“We were foreigners in Azad Kashmir but still we were provided with passports. Here we are not even provided a state subject certificate, which is our birth right.”
Mosques blurted out songs of freedom, friends gave them a parting hug and grandmothers applied kohl in their eyes. That was a familiar scene in early ’90s when they left for Pakistani Kashmir to train in arms and return to liberate their brethren from ‘Indian occupation’.
Almost two decades later, these men are taking a similar flight though a discreet one – not through rugged mountains but via Nepal from where they had returned to the Valley after hearing of an amnesty scheme launched by Omar Abdullah government.
A few days back newspapers reported that at least three surrendered militants who had returned to the Valley last year via Nepal have gone back to Pakistan by the same route.
What prompted these three middle aged men to again take the dangerous journey (both physically as well as symbolically), along with their children, has baffled many keen observers.
After an announcement by chief minister Omar Abdullah, three years back, to pardon those who shunned violence, over 265 people have returned, many with their wives and children. At least another 1,089 have sought permission to return.
But as more and more started to pour-in, government refused to acknowledge them for their use of Nepal route, administration failed to provide them documents; as a result, they couldn’t earn their living and their children could not go to schools for want of official recognition.
Going by the experiences of the past, people were not much surprised over government’s inaction to rehabilitate the youth and hundreds of their school going children even after passage of three years.
But a fleeting assessment of this humanitarian issue (albeit it has political ramifications for either of the parties of Kashmir dispute) at home also reveals a much graver side to the story.
As a society, the response of people in Kashmir valley towards these men is turning out to be nothing different.
Irrespective of whether one approves violence or not, it goes without saying that they were pre-teens, teenagers or in prime of their youth when they left for “arms training to free Kashmir of occupation in 1990s”.
Full of zest, they crossed the border amid a ‘wave of sweeping public approval for the gun.’ Every Kashmiri “seemed” a friend, a relative or a supporter as they undertook the arduous journey across the mountain peaks, pine forests and deep gorges.
However, those returning today are broke middle aged men with their frail bodies and coloured hair revealing the amount of physical, emotional and ideological decay they have undergone.
Uncertain of their future, they struggle to carry the burden of their small kids and fulfil promises made to their foreign wives.
“This is not the Kashmir I left, when I was 13. That sweetness and selflessness of people is gone. Today, I see everybody seeking for himself whatsoever the means,” says an old city resident, who works as a labourer to fend his wife and three children.
A businessman brother has usurped the property of his ‘Jihadi’ brother. A returnee, who sold out his fully furnished house in Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistani Kashmir, for travel expenses, is forced by his siblings to live in a cow shed without any facility of drinking water or toilet. He is unable to face his wife to explain this abandonment.
Another one is thrown out by his brother saying “your kids have more needs”. A private school principal asks for Rs 10,000 to admit a primary class kid in his school to dispense away the formality of certificates. In desperation some approached Indian Army for admission of their wards in their schools, which was easily granted.
“My family gave me a piece of land for living and whenever I go to Patwari for documents, he ignores. At one point of time when I insisted, he remarked, ‘this is not Azad Kashmir, it seems you have not straightened up yet’,” expresses a south Kashmir resident in distress.
The means to earn a living are limited. Nobody wants to get into trouble by hiring a ‘militant returned from Azad Kashmir’. Government job is ‘like asking independence from India and Pakistan’. Banks don’t provide loans for business and market forces do not ‘rely’ on them. Those who have returned without marriage have no hope of it either.
“What else we can do than relying on our friends or acquaintances. Some work as salesmen on shops and some go for door to door selling,” a man from Srinagar says.
The families of these men are ‘children of lesser God’. “What sort of life is this? My father-in-law dies and my wife is not allowed to see him one last time. “We were foreigners in Azad Kashmir but still we were provided with passports. Here we are not even provided a state subject certificate, which is our birth right,” he rues.
While the men are facing indifference of Indian establishment for the reason that they had ‘joined armed struggle’, the pro-freedom quarters also have shown no sympathy for them as they ‘chose to surrender rather than joining the struggle actively’.
Officials are worried that more disillusioned families might try to return to Pakistan. They say that around 4000 Kashmiris who had crossed the Line of Control (LoC) – the ceasefire line dividing Kashmir between two nuclear-armed neighbours – are still in Pakistan.