Politics of rehabilitation

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They have been returning home to Kashmir in small numbers quietly from the Pakistani side via Nepal, but a larger number may be waiting for the much touted government policy for rehabilitation of former rebels who went across for ‘arms training’ in the 1990s. While many thousands of them inside the valley accuse the government of perpetual harassment. Majid Maqbool reports.

Aijaz Ahmad (name changed) was a 17-year-old boy when he left his home in Shopian and crossed over to Pakistan Administered Kashmir (PaK) for “arms training” in the early 1990. Part of a group of 30 boys who left from their homes to cross the border, Ahmad’s parents had little hopes of seeing him again.

In November 2011, after twenty years of separation, Ahmad, now middle-aged, reunited with his family in Shopian. Along with his wife and two small children, he quietly returnedvia Nepal, where from he crossed the Indian border in UP, and then traveled to Jammu, and finally reached his home in south Kashmir.

When he landed in Nepal from Karachi along with his family, like others who had taken the same route before him, he had to destroy his visa and Pakistani passport in order to enter Gorakhpur, Utter Pradesh on the Indian side. On reaching Shopian in November last year, Ahmad had to surrender himself in the local police station. He was kept in a police lockup for a month along with his wife and kids. He had to spend some money to be released on bail. His case is in the court.

“There are around 1500 Kashmiri men in PaK who had crossed the border in early 90s, and all of them want to return to their homes now,” says Ahmad. “Most of them have married and have children.” He says those who want to return have to travel individually as coming back in groups via Nepal can raise suspicion at the India-Nepal border.

Ahmad had to spend around Rs 50,000 to arrange for his return via Nepal. There are some agents in Rawalpindi, he says, who have to be paid for making travel arrangements back to Kashmir. “They have arranged for return of many such families in the past,” says Ahmad. “So those who want to return take their help as they have many contacts in Nepal who facilitate return,” he says.

When Ahmad entered the Indian side of border from Gorakhpur UP,which touches the Nepal border, he says they had to tell the border guards on the Indian side that we were in Nepal for some family business. “Any Kashmiri who returns from that route can’t say anything about coming from Pakistan as they can be denied entry at the Indo-Nepal border,” he says. There are many risks involved at many stages in this journey, he says, “but when home calls, you take such risks.”

After a couple of months of arms training across the border, Ahmad says he parted ways with his group, and started working in a gas agency in Muzafarabad. In 2004 he married a girl from Muzafarabad. “I got in touch with my familyin Kashmir many years after crossing the border,” he says. “They thought I have died as they didn’t hear from me for many years when I crossed the border.”

Ahmad says many Kashmiris on the Pakistan side in the recent past kept hearing about the talks of their rehabilitation by state and central government. They had hoped that the Indian government will facilitate their return. “We waited for 6-7 months to hear the government decision about facilitating our return,” he says, “but when nothing happened at the government level, we had to take the risk of traveling on our own via Nepal.”

Those who have returned on their own in the past few years say the political realities are changing on both sides. “Pakistan has its own issues to sort out, and now there is talk of peace between India and Pakistan. In this scenario Kashmiris who crossed over to Pakistan through the 1990s for arms training feel isolated,” says one Kashmiri who recently returned to his home in south Kashmir. “All those who are still in PaK want to return home and spend the rest of their life with their families in Kashmir,” he adds.

Shabir Ahmad (name changed) from Shopian district was a 15-year-old boy in early 1990 when he crossed over to the Pakistan side along with 17 other boys from surrounding villages. Only two months into the arms training, he had a change of heart. He left his group and chose to work in a general store in Muzafarabad. In 2002, at the time of his marriage, he got in touch with his family back home.

When his wife died in 2007, Shabir decided to return home. Last year, after 20 years, he returned home along with his kids. Accompanied by his daughter and two sons, like others before him, he travelled on his own, via Nepal. He was detained for a month in the local police station after his return last year. “They are talking of peace and increasing trade relations between India and Pakistan, and Kashmiris who are still in Pakistan feel left out and want to return to their homes,” he says.  There are no training camps in Muzaffarabad now, he adds, and all the Kashmiri boys who crossed over to Pakistan in the 90s want to return to their normal lives in Kashmir.

The talk of return of Kashmiri youth who had given up arms across the border shot to prominence in 2006. When a delegation of Kashmiri mainstream leaders, including Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti, visited Pakistan in 2006, several Kashmiris in Pak Administered Kashmir met them and expressed their desire to return home, saying they were “homesick.”

A few years back the state government had announced a rehabilitation policy to facilitate the return of Kashmiri youth who had crossed over to PaK since 1990. According to state government, 1034 applications have so far been received under the policy from the youth who want to return home.

“Out of these applications, 67 cases have been recommended and the decision is still awaited”, Minister for Medical Education RS Chib recently informed in the state assembly on behalf of the Home Minister. He said the state government notified the policy and procedure for former militants in the year 2010. After the approval of rehabilitation policy by the state government in November 2010, it was sent to the Central Government for approval. Subsequently, a high-level committee, headed by Commissioner/ Secretary Home, was constituted to review the applications. It had received 700 applications, of which 80 were cleared.

The policy envisages that the youth who had crossed over to Pakistan and PaK would be allowed to return and arrested at the time of surrendering at the entry points specified by the Government. Government had selected four entry points, Poonch-Rawalakote (Poonch), Uri-Muzaffarabad (Uri), Wagah (Punjab) and Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi, from where the cleared youth can enter the country.

However, recent reports suggest that the rehabilitation policy, announced earlier with much fanfare by the State Government, has hit another roadblock as the Union External Affairs Ministry has failed to evolve a “workable mechanism” for the return of youth from across the border.

“The point of confusion is how Government of India will implement the policy. India has never handled such a proposal. Though Home Ministry had supported the move but External Affairs Ministry has failed to find ways to start the return process,” said a recent news report, quoting sources. “Official sources said that the J&K Government has also stopped to pursue the case with the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), keeping in view delay on part of the Centre to give final approval to start the return process,” the news report added.

Chief minister Omar Abdullah in the recently concluded Assembly session in Jammu said that the government was sincere about the rehabilitation of ‘misguided youth’.

“The policy was brought in the House during the PDP led government but it was the government at that time which stopped the move”, he said. However, he added, there were “certain issues which were coming in the way to implement the policy.”

“The real issue is that of rehabilitation of thousands of ex-militants in the valley who continue to live a miserable life,” says Abdul Qadeer Dar, president of Peoples Rights Movement (PRM), an organization that fights for the political rights of the former militants in the valley. “There are around 60,000 people in the valley who have been denied passports and travel documents for their former and distant militant links,” he says, adding that the government must give the ex-militants the basic rights to live an honorable life and freedom from frequent harassment from various security and intelligence agencies.

“The former militants are being harassed, humiliated, threatened and even refused No Objection Certificate (NOC) for petty government jobs and they are frequently denied travel documents to perform religious duties like Hajj,” says Qadeer.

Political analysts believe that the state and central government – by talking about rehabilitation of those who have crossed border through the 90s –scored their respective political points on the issue. And as for Kashmiris waiting to return to their homes from across the border, the “rehabilitation policy” turned out to be empty talk by the state and central government.

One political analyst calls such rehabilitation proposals – which are sold in media before theycould be actualized into concrete steps on ground – as “passive separatism”. “The so called rehabilitation policy was turned intoa points scoring match by both the state and central government,” he says, “something meant only for the mass media consumption.”

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A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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