Home Calling!

As New Delhi debates its surrender policy and draws flak for calling back ‘militants’ from PaK, hardly anyone explains that apart from intending or erstwhile militants  thousands of civilian families were pushed across the LoC by compulsions to live as refugees in PaK. R S Gull reports

With Neelum River as the LoC, kins separated by situation “meet” each other from the banks of the rivulet. They all, once, lived in Keran.

Even when his superiors had ordered magistrate Munawar to settle the compensation case of residents of Bore displaced in the early 1990’s, he could not. The government wanted to compensate the residents of Bore in secluded Keran, a village sliced by a small stream into two countries, but the bureaucratic requirement of physical verification of their left behind assets could not be done in the village heavily mined by the army.

“The village is divided in Bore Bala and Bore Payeen and in between was a watermill that both the sides used once upon a time,” says the officer. “It is this small stream that is the LoC.” The village was part of Pakistan Administered Kashmir (PaK) till Bore Payeen was annexed to J&K in 1971.

For two decades Bore Payeen residents lived a life one could have on the  last border post of LoC that had the dubious distinction of being one of the world’s most active “borders”. Then militancy erupted and after massive infiltration for a year, troops started creating a security blanket around the LoC. During the night on Dec 8, 1990, residents told civilian officials later, troops descended on the village and ruthlessly marshaled out the villagers. The troops considered them a security threat. Consequently, entire village fled to the other side. Overnight it became a haunted inhabitation.

However, 17 families stayed back. They were pushed inland. For the last two decades they are living as refugees, scattered in many hamlets around Kralpora Kupwara. These families are seeking compensation for the losses they were made to suffer. “They deserve it (compensation). We completed all the formalities and finally had to make the physical verification. But we could not because the entire hamlet was mined,” remembers the magistrate.

Some 180 km north of Srinagar, Keran lies between fast flowing Kishenganga and Farkin Top, that separates it from Kupwara, Kishenganga called Neelam on the other side serves as the de-facto border. Comprising of around 12 villages, the population of the highly militarised region actually lives on the other side of the LoC. “It is common knowledge that over two-third of Keran has migrated (to other side),” Nasir Aslam Wani, a minister in Omar Abdullah cabinet told a news conference in Srinagar last week. Most of the population fell victim to the security belt the army created along the LoC post militancy.

Whoever stayed back lived in perpetual misery for over a decade as cross LoC shelling was a routine affair. “The area is a bit relaxed now as there is no cross LoC shelling or firing,” admits a resident who studies in Srinagar. But many villages are deserted and have been converted into minefields.

A Keran resident living in Srinagar for last two decades says, “There are, at least, four villages without any civilian population now. The 2001 census counted these as uninhabited. “Around 5000 people lived in those villages before migration.”

Rope bridge that was set up by India and Pakistan for weekly travel of locals.
Rope bridge that was set up by India and Pakistan for weekly travel of locals.

Karnah (Tangdar) is Keran’s sister belt that is located between Neelum and the Sadhna Top. Unlike Machil and Keran, it is vast and has a large population but that made no difference to its fate. Residents have all along had blood, family and economic relations on the other side of LoC. “More than 10,000 Karnah residents are living on the other side,” said a government employee presently posted in a central government department. “The situation that was created soon after militancy broke out triggered a fresh migration.” These migrants include women, children and elderly.

When militancy surfaced, troops were under intense pressure to stop trans-LoC movement. “The first target was the population that lived on LoC or close to it,” said the official. Initially troops started round the clock vigil and “coerced” local residents into participating in the vigils. “A number of people like Kamal-ud-Din and Ghulam Hyder were murdered. It created panic and as a result people who could cross over, did,” he added. Consequently, in dozens of village one-third to two-thirds population migrated to the other side.

The belt, now accessible to PaK’s first village across LoC, Chaliyana by a 175-feet suspension bridge at Teetwal, over 190 km north of Srinagar, witnessed a series of arrests during the amorphous years of militancy. Some of them disappeared in custody. This added to the crisis in the mountainous belt. “In innumerable cases, the migrants’ houses were destroyed in mysterious nocturnal fires soon after the migrations,” remembers a civil administration officer who served in Kupwara during early 1990’s. “In a few cases, the officials assigned the migrants’ properties to their kin.”

The erstwhile highway town of Uri didn’t suffer less. The LoC had divided a number of  families in Uri. “So when situation turned bad and routine life suffered, families fled like anything,” said A Khan, a middle rung officer in the state government. “Entire population of as many as five villages of Sahoora, Hathlanga, Churunda, Nawarunda and Sengtun migrated during the initial days (of militancy). Some returned later but majority of them still live on the other side of the divide,” he said. “There were tensions and at times life threatening situations but I can not rule out the possibility of some well-wishers on the other side aiding the migration.” A senior NC leader however, said the migrations were part of “de-populating the areas very close to the LoC” so that security could be tightened to prevent any ingress.

Even with blood relations on the other side, Uri is one of the few places where the population did not get directly involved in militancy though a few men from the area took to arms during the initial days of militancy. But the security agencies did not give the population any benefit of doubt as a section of the border guides belonged to this place and they thought that the local population could not be oblivious to the nocturnal movement of militants.

In Rajouri and Poonch that are separated from Uri by the Haji Pir pass, now with Pakistan since 1971, it was almost the same situation. Migrations took place almost daily. LoC divided cousins in Uri but in Poonch and Rajouri it divided families, parents from children, and husbands from wives. This might have been one factor for the post-militancy migrations but drastic drives by the security grid, locals say, were the primary reason. Even now, locals cross over but for different reasons.

The last major migration reported from Rajouri-Poonch belt was from Tarkundi village, where almost 99 percent population crossed to the other side in June 2000. Barely 50 meters from LoC, the village once had 43 families. With every war their numbers reduced. In 2008 elections, there were only six voters while in 1987 there were 210.

Vijaya Pushkarna, of The Week magazine reached the village soon after the 2000 migration. Her reportage did not suggest any economic factor behind the migration as the residents had left almost everything including the prized buffalos behind. Later, it was revealed that troops after finding a grenade outside the village temple, “responded by mass public beatings, singling out the local Numberdar and other village officials for special treatment.” Within days the villagers fled for their lives.

For most of the last twenty years, the emphasis of the reportage on the Indo-Pak in Kashmir context has remained on infiltration, a trend that existed from the days of emergence of the LoC  but there are instances where civilian migrations were reported in mainline press in India.

Kanwar Sandhu in December 1991, then with the India Today, was perhaps the first Indian reporter who was permitted to enter Muzaffarabad. He met mohajirs (migrants), from almost everywhere from this side.

“Many mohajirs say they fled the Valley because of repeated arrests for organizing pro-aazadi demonstrations. And a few admit their involvement in militancy. Most of the migrations took place last year (1990), but the exodus continues,” he reported.

“…Seven camps have been set up for them, the latest at Hathian, opposite Uri where 70 families have moved in. In the case of Kanthawali village on the LoC, almost all the inhabitants seem to have come (from) across.”

In Ambore, Sandhu met 35 year old Bibi Maryam who said she would never return to her Kanthawali village. “She says she and her family had to flee Kanthawali because of the army. Her litany of charges is all too familiar: her husband was tortured while she was repeatedly raped by Indian troops for an entire week. Pointing to the deep scar on her forehead, she says: “I was hit on the head when I protested.” Equally jarring..,” he reported. He offers no data but says the claims that mohajirs make are taken as gospel.

In May 1994, India Today printed Harinder Baweja’s trip to PaK. Then the publication’s Kashmir specialist, she was told by rehabilitation officials that there were 9705 refugees while PaK president put their number at 8500. Most of the reportage suggested that the refugees were fake (some of them not able to speak Kashmiri or able to tell to which village they belonged to), the tales were exaggerated and the numbers were too little in comparison to Pandits who fled from Kashmir.

As the guns on the LoC fell silent, visiting Muzaffarabad became more frequent. Off late, a few reporters from Srinagar could also visit and report from the others side of the divide.

“We do not know the numbers,” said Minister Nasir Aslam Wani. “We have already ordered the concerned officials to go for the count.” Though security agencies will have a fair idea of the numbers it is unlikely that they will put the figures in public domain. But an assessment can be made on basis of some figures in public knowledge.

They were 12440 in January 1997. In February 2000 Jim Teeple of Voice of America reported presence of about 15000 refugees in 13 camps. In March 2003 Zoltan Istvan of National Geographic reported 100 more were just added to 17000 refugees.

Human Rights Watch in its report ‘With friends like these’ released in September 2006 about the state of civil liberties in PaK said the rehabilitation officials informed it about presence of 29,932 registered refugees. The watchdog estimated the presence of around 5000 unregistered Kashmiri refugees including former militants. All these figures pertain to August 2005, a month before the earthquake flattened most of PaK.

On June 25, 2007, the Muzaffarabad Assembly was informed that the earthquake killed 338 and wounded hundreds others. In response to a question by Mehr-un-Nisa (wife of Hurriyat leader Yusuf Naseem, herself a refugee who became the speaker of PaK assembly last month), Rehabilitation minister Sanaullah Qadri said 189 refugees were killed in Kamsar, 149 in the camps of Hir Kutli, Karika, Manik Pehan, Hattian Bala and Bagh. He said there were 15 refugee camps across PaK. The PaK writer Ershad Mehmud writing in Greater Kashmir in June 2008 said 15 refugee camps house 24,574 immigrants comprising almost 75 percent Paharis, 20 percent Gujjars and five percent Kashmiri as far as their spoken language goes.

These obviously were not the first batch of refugees. Muzaffarabad has historically been getting Kashmiri refugees from J&K especially during the conflicts. Soon after the LoC (then the ceasefire line) emerged hoards of residents from J&K crossed over. In Jammu they fled to survive a pogrom and from Kashmir they were pushed across for being political oppositions. Those Kashmiris still forming part of a separate set of mohajirs constitute over 15 lakh population of Pakistan. Muzaffarabad’s

Rehabilitation and Relief ministry say they rehabilitated 9740 refugee families from Kashmir that crossed over after 1965 war. Even though Kashmir was away from 1971 war theatre 10,000 people are claimed to have reached PaK after the fall of Dhaka.

The immovable properties of these refugees in J&K are still a huge estate manned by Custodian General. Though the actual records were destroyed, a survey in 1974 suggested there were 7989 houses, 655 shops at commercial sites, 21 garages, 1350 khokhas, 113 orchards and 1,53,608 kanals of agriculture and housing land in Jammu province alone. It has now shrunken to mere 4487 houses and 70,418.02 kanals of land with the number of shops and khokhas remaining almost the same. But history of emigrations from Kashmir is a painfully long story that links present with the past but does not fall under the new ‘surrender and rehabilitation policy’ which the state and central governments are keen to implement.

One of the five Working Groups that Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh set up as part of the All Party J&K Roundtable Conference was led by Mohammad Hamid Ansari, now the vice president of India, to suggest CBMs across segments of society in the state. Among other things, it suggested a “definite policy/package” for youth who foreswore militancy. It wanted a careful assessment of number of Kashmiri youth willing to return from PaK and suggested those be considered for peaceful return and rehabilitation who “joined militancy for misguided ideological reasons, monetary considerations or were forced into militancy”.

Vice President of India Hamid Ansari
Vice President of India Hamid Ansari

The reports were gathering dust since April 24, 2007 when Ansari’s and three others WGs submitted them. Chief minister Omar Abdullah dug out the files and started discussing the issue with Home Ministry, now led by a strong P Chidambaram. The issue has already been discussed with the security agencies and they all, reportedly, are supportive.

As a major CBM that might be discussed with Islamabad at the foreign secretary level talks, the policy is aimed at granting “general amnesty” to youth and families “stranded” across LoC. Security grid, if the reports appearing in media are taken at face value, does admit that a vast section of youth “stranded” on the other side had gone in search of “safe haven and careers” and families to “avoid shelling” and harassment of forces.

The so called surrender policy, indications suggest, envisages prior verification of antecedents by police, IB and RAW before arrival through functional trans-LoC routes followed by month long quarantine for interrogation and de-briefing by all concerned agencies and eventually reporting to the nearest police station every week. Those married there will have to approach the Indian High Commission in Islamabad. They are unlikely to get any financial package or a job but can join government-sponsored vocational training courses.

In an effort to make some political capital, the rightwing BJP and its allies besides Omar’s predecessor Ghulam Nabi Azad attacked the policy. He said it could “prove a major security threat as there is nobody who will stand guarantee for these youth”. It earned him rebuff from Omar as well as Chidambaram.

But it was Azad who created a situation that led to the requirement of evolving a policy. In 2006 as many as 190 people returned and in 2007 around 50 more had already surrendered when Azad government forced a halt in May. These include three PaK females who had married J&K guys during their stay across the LoC.  But it does not include the case of Zahoor Ahmad Bhat, the youngest brother of JKLF founder Maqbool Bhat, who re-appeared in his Trehgam village after spending 20 years in PaK. Police detained him on February 12 and later arrested his wife Aamina Zahoor and their four children, daughters Midhat (7), Nafila (4) and Zunnoon (3) besides 18-months old son Abdullah. He is currently in Kot Balwal jail.

The policy was rejected by the separatists here and refugees there. Putting their number at 35000, the refugee leaders in their press interaction in Muzaffarabad rejected the idea terming it “a new trap”.

There is reaction here as well. A Khan has close relations across and visits them every two years. He also meets the refugees. “They live in tents but they have the best facilities. They have improved in education and quota (reservation) helps them to get admission in the best colleges,” says Khan. He says surrender is for militants and not for civilians. “Abdul Karim was a school teacher here and after crossing over he teaches the students in the refugee camp. Usman Ahmad was a medical assistant here and he is doing the same job there,” he says asserting that the only crime they committed is crossing the LoC and that too under compulsions. “If Delhi sees PaK part of J&K then crossing LoC is not a crime.”

There are fascinating stories about young men crossing over and making successful careers. Uri’s Zulfiqar Ali landed in his relatives’ home soon after crossing over within days of failing to get through the medical entrance examination. He completed his graduation and gave Muzaffarabad one of best tuition centres. Later, he became a journalist and heads BBC Urdu radio in Muzaffarabad. But police did not permit him to travel on weekly trans-LoC Karavan-e-Amun bus even when his father Mohammad Din Khjawaja died of cancer in 2008 and mother in December last.

Hundreds of young men have married in PaK and Pakistan, settled or are working in Middle East. But majority of them are reportedly surviving on small incomes. Reports said around two hundred are in jails and many others ailing from psychiatric disorders.

Whoever gets a chance returns. During the non-initiation of combat operations (NICO) that the Prime Minister Vajpayee announced (November 28, 2000 to May 21, 2001), some of the refugees were permitted to return home. Most of them belonged to the Uri villages of Lachipora, Gohalta, Nambla, Silikote and Kamalkote. Later when the two sides announced a ceasefire (November 2004) the rival sides permitted cousins to see each other from the respective bunkers. Similar gestures were seen soon after the earthquake. A 17-member family from Gohalan returned home on October 26, 2007 after remaining stranded on LoC for two days.

But the situation varied from place to place. In Uri where a few hundred families did return, none did in Keran, one of the worst affected places on this count. BBC famously did a story from Neelam Valley, on the other side of the LoC in Keran sector. In 2004, Mohammad Faizan (PaK) got engaged to Samyra Bashir (J&K) in late 2004, the ceremony held with the families of boy and girl sitting on the opposite banks of the river that serves as the LoC. Faizan’s parents tossed a packet containing a ring, a gold necklace and a dress 25 meters across the fast-following river into J&K in Keran. Tragically, the marriage is yet to be consummated as the families are awaiting permissions from the two countries.

“There are only two cases in entire Karnah in which two individuals returned,” said an officer who has served in Tangdar. “I am not aware of their fate.”

The situation remained unchanged even after two heart-rending incidents in Keran. During ceasefire when the refugees were permitted to come to the banks of Neelam to see their relatives on this side, a housewife unable to bear the separation jumped and started swimming towards her home. She drowned.

In November 2005 a similar seeing-from-opposite-banks was permitted. Tawseef Ahmad, a dumb boy could not resist the separation from his mother who lives on the other side of the LoC. He jumped into the river and was barely saved by the people. He was three years old when his family fled to PaK during start of militancy.

The major issue, if the policy was successfully implemented, would be if the civilian families are permitted to resume life in the villages they inhabited earlier. Villages which reported no human life were not even counted by the 2001 census. In fact, a proposal to relocate populations from LoC has been pending for a long time. Defence forces came with relocation idea, first in 1967-68 but it invited stiff resistance. In 1999 the proposal was re-opened with the idea of relocating 20 villages in Uri and 15 in Mendhar belt. But it could not take off. May be the issue rakes up again.


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