PaK Returnees: A Ditched Lot

24 Apr, 2014    ·   4407

Shujaat Bukhari says that the government must take concrete steps for the rehabilitation of returnees

Shujaat Bukhari
Shujaat Bukhari
Editor in Chief, Rising Kashmir
On February 22 this year Chief Minister Omar Abdullah told the State Assembly that 308 militants had returned from Pakistan-administered Kashmir (PaK) along with their families under his government’s much-hyped Rehabilitation Policy and that “they were living peacefully”. Going by the account of these families and two incidents of suicide by one such “militant” and other’s wife, one can easily say that the statement made by chief minister must have been picked up from the background notes his officers prepare when he is supposed to reply either to discussion on Governor’s address or the grants for the departments under him. This statement is bereft of not only the “spirit” with which the government presumably announced this policy and took credit for rehabilitating the “misguided youth” but also speaks volumes about how casually the humanitarian issues are dealt with by the state.

The story of rehabilitation of these youth has been a sordid one from the beginning. More than 1500 youth who had crossed over to the other side of Line of Control (LoC) in early 90s have been feeling caught in the perils of separation from their families. I have myself interviewed a few of them during my couple of visits to Muzaffarabad. Some of them are well settled and have flourishing businesses but at the end of the day they feel disconnected with the place. “Culturally we are poles apart. I have a good business and am married here but I still feel being an outsider who desperately wants to see his mother,” one of them who is running a chain of shops in Muzaffarabad’s famous Madinah market had told me.

Similar is the view of some youngsters who crossed over as late as in 2008 and 2009. Since the governments, both in Islamabad and Muzaffarabad, have been discouraging the violence-induced “freedom struggle” for Kashmir, these young men are at the receiving end. Many of them got married and have children but still they failed to strike a chord with the local culture and wanted to return to their families back home.

That is why the Rehabilitation Policy announced by the state government, in consultation with Government of India found many takers. Even as the designated points were on the LoC, Wagah and the International Airport but it was naive to expect a Kashmiri youth who had gone across to become a militant, to return with a Pakistani passport and cross immigration at Indira Gandhi International Airport or the Wagah border without any hassle. But the fact is that both the governments in Delhi and Islamabad had reached a tacit understanding of facilitating the return via soft border with Nepal. This was acceptable both to Islamabad and Delhi. As for the former it was difficult to openly send back the one time “guerillas” despite denying that it was behind the militant activities and for the latter it was the best way to ward off criticism from right wing parties. However, the spirit of the policy to make it a strong Confidence Building Measure was served through this “back channel” understanding. Notwithstanding the mishandling of the process by certain vested interests like in the case of Liaqat Shah of Kupwara, who was arrested in a fabricated case by Delhi Police and arrested from Nepal border, the return of more than 300 youth was made possible.

No Follow-Up
However, there was no follow up. When these families returned to Kashmir, they found themselves in a precarious situation of being “outsiders” in all respects. Except a few who did not have much problem in getting adjusted with their families, the rest faced host of issues. First was for the women to get adjusted culturally in the Kashmiri families. That, however, could have been an area in which they could compromise and go ahead. But the basic issues, which confront their day to day life, made their stay miserable. In the absence of a specific set of rules, the families of these youth first faced identity crisis. They could not immediately inherit the State Subject title of their husbands and so was the case with their children. This put the first hurdle for young children to aspire for education. They could not be admitted in a school. The families, even if allowed properly by the government after spending a few days in local police stations, have not been cleared for travel documents. There are host of other problems, which have threatened their existence.

That is why the 30-year-old Saira Bhat (of Bagh Muzaffarabad) ended her life at Naidkhai village in Sonawari on April 14. She set herself on fire and due to 100 burns died in the hospital a day later. She had come along with her husband Javid Ahmad Bhat and three children with the hope of a bright future. But according to Bhat, she felt caged as she did not have a travel document and wanted to see her parents. Bhat had crossed to PaK in 1993 to get trained as a militant and returned in 2012. Similarly, Bashir Ahmad of Kreeri who along with his wife and five children had returned a year back set himself on fire and ended his life as he could not inherit anything from his parents property, had no opening for his children to grow and go to school.

Now that the issue of these returnees is getting complicated, the state government has started shrugging it off. When the issue was raised again and again in the Assembly, the government maintained that these people were not entitled to benefits under this policy, as they have not returned through designated routes. Still it was in the process of accepting the applications from the kin of the youth who are still in PaK. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah told Assembly on February 15 this year that up to January 31, 2014, 1171 applications were received on behalf of the prospective returnees who are willing to return under the policy of 2010, and out of these, 422 cases have been recommended by different intelligence agencies. He, however, failed to spell out the mechanism for the return. What would be the travel documents they would use to cross Wagah Border or arrive at International Airport? Will they be received with garlands at other two designated posts Chakan Da Bagh and Salamabad?

While accepting their return via Nepal as an “agreed upon” mechanism, the government has failed to explain it for the four designated points. In case one would accept that coming via Nepal was illegal, then it becomes an offense when a pertinent question arises— why government did not book all of them under relevant laws or push them back? This fluid policy has ditched hundreds of people whose fate hangs in balance. They are living in pathetic conditions and government cannot shirk the responsibility and must take concrete steps to have a roadmap for their rehabilitation.

By arrangement with Rising Kashmir