Once they crossed the LoC, Kashmiri youth were the new heroes in Pakistani society. Many married, raised families and lived a happy life. As the natives returned home, these women are ruminating and, in fact, regretting their decision of getting uprooted. A few even attempted to end their lives, SYED ASMA reports.
In a sleepy suburb in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, it is only the looming dust and noise of passing vehicles and band-saw mills that catches your attention. Few steps from the main road, a muddy slope leads to an unfinished building made of mud and bricks. Most rooms in the building are locked and the one open has been rented by Javed Ahmed for Rs 1000 a month. “We can’t afford to rent a house. So we rented a room,” he says.
Javed lives with his wife and four children; Shehryaar (3), Shahroz (5), Bakhatawar (8) and Laiba (10). Except Shehryaar, all of them study at a private school. There is not much space in the ‘house.’ The food is prepared in this room, the family eats and sits here and, when the day ends, they sleep here as well. There is no other room. To make up for this lack of space, Javed got a small veranda opening on one side of the room covered by tin sheets and converted it into a kitchen. “Of course it creates problems. The large open area in the backyard is scary. Besides, cold weather and harsh winds also create a lot of inconvenience. But we have don’t have any option,” his wife, Saira Javed, says.
In early 90’ when insurgency broke out in Kashmir against Indian rule, Javed crossed the border into Pakistan to receive arms training like hundreds of other young men who had dreamed of breaking away Kashmir from India. The separatist struggle was at its peak. However, Javed’s passion to fight to free his land did not last long and he dropped the idea of becoming a mujahid. Instead, he shifted to his relative’s place in Pakistan who had been living there since partition.
As time passed, he realised there was no chance of returning to Kashmir and decided to marry. His relatives choose Saira for him. Like Javed, many Kashmiri youth who had crossed the border and settled in Pakistan married local girls. “The youth who had crossed the border to receive arms training and fight Indian forces had become a craze among Pakistani girls. They easily found their matches, even in cities like Karachi,” a Pakistani woman who married a Kashmiri youth told me.
When the centre and the state government announced the policy of rehabilitating Kashmir youth, it generated huge enthusiasm. All the families who have now returned to Kashmir say they made many attempts to come back but failed. “Announcement of a rehabilitation policy from the government showed a ray of hope but it proved nothing more than a hoax.”
The policy of return and rehabilitation of surrendered militants was introduced by a state government’s order no. Home-1376 (ISA) of 2010 in consultation with the government of India for those militants who belong to J&K state and had crossed over to Pakistan for arms training but had given up insurgent activities. As per the government records, about 66 families have returned under this policy till now. However, the returned families say there are at least 153 of them. Official document reveals that about 1082 applications have been received from surrendered militants who were willing to come back. Out of these, 218 cases have been recommended.
However, not one family or youth has returned from Pakistan through the routes identified by the government. Most of the families who have come to Kashmir arrived through Nepal like Javed and Saira did along with their four children. Now that they are here, Saira is finding it extremely difficult to adjust to a new life.
Saira was born and brought up in Karachi and belongs to a well-off family, she says. Her father was a government employee and her brothers have established businesses.
After marriage, Saira and Javed shifted to Rawalpindi where Javed started a small transport business. “We owned a few buses and taxis. We were living a luxurious life.”
To substantiate her claims, she immediately pulls out hundreds of photographs from a broken cupboard in her room. “These are the moments I cherish,” she says while pointing to the pictures clicked when they were in Pakistan.
Saira looks surprisingly different in these pictures. “This is a photograph which was clicked just days before we came here,” she says. It is hard to believe that she is actually the same woman who has posed elegantly in photographs. A well-maintained, stylish woman has transformed into an old, depressed one! Her face is parched and due to a poor financial status, she is almost in rags.
Her husband, Javed presently earns Rs 3000 a month by driving a private taxi and they say it is very difficult to manage the survival of their family from such a meagre amount. Now she is planning to start a tailoring shop near her house. “Let alone getting that luxurious life back, we aren’t able to fulfil the basic requirements. For months together, we can’t pay the school fees of our children,” says Saira.
She looks depressed and says her health has failed since she arrived in Kashmir. She has been here for the past two years now but it has not been a pleasant stay, she says. For the first six months, they lived together with Javed’s parents in Kupwara but Saira says it was impossible for her to adjust there.
“I simply couldn’t adjust. It seemed my appearance, my dressing, even my Urdu language bothered them. After spending six months with his parents in their village, I was considered a foreigner. I wasn’t treated well. Even my children couldn’t adjust. It was painful,” she says. “With each passing day, my children asked questions which were difficult to answer. So we thought of shifting to Srinagar,” and sarcastically adds, “The most developed part of the valley!”
Having lived in a vibrant city like Karachi, she believes Kashmir is a backward place. She has her own explanation for that. “For the last month, we have not been able to purchase cooking gas. We are using Kerosene stove. Here, we have to purchase everything from the black market and at very high prices because we don’t have any identity proofs like ration card, etc.” In most cases of youth who returned from Pakistan with their families, their documents including their passports, nikah namas, school and colleges certificates were ceased by police when they entered Indian mainland.
“Rather than just announcing a rehabilitation policy for increasing his vote bank, the chief minister of the state should have passed a proper bill which would have given us a proper place in Kashmir. Neither common people nor the system is able to absorb us,” Saira laments.
She does not look happy. Every time she speaks, she talks about life in Pakistan, “We are so desperate to go back to Pakistan. No matter what, even if we lose our lives, we want to go back.” Regretting her decision of coming to Kashmir, the family says they spent all their earnings to get back to Pakistan. “We sold everything we had to go to Pakistan. The brokers charge a huge amount to cross the border,” she says.
“We even sold the earrings of our daughters.” The mention of the sold earrings brought tears in her eyes and silence followed.
Saira is not the only Pakistani woman who returned from Pakistan with her Kashmiri husband. There are a number of such women who are all living a painful life and regretting the decision of returning to Kashmir. Mohammed Ashraf, 52, returned to Kashmir to reconnect with his lost roots along with his Pakistani wife and four children.
“I wanted to show my place to my family, introduce my world to them,” says Ashraf. His wife, Shabana, is suffering from depression and is on medication. “My heart rate suddenly increases which worsens my condition. I feel like crying sometimes for no reason,” she says. Her husband says she doesn’t talk much now.
“Our stay in Kashmir changed our lives for worse. We often have fought at home. I am depressed and disturbed,” Shabana, who was born and brought up in Muzzafarabad, says. Ashraf is mostly found doing rounds of different government offices to get his elder daughter and son admitted at some school. She was studying in Class 12 in Pakistan but the authorities in Kashmir have told Ashraf that she could be admitted to Class 11 only. It is very difficult to convince her, Ashraf says. His son is also facing a similar problem. He was in Class 10 in Pakistan and he has been asked to start from Class 9.
Seeing their background, the schools and colleges are very reluctant to admit their children, the families who have returned to Kashmir, claim. Most families who I met say their children who were students of Class 10 and Class 12 are facing problems in admissions. However, it is not only the education of their children that bothers them. The lack of economic opportunities has left them disillusioned.
Ashraf too was unemployed since he returned to Kashmir. After a gap of two years, he has finally started to earn. He managed a cloth stall in Srinagar’s Sunday Market the other day for which he was paid Rs 150! Like his other fellows, he has survived by selling off his property in bits and pieces till now, mostly the gold ornaments of his wife.
To add to his woes, the attitude of Ashraf’s brothers has given them little hope of survival. His parents passed away much before he left to Pakistan. “They are not accepting us as their family, as if we are not related to each other,” says Shabana. While Ashraf and his family live in a single room, the rest of the property is divided among his two brothers.
There have been many instances where these Pakistani women ran away from their homes.
Many tried to consume poison and end their lives. Their families attribute these tendencies to the growing disillusionment and uncomfortable lives that they are forced to live in Kashmir, away from the comforts that they enjoyed in Pakistan. The most painful story among all is that of Shafaqat Begum and her husband, Farooq Ahmed, who was paralysed during the 2008 earthquake which claimed above 70,000 lives on both sides of the border.
The house collapsed on him and he was paralysed, Shafaqat says. The childless couple lives in north Kashmir’s Tengdhar. In Pakistan, they were well-settled with a flourishing business. “We had maids and servants to serve us but now I earn Rs 3000 a month as an Anganwari worker with which I have to manage everything. Most money is spent on our medicines,” Shafaqat says. She is reluctant to share her ordeal and doesn’t talk much about her sufferings but her choked voice says it all.
The apathy shown by the state government and the society at large is not helping these women to adjust to a life where they are considered aliens. All the families have to attend court hearings once a month. At least one member of each family, including women and children, has been booked under different acts. Most women and children have been booked under section 14 of Foreigner’s Act (1946) for crossing the borders illegally.
The state government had identified routes like Wagah border, PCP, Attari and Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Dehli for them but none have taken these routes. Instead, they illegally enter India through Nepal. Muzaffar Beigh, a lawmaker says, “These Pakistani women cannot be booked under Foreigner’s Act as most of them belong to Azad Kashmir which, as per the Indian Constitution, is still the part of Indian mainland. And the women who are from other parts of Pakistan are now married to Kashmir’s state subjects. So they are no more foreigners.”
Their families complain that they always are on polices radars. “Whenever we get a call from our relatives from Pakistan, police party visits our place the next day or calls us to appear in police stations,” says Saira. “Many times, our SIM cards and phones were ceased which prevented us from speaking with our families in Pakistan. We are now planning to go on an indefinite hunger strike if the government ignore our existence,” says Saira.
“We moved them out of their birthplaces, distanced them from their families. Now our society is not allowing them to live a dignified life. This will have a psychological impact on all of them,” says Ashraf. “We are facing an identity crisis. We are no less than refuges,” Saira adds.