Late one evening 25 years ago, when the rickety minibus he worked on pulled into Kupwara at the end of a bone-rattling ride from the market town of Sopore, Syed Bashir Ahmad decided he was done selling tickets. From the bus station, he began walking up over the Dudhniyal forests, across the Line of Control (LoC). His passengers, that day, had included a group of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) cadre, headed for training at Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)-run camps in Pakistan. Mr. Ahmad decided to go along, he says, more or less on a whim.
Frostbitten and exhausted, his journey ended in a hospital. Three months later, Mr. Ahmad moved in with relatives in Muzaffarabad, married a cousin, and eventually began working as a taxi driver.
Last week, he returned home with his wife, Safina Ahmad, and their seven children, hoping to rebuild his life. Later this summer, their oldest daughter, Bushra, will marry a relative's son. Sabah Ahmad, just 12, likes the homeland she has known for eight days: “in Muzaffarabad,” she says, “we couldn't sleep without a fan, and the power kept going all the time. Here, it's cool.”
Perhaps too cool. Until the Indian government stitches together a legal framework for the hundreds of families who have returned to Jammu and Kashmir since 2005, Ms Ahmad can be prosecuted as an illegal immigrant. Though the children can lay claim to Indian citizenship, the government has yet to waive regulations mandating that their birth be registered at a mission overseas. Finding jobs and setting up businesses is tough; social acceptance is, at best, grudging.
Back in the summer of 2005, troops at the Indian Army's Nanak Post, near Uri, watched as four small brightly-coloured specks clawed their way up the mountainside. Through their binoculars, the troops could see the group was not terrorists, but a woman with two crying infants in her arms; the man next to her, luggage tied around his back, was urging two older children up the climb. Finally, as the family reached the barbed wire that divides Kashmir, he shouted out: “my name is Nasir Ahmad Pathan, and I want to come home.”
Ever since 2007, when The Hindu's sister publication, Frontline , interviewed the Pathan family for a report on Kashmir's returning ex-jihadists, many more have made the crossing. This year, almost a hundred have returned, joining the 140-odd last year; the total exceeds 500.
For most, the decision to come home seems pragmatic. “Sugar sells at Rs.85 a kilo in Muzaffarabad,” says Mr. Ahmad's wife, Safina, “and a gas cylinder costs Rs.1,600. We had a son to put through college, and daughters to be married. So I asked my husband, when your family has land and a home, why should we keep living like this?”
In most cases, the journey home involves a substantial investment. The Ahmad family paid Rs.70,000 each to an agent in Rawalpindi for Pakistani passports and airfares from Karachi to Kathmandu. From Kathmandu, the family crossed the open India-Nepal border into Uttar Pradesh, and caught a train from Lucknow. In recent years, most families that have returned have done the same.
Life, though, remains profoundly uncertain for those who have returned. Five years after they came to India, the Pathan family are yet to receive citizenship papers, or any other form of documentation. Neither has Abdul Rasheed, who returned with his Pakistani wife, Nyla Abbasi and two children to Srinagar in 2009. Others have had more serious problems. Kulgam resident Mohammad Jalil Amin, for example, served 10 months in jail when he was arrested on returning home, though in June 2006.
Zonia Dar, whose father Shabbir Ahmad Dar returned to India earlier this summer, has spent five months trying to restart her education as a doctor. Her qualification from a Karachi medical college, though, is worth nothing in India.
In 2010, the government of India announced a rehabilitation policy — but Pakistan hasn't responded. Indian diplomats, sources said, have informally discussed the issue with the United Nations and international humanitarian organisations, but to little effect. “In the long term,” says a senior police officer, “this is going to be real problem. There has to be some framework.”
Without support, those who have returned are finding things to be difficult. In 2001, Kreeri resident Sharif Din, then a 17-year-old high school student, joined a group of young people recruited by local Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander Mushtaq Butt. Even while he trained for two months at a Hizb-ul-Mujahideen camp near Muzaffarabad, Mr. Din's family raised the money needed to buy him out of a tour of duty with the jihadist group. “I won't lie,” he says, “I was terrified about coming back to fight. I was almost killed by the Army twice on the way into Pakistan, and the boys who were with me at the camp are either still there, or dead. I begged my family to save me.”
Back home, though, Mr. Din isn't able to use the pharmacological qualification he acquired in Pakistan. Even though he briefly found a job at the Florence Hospital in Srinagar, he says, the Army insisted he live in Kreeri so he could be under surveillance.
He is now contemplating setting up a pharmacy, but hasn't yet managed to raise the capital. He hopes to marry, but no one is willing to give a daughter to a man without a job, and who faces possible trouble with the police.
Like Mr. Din, former Muslim Janbaaz Force jihadist Manzoor Ahmad, a one-time embroidery-artisan from Khadniyar near Baramulla, has faced difficulties rebuilding his life in the year since he came home. Having dropped out of school in 1991, he finds no market for his rusty talents. In Pakistan, he earned Rs.6,000 a month working in a mobile accessories store; in Khadniyar, he spends his days helping his brother write villagers' petitions to government offices. He hopes to start his own mobile-phone business eventually.
Manzoor Ahmad's business idea has had a mixed welcome from his family. A relative recalls his brother telling him, “for all these years while you were wasting your time in Pakistan, we tended the lands, we looked after the home, we even put up with beatings from Army men because we were your relatives. Now, you come back here and ask for a share in the property to start a shop?”
In Muzaffarabad, jihad commanders have been blaming Pakistan's diminished support for the death of their war. “We are fighting Pakistan's war in Kashmir,” Hizb-ul-Mujahideen chief Muhammad Yusuf Shah said earlier this month “and if it withdraws its support, the war would be fought inside Pakistan.” Mr. Shah has held out threats like these before. In February 2009, he warned that if “there is a setback to the war due to the cowardice of the [Pakistan] government, then this war will need to be fought in Islamabad and Lahore.”
The reality, though, is that the jihad is dead in Kashmir itself — not because of Pakistan's declining support, but because of the choices the men who fought it, and the society around them, have made. Even the Jamaat-e-Islami, the political mill in which the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen was manufactured, is now in the hands of politicians, firmly committed to politics. Dozens of the organisation's local cadre have fought panchayat elections; its amir , Sheikh Ghulam Muhammad, allowed units to ally with the People's Democratic Party in the 2008 Assembly elections.
In its own interest, India must work harder to enable the thousands who crossed the LoC to come home — and to give those who have made the journey back a second shot at life.
Former insurgents returning to the Valley from across the LoC need more help from the government to make a new life