Return to Paradise?

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The J&K government’s rehabilitation policy for former militants who crossed the LoC is an unfulfilled promise, says Baba Umar

Back for worse Manzoor Ahmad Bhat with his children
Back for worse: Manzoor Ahmad Bhat with his children, Photos: Abid Bhat

IN THE Urpara village of south Kashmir’s Shopian province, Abdul Rashid Dar, in his late 30s, is tilling the earth around the apple tree stumps in his orchard with a spade. His mother feeds the cattle while his father sips nun chai (traditional salt tea): a scene unthinkable just months ago, before Rashid’s return from Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK).

In between sips, Rashid’s father Abdul Gani Dar talks about the long wait for his son. “I wanted to see my eldest before my death,” he says in sentences broken with sobs. “My beard grew white during these 21 years. Thanks to the government’s rehabilitation promise, my son is back.”

Immediately after 1989, when armed rebellion for an independent Kashmir gained momentum, Rashid, like thousands of others, joined the fight against the security forces. A Class V pass-out and a carpet weaver, Rashid says he was only 17 when he, along with his childhood friend Siraj-ud-Deen, left with a group of 30 youths in 1991 and crossed the Line of Control (LOC) to join the pro-Pakistan Hizbul-Mujahideen.

“For three months we were trained to operate pistols and Kalashnikovs,” says Rashid as he plants the spade into the soft ground. “For the next three, small batches of armed boys waited for their turn to cross over to the Valley. But before my turn came I ran away from the camp.”

The change of heart led Rashid to do menial jobs in the streets of Muzaffarabad until one day when he ended up working at a local gas distribution agency.

“My friend (Deen) had decided to stay back,” he recalls. “Later, I learnt he was killed trying to cross the LOC through Poonch. He was gutsy. He wanted to fight. His priorities never changed.” The stress in his voice is unmistakable.

Rashid married Muzaffarabad-based journalist Shabina Naaz in 2003. After reading in a news portal about Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s announcement that youth stranded in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir were welcome to restart a normal life, he returned to the Valley on 5 November 2011 with his wife and two children. His son, Hanzala, 5, and daughter Hais, 6, now study in the school his wife teaches in (see box).

Many such former militants, some with little knowledge of war and arms, had entered into a deadly conflict with the State that has dragged on until now. However, with Pakistan and India nudging each other for peace, and insurgency in Kashmir at its lowest ebb, former rebels like Rashid are trying to reclaim the lives they had left decades ago. Abdullah’s announcement of a “proper” militants’ rehabilitation policy has only added to that hope of coming back.

The policy, announced in 2010, is conditional on a ‘change of heart’. It includes identification, monitoring, debriefing, rehabilitation and reintegration of former rebels into normal life. It requires their parents to file surrender applications before the Superintendents of Police concerned; the ex-rebels can also file applications on their own to the Indian High Commission in Pakistan. The applications are then scrutinised by various intelligence agencies, and if cleared, the rebels can enter the state. The four entry points identified for return include Uri-Muzaffarabad, Poonch-Rawalakote, Wagah (Punjab) and the Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi. Those surrendering will, however, be tried for cases pending against them.

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Against All odds

A wife’s account of a return to her husband’s roots

AT first she appears timid. But then her instant nit-pick surprises everyone standing around: “Yehan Ka Media Vibrant Nahi Hai (Media here (Kashmir) isn’t vibrant)”.

When 27-year-old Shabina Naaz accompanied her husband Abdul Rashid Dar to his native Urpara village in Kashmir’s Shopian district, she had no idea that she would have to spend the first 18 days in jail. “That too with our children…And no one reported it,” she says. Shabina works in the village school, Cambridge Noorani Educational Institute, where she teaches Urdu and science to primary children. Her son Hanzala, 5, and daughter Hais, 6, also study in the same school.

“We were arrested and detained for 15 days at the local police station. And then we spent three more days in the Srinagar Central Jail,” she recounts the experience. “Now we are out on bail. I’ve heard Kashmir is beautiful but the authorities have warned us against travelling beyond certain districts.”

Shabina—a brown haired, short-faced and a frail figure dressed in a floral-print scarf and dark brown pheran—comes from a Kashmiri family who had migrated from Rajouri to Muzaffarabad in 1965 war between Pakistan and India over Kashmir.

Marriage with Rashid—who was working in a gas distribution agency in Muzaffarabad after abandoning the militants’ camp in first few months of joining them in early 90s—never ever occurred to her would mean returning back to Kashmir. “For the children’s welfare and good future, I agreed. But the troubles I found here are too much,” she says, adjusting her scarf with both hands.

A former journalist with Daily Pakistan and Frontier Post, Shabina says she had read on the internet about rehabilitation policy for ex-militants in Kashmir that pushed her husband to look towards Shopian—his birthplace.

“I thought we’ll get the same dignity and respect, but here things are different. In Muzaffarabad, Rashid was independent, now he is jobless. He works in his small orchards with his old father. And I work in this school to make both ends meet,” she says.

When asked to compare her life in Muzaffarabad and in Kashmir, she grins and waits for some time. No words are exchanged for a while.

“People here are more conservative. Ours is an open society in Muzaffarabad. Life stops here after 7 in the evening. It’s not the case there. I haven’t seen television here for the past three months. There is no light in this area. In development, discipline and environment, Muzaffarabad is much ahead than this place,” she explains without making a proper eye contact probably trying to imbibe the local culture.

How was it like to marry a one-time militant who just had a migrant status in Pakistan? “You have no idea of the love for Kashmiris across Pakistan. My parents wanted me to marry Rashid. I agreed. I didn’t care who he was and where he came from,” says Shabina.

Whatever her concerns, Shabina, who has a journalism degree from the Allam-a-Iqbal Open University, is a best find, the school authorities say.

“Her positive attitude has spilled over to other instructors as well,” says Shabir Ahmad, principal of the school. “Our building is just a GI sheet roof and classrooms of brick and mortar, but Shabina makes it lively with her bold and encouraging outlook.”

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According to recent government figures, the state has received 1,034 applications so far, of which 67 cases have been recommended and the decision is still awaited from the Union home ministry. However, mere news of the policy, sources say, has triggered the homecoming of almost 40 youth. According to sources, all of them returned to the Valley via Nepal and Uttar Pradesh and surrendered before the police before they actually reached home.

Digging roots Abdul Rashid Dar and his apple tree
Digging roots: Abdul Rashid Dar and his apple tree

“There are hundreds of youth, mostly married to local girls who want to come back to lead peaceful lives,” says Manzoor Ahmad Bhat of Landoora, Hajipora, 7 km from Shopian town. Bhat returned to the Valley on 8 March 2010, almost eight months before the state Cabinet had actually approved the rehabilitation policy. It was in 1990 when Bhat (15 then) left for Pakistan for arms training. But he abandoned the camp and started working as a salesman. “I was with an NGO that worked for the rehabilitation of the 2005 earthquake victims,” he says.

The NGO Subahi-Nav paid him Rs54,000 (in Pakistan currency) every month. Besides, a monthly relief of Rs1,200 — which the POK government offers to nearly 40,000 Kashmiri refugees who crossed over to POK after 1989 — was enough to lead a peaceful life. Bhat married a local girl and has three children from her. However, after her death in September 2009, Bhat’s parents travelled to Muzaffarabad in the trans-Kashmir bus service insisting their son return for good.

“In Pakistan, I was earning good money. But I had to take care of my three children. I was missing my old parents too. So I decided to come back,” says Bhat. “But now I’m jobless.”

YEARS AGO, when Shafiq Ahmad Seh, 42, entered Lavahind, 3 km from Shopian town, he was greeted with cheers. But what he saw surprised him. “New houses had sprung up everywhere,” he recounts. “Mud houses with thatched roofs were not visible. Many, who until a few years ago had worked in our orchards, had their own houses.” Seh had left his rich family in September 1990 to fight against the Indian forces. He now works with his trusted Bihari labourers in his apple orchards.

The lure of home comes with its own price. Men who have returned to the Valley so far are tried for violation of the Indian Passport Act and illegal border-crossing. While Bhat and Seh have come out of the legal troubles, Rashid is out on bail and has been asked not to move beyond three districts of Kashmir. Unskilled and ageing, the former rebels are looking forward to a proper rehabilitation. But the authorities, as yet, are clueless about the process.

Despite repeated phone calls and SMSes, Minister of State for Home Nasir Aslam Wani could not be contacted, while Home Secretary BR Sharma said the “government will take care of all aspects”, without elaborating exactly how it plans to do so. The policy of rehabilitation is going awry. In Delhi, the home ministry still has the file of cases cleared by the state home ministry. On the other hand, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), according to sources, is in a dilemma over what mechanism to adopt to bring back youth from Pakistan and Muzaffarabad “without Pakistan’s objections, meddling or hesitation”.

It doesn’t look feasible to the MEA and the Indian High Commission in Islamabad to share the MHA-cleared list with the government of Pakistan, which might not be interested in the youths’ homecoming. “An agreement with Pakistan is a must on this issue,” say sources. Another issue can be over the citizenship of wives and children of these young men.

AS FOR the act of rehabilitation, sources say, the youth will be arrested on borders or at the entry points. Cases against them, if any, will be reopened and they’ll serve the punishment in “special counselling camps” in the Valley. Bank accounts will be opened in their names and an immediate grant of Rs 1-Rs 1.5 lakh will be offered, while every month some Rs 2,500- Rs 3,000 will be deposited in their accounts. Those serving will be given skills-training needed for available work once they come out of jails. “But again, this might dent the policy since no one would like to serve jail terms after returning,” say sources.

Former militants say they can rehabilitate themselves provided security agencies stop harassing them

Amid separatists’ silence and right-wingers’ harsh criticism of the policy, the opposition PDP has been lashing Omar’s government over the latter’s “sluggish” attitude over the policy. On 25 February, the issue triggered a ruckus in the Assembly when PDP MLC Murtaza Khan accused the NC of “not implementing” the policy approved years ago and “putting the matter in cold storage”. In its reply, the government said it’s still waiting for a response over “recommended cases”.

Released militants too have rubbished the policy. Srinagar-based People’s Rights Movement (PRM) — a group of 12,000 released militants — believes former rebels will rehabilitate themselves provided security agencies stop harassing and humiliating them. “The scenario is when our children get government jobs or work outside, police releases adverse reports. Our relatives can’t go for Haj; we can’t travel out of the state for work. Getting a passport is a herculean task,” says Abdul Qadeer, chairman of PRM.

In Muzaffarabad, United Jehad Council (UJC) supremo Syed Salahuddin too has taken a dig at those wishing to return to the Valley. “The most precious thing for a human being is honour and dignity. I put a thousand curses on those who return to Kashmir in a way that they have to surrender before and seek forgiveness from the enemy and go behind bars,” a local newspaper quoted him as saying a few days ago.

Salahuddin, who, in a freewheeling interview to TEHELKA (2 April 2011: “We aren’t fighting from Pakistan. We are fighting from liberated Kashmir”) had asserted that “no one is interested in returning until the occupation ends” went further to say, the rebels would return “but with weapons and the flag of freedom in our hands”.

While multiple issues continue to rage, returnees like Rashid, Bhat and Seh are looking towards Omar Abdullah to keep his word and help them revive their so-far chaotic lives.

Baba Umar is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
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