashmiri gestures of good wishes. “I was welcomed like a bridegroom,” said Shamim. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s recently mooted proposal for a ‘new surrender policy’ intends to “welcome” those youth from the Valley living across the border who wished to return to the “mainstream”. But Shamim did not return because of this proposal — after 18 years away in PoK, he was homesick.
Abdullah’s controversial proposal is strongly backed by Union Home Minister P Chidambaram. But so far, it has been just an intention — no policy framework has been prepared for the return of the “prodigals” of militant ideology.
According to Shamim, one day in September 1991, gun-wielding militants appeared at his small family shop and took him away. Along with a group of 21 others he trekked for seven days and nights, crossing the Loc to finally land at a “training camp” outside Muzaffarabad, PoK, run by a militant organisation he does not want to identify.
BACK HOME, his father, Ghulam Rasool Sheikh, wrote letters for his son addressed to a “furniture shop” in Muzaffarabad. Over time, he succeeded in “moderating” his son’s views on militancy. Sheikh would show some of the letters he received from Shamim to police and Intelligence Bureau officers in Srinagar, informing them of Shamim’s transformed views — in the hope of making his eventual return safe.
Omar Abdullah’s idea is backed by Chidambaram, but a clear policy is yet to be formulated
Shamim wanted to come back immediately after receiving arms training. But his mother kept discouraging him. “Don’t come back yet, the situation here is very bad,” Shamim remembers his mother telling him every time he talked to her over the phone. From 1997, he worked at an X-ray clinic run by another Kashmiri in Muzaffarabad and started saving small amounts of money, hoping against hope that one day he would return home. “One thing that my mother used to tell me always remained with me. She would ask me to return as a human being,” Shamim reflects, wryly. His mother passed away two years before Shamim could finally make the journey home.
If crossing over to PoK was a “miracle”, the journey back “was nothing less than suicidal”, risking death or jail. First, he secured a Pakistani passport “through an agent” and then, without telling anyone there, flew to Kathmandu in September 2009. “Before crossing over to Uttar Pradesh, I destroyed the passport in Nepal to escape detection,” he says. At Jammu, Shamim was arrested by policemen in civvies, inside the train compartment he was travelling in. He endured five months of interrogation and torture in jail before being released on bail.
After 18 interminable years, Shamim now looks forward to setting up a small shop near his village, en route to the ski resort of Gulmarg. But he doesn’t hide his political views about Kashmir. In Muzaffarabad, he got ample time to reflect on the India-Pakistan relationship vis-à-vis Kashmir — so now, he has joined the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). “India and Pakistan are similar countries, and both are aggressors in Kashmir,” he says, adding, “Kashmir has a unique social and cultural identity.”
Disgruntled with the leadership of both countries, as well as the separatists, he harbours no hopes of a resolution to the Kashmir issue. “Kashmir has become a battlefield for ISI and RAW.” He believes that only the people of Kashmir can change the status quo. “If Kashmiris sit on a hunger strike en masse, the world will support us,” Shamim says with conviction.
There are an estimated 30,000 Kashmiris, each living on Rs 1,500 per-month doled out by various tanzeems (militant groups) in “refugee camps” at Rawalakot, Bagh, Muzaffarabad, Kotli, and Mirpur, across the Loc. “Almost all of them want to come back, but they are scared of the Public Safety Act and rumours that new jails are being constructed in Kashmir,” says Shamim. “If I tell them my story, they won’t return,” he adds with conviction.
‘If Kashmiris sit on a hunger strike en masse, the world will support us,’ says Shamim
Top security officials say that the issue of bringing these boys back is a tricky one. There is no policy about what to do with them, which is why there is resistance to the idea from within the security establishment. Police recently discovered two returnees in Budgam District who were given pistols by militants on their return.
Some of the returnees have married Pakistani women and come back with their children. “Their citizenship status is a big problem. Wives can be sent back, but what to do with their children?” a top security official told TEHELKA on condition of anonymity. Recently, one man whose wife from PoK had passed away, returned home to his village in Shopian District. He brought with him his two small kids. The family reported him to the police. He is now in jail while the children have been handed over to the grandparents. Security officials fear that these children will eventually become “voices of the Kashmir dispute” in the absence of a clear citizenship status. “They are bringing the Loc right into their extended families here,” said a security official.
Abdul Jabbar Khan and his two small kids are one such case. Khan, after his return from Muzaffarabad two months earlier — again via the Nepal route — has been familiarising his two kids with their new neighbourhood in Mazhama village of Budgam District. In 1989, when even his father — a (pro-India) National Conference office bearer — was threatened by militants, he felt that the tide had inexorably turned towards militancy. So, he joined them and crossed the Loc for weapons training. 18 years after his father was gunned down by suspected militants outside his house, Khan managed to return. Having lost his wife during childbirth just before his return, a traumatised Khan doesn’t like to talk much. “I didn’t come from another country. Across the Loc is just another part of the same Kashmir,” he says cuddling his 4-year-old son who clearly looks a bit bewildered in unfamiliar company and culture.
The returnees don’t come back for better economic opportunities either. Mohammad Ashraf Hajam, 35, returned in December 2009 with his family from Muzaffarabad. He had joined JKLF before crossing over in 1990. Later, as hopes of crossing the “deadly Loc” back again slowly faded, Hajam established a successful hairdressing saloon in Muzaffarabad and sent his two kids to a “good school”. But his heart belonged to the bewitchingly beautiful Chandiloora village near Gulmarg. After turning himself and his family in at a police station, Hajam now lives a life of penury in a dungeonlike one-room hutment with his wife and two children, who still “ask for pizzas”.
The uncertain citizenship of returnees’ children born in pok is an unsolved riddle
Hajam is now struggling to set up a barber shop near his village to keep the home fires burning. He alleges being continuously “harassed” by the police. “Everyone from there wants to come back,” he says.
But reinstating the former militants is only a small part of a larger dilemma facing the state administration. There are an estimated 40,000 ex-militants inside Kashmir, who were captured by the security forces and have served long jail terms before being released. About 5,000 of them have organised an advocacy group known as the ‘People’s Rights Movement’ (PRM). They complain of hardships ranging from denial of passports to denial of legal clearance and police verification to start their own businesses. Unlike most of the PoK returnees, they remain wedded to their separatist ideology. “Our suffering at the hands of the State has only meant that we have shifted from a violent method of seeking our right to self-determination to a non-violent way,” says Abdul Qadeer, a former militant and president of the PRM.
GHULAM HASSAN (name changed), 40, returned in 2008 with 15 other militants, after 19 years in PoK. They have quietly mingled into their milieu, under the radar of the intelligence establishment. According to Hassan, some of them simply informed local policemen they knew. “We were advised by the police officers to shave off our beards and stay quiet,” said Hassan. “Pervez Musharraf (former president of Pakistan), crushed militancy across the border, but convinced a lot of us that the issue would be resolved. That triggered a desire among most of us to come back.” But Hassan is now terribly disappointed.
All the returnees TEHELKA spoke to expressed significantly diminished hope of a stable future. Most ascribe it to India being “a mighty country, difficult to defeat in Kashmir without global support”. But the kind of difficulties these returnees face, after their arduous journey through militancy and back, is bringing new dimensions of the Kashmir issue into the foreground. Something the incumbent chief minister will have to consider, for his ‘new surrender policy’ in-the-making to succeed in any significant measure.