Return to paradise to a life of hell

  • UBEER NAQUSHBANDI
  • Publish Date: Mar 11 2019 5:45AM
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  • Updated Date: Mar 15 2019 9:54PM
Return to paradise to a life of hellPhoto: Habib Naqash/GK

A day before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Kashmir in February, a group of women appeared in Lal Chowk and held a protest. It was an unusual protest.

The protesters were the women from Pakistan-administered Kashmir (PaK) married to men who had gone to the other side of Kashmir during the decade of 90s for arms training, but ended up staying there and raising families. Over the years, most of them got used to their lives in PaK with little hopes of returning home. And, by and large, most of them also seemed to have been happy with their lives, until one day the possibility of returning home materialised as if out of thin air.

In 2010, the state government led by Omar Abdullah announced that the men who had gone across the Line of Control for arms training in the 90s could return to Kashmir and they would be rehabilitated back home.A former militant from Poonch, Liyaqat, and his wife, who were living in PaK, had been arrested when he tried to return. His arrest had created controversy. Subsequently, the state government announced the rehabilitation policy that many returnees now call a “cruel joke”, especially their wives who protested on the eve of Modi’s visit.

The data cited by the state government in Assembly in 2017 maintain that 377 former militants have returned along with 864 family members since 2010. A majority of them regret the decision.

For Aijaz Ahmad Misgar and his wife Raheela, life after their return in 2012 has been a “disaster”.

“After I came back we were detained by the police.  My wife and children were let off after three days and were treated well. But I was detained for one month. Imagine the plight of my family without me in a land that was alien to them,” says Misgar, who is famous by his yesteryears’ guerrilla code name Ahsan-ul-Haq.

Before his return in 2012, Misgar remembers watching every session of Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly over TV, where rehabilitation of former militants like him was often discussed.

“The debates over our return made me optimistic,” he said. Soon, many Kashmiris started believing that a return to homeland was becoming a reality. Many took the arduous Nepal route to return, spending lakhs of rupees.

“We tried to come through Wagah and Chakoti routes but weren’t allowed. We also tried to contact the Indian Embassy. They didn’t respond. We thought the Government of India might be sabotaging the state government’s rehab policy so we started to make efforts ourselves for our return,” said Misgar who heads the association of former militants who have returned under this policy.

National Conference provincial president, Nasir Aslam Wani claims his party facilitated the return of many such families during its rule as they deemed it as a “big human issue”.

Wani accuses PDP of “sabotaging” their plan for the rehabilitation of the former militants who had never fought. “Up till 2014 we carried it forward but afterwards it was totally buried down by Peoples Democratic Party,” Wani claimed.However, PDP spokesperson Rafi Ahmad Mir said the issue of rehabilitation of former militants never came up during his party’s rule.

“Once a policy is made by any government we can’t stop it or reverse it unless there is an order,” says Mir.

For people like Misgar, however, there was nothing “rehabilitating” in the policy.

“It was all about ba-izzat wapsi (dignified return) and ba-izzzat zindagi (dignified life) for us which the legislators were discussing inside the house. We haven’t felt anything like that,” says Misgar.

Raheela now regrets the decision of coming to Kashmir. She terms it as the “biggest mistake of her life” that has left her family “mentally disturbed”.

“All my children were brought up over there. They have done their schooling there. I lost my daughter. The day we arrived here, it took a toll on her. She always told me Mummy when we are going back,” Raheela said.“Finally, she had a headache one night and passed away. My other daughter Asma has been unwell from the day we arrived here. Doctors say she is suffering from depression. My husband had a stationery business there and he had half a dozen employees working for him.”

Raheela doesn’t regret the reverses in her family’s fortunes but the condition of her children and the longing for her family and relatives across the the dividing line has been unbearable.

“My puphaji (aunt’s husband) and brother-in-law have passed away. I couldn’t attend their funeral. My parents are aged. They always ask me over phone when I am coming. Kashmir is called paradise. For me it has been akin to living in a hell,” said Raheela, tears welling up her eyes, as Misgar gestures her to calm down.

The biggest issues for the families who have returned is the lack of documents and citizenship rights, especially for their PaK spouses and children, which have not been provided to many of them. Many say they have managed admission for their children in schools and colleges by paying hefty bribes.

In Shopian district’s Turkawangam village, Shahnaz has been worried about the future of her children ever since her husband Muhammad Yusuf Bhat, a returnee, suffered a massive heart attack and brain hemorrhage that left his left side paralysed.

Shahnaz had married Bhat after falling in love with him. His “mujahid” image had fascinated Shahnaz as a teenaged girl from Chinar Chakoti on other side of the LoC.

Shahnaz is also concerned about a case against Bhat in Baramulla court.“He has to go each month to Baramulla from here to attend the court hearing. Two days are lost in travel. It has become difficult for him after he fell ill,” said Shahnaz, displaying Bhat’s medical records.

There are charges of carrying three bullets and one grenade against Bhat. “I only had three daughters and one son with me,” said Bhat, his paralysed body betraying his yesteryears guerrilla image.

Though Bhat belonged to a well off family and his family has had relatively lesser troubles in settling down here, Shahnaz has a reason to worry.

 “Look, if God forbid, my husband suffers from anything untoward I would come on the road with my three daughters. I have got no documents or as they say citizen rights here. How will I be able to secure future of my daughters and a son? There is no one on my parents’ side I can bank on,” she said.

The longing for relatives living on other side of LoC is visible on Shahnaz’s face.

“My father died two years ago. I came to know about it after one year of his passing away. My teenage nephew, whom I have brought up, died. There’s also my son Toib buried on the other side. My mother has been ill,” said Shahnaz, appealing India and Pakistan to look into their case on humanitarian grounds.

Sumaira, who lives in Allamgunj village of Shopian, suffered what Shahnaz fears might befall her.

After her husband’s death, Sumaira and her two sons and three daughters were banished by the in laws. Only after the villagers came to her rescue, she was provided a share in the property.

Sitting in the living room of her one-storey house, Sumaira doesn’t want to talk about the ordeal she has gone through. The future of her children is her worry. She has also adapted to the village life and learnt pruning fruit to sustain her family.

“Main ye sab nahin jaanti thee. Magar aab to karna hai. I didn’t know it, but now I have to do it,” she said.

A majority of the Kashmiri men who had crossed over for arms training had married women in Pakistan-administered Kashmir areas, but some of them had also married women hailing from Pakistani cities like Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore.

Muhammad Yasin Bhat of Arreh village of Kulgam got married to Shabnum from Pakistan’s Gujranwalla. Shabnum officially is a foreigner. She has been a regular at Kulgam court with her daughter Maheen for the past seven years.

Yasin remembers meeting former chief ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti in 2010 in Pakistan capital Islamabad.

“I was part of the delegation of former militants that met Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti at Serena hotel in Islamabad. We had separate meetings with them. Both asked us to return and assured us of all possible help,” said Bhat.

In the neighboring Nagbal Warpora village, Sabeena Naz has hung a portrait of her deceased mother on the wall of a room.

“She was very close to me. She visited me a year after we came here. That was her last meeting with me,” said Naz, sitting beside her husband Abdul Rashid Dar, a former militant.

An undergraduate, Naz doesn’t regret her decision of coming to this side. “I have to be with my husband. I had to be with him even if we were in any other place. It is my fate,” says Naz.

Coming from a well off family in Muzaffarabad, Naz has acclimatised to the ways of her husband’s home. The only thing she wants is that women like her in Kashmir should be allowed to travel to the other side without any hurdle.

“I have attended my mother’s funeral through internet. My sister and nephew also died. I couldn’t be there,” she mourned.

Since 2010, longing for their relatives and marital discord had pushed at least six of these women to attempt suicide. In fact, Syed Bashir Bukhari from Kreeri, a father of five daughters, ended his life because his children, who were born on the other side, were being denied documents.