KASHMIR —At the twilight of a typical Ramazan day in Kashmir, Muslims rush back home for iftar—the act of breaking the daylong fast. At the same time, Akhtara leaves her home for Khankha-e-Maula — the Sufi shrine in Srinagar's downtown area.
Back home, her elder son, 18-year-old Kabir Mir, looks after his two younger siblings. At the gates of the shrine, Akhtara breaks her fast with the offered refreshment and comes back home with Tahri — the ritualistic yellow rice distributed among people as a token of faith, especially to the needy — at the shrines of Kashmir. And, this is how children of this Pakistani bride break their fast in Kashmir.
In 2010, when the Omar Abdullah government announced a Rehabilitation Policy for former Kashmiri militants in Pakistan who crossed the Line of Control between 1990 to 2009 but did not participate in active militancy, Akhtara came to Kashmir as the bride of Bashir Ahmad Mir. She started living in north Kashmir's Kupwara district.
The policy backed by the central government was enough to lure hundreds of Kashmiris who had gone away to Pakistan to return with their families back to the Valley. Twelve years later, Akhtara regrets her decision to leave Pakistan.
In 2017, the J&K government said that the 377 ex-militants along with 864 family members came to Kashmir after the announcement of the policy.
The rehabilitation policy announced by the government in 2010 mandated them to come via the four officially designated routes—Wagah-Attari in Punjab, Salamabad in Uri, Chakan da Bagh in Poonch and Indira Gandhi International Airport of Delhi. However, the state government had said that no youth has been able to return through the four designated points. In a written reply, the government said that all the families who returned from Pakistan since 2010 came via Nepal and Bangladesh.
It further said that since none of these youths returned via the approved routes, they are not entitled to any benefits available under the policy.
The policy was to ensure that the former militants have a normal life in the Valley. However, that hasn't been the case.
A few months ago, Akhtara's husband was arrested under the Arms Act. His arrest has pushed the family into penury. Without a document of travel or citizenship rights, the family can't return to Pakistan either.
"We Look Suspicious To Them"
The children of former militants from Kashmir and their Pakistani wives are battling a never-ending fight. While their mothers fight for citizenship rights and their fathers the constant threat of arrest, their childhood remains uncertain as fears of deportation looms.
In one of the alleys of Sopore, the apple town tucked around 55 kms from Srinagar city in north Kashmir, Amir, 17, looks at the mirror, with a scissor in hand. Amir got permission to grow his hair from his mother after he passed his class 10 boards with a distinction. It's a day of disappointment for this young fan of Ranbir Kapoor.
"I wanted to look like a Bollywood star," he says.
A few days ago, Amir says, a few security personnel showed up at their door and asked his mother to change his "looks". "It looked suspicious to them," says Amir.
"Had my mother been from any other foreign country, then it wouldn't have been a problem. But her Pakistani identity raises eyebrows," he says.
Being the subject of constant suspicion takes a toll on the children. Amir believes that the harassment the family faces is to be blamed on the "fake rehabilitation policy of the government".
"Coming to Kashmir was a mistake. We were not treated as people from a civilised society," he says. Amir knows what he wants— he wants to get out of Kashmir.
"I am giving my 200 percent to my studies so that I can travel the world and live somewhere with peace and respect," he says. "But the Indian government is not taking our concerns seriously. They don't give us citizenship, passports and neither do they deport us all."
Kabir had to quit his studies in Class 12 to support his family; he works as a salesman in a cell phone company in Srinagar. "I wanted to continue my studies but it seems it will take a long time for my father to get out of jail," Kabir says. "Till then I have to earn."
His incarcerated father Bashir Ahmad Mir had crossed the Line of Control for arms training during the 1990s. He returned from Pakistan in 2012 under the rehabilitation policy along with his family. Mir lived in the downtown area of Srinagar on rent and sold vegetables on a cart for living till he was arrested in December 2021.
"The life of an immigrant was a challenge for me, but I sacrificed my happiness for my kids," Akhtara said. "I only wanted them to live a peaceful and happy life which we couldn't afford for ourselves."
However, living in Kashmir's uncertainty has been far from peaceful for Akhtara's kids.
Kabir's mother tries to visit her husband in jail every fortnight, but the high travel expenses have kept her children from meeting him. "I am saving money so we can all meet him for Eid," Kabir says.
The family was already abandoned by Mir's relatives. With his arrest, things got worse for them. Kabir's mother Akhtara who works as a househelp in the nearby locality is now learning tailoring in the hopes of sustaining the family.
Zubair Ahmad, an advocate fighting Mir's case says that police have charged Mir for providing a hand grenade to one of the arrested persons. "He was arrested based on that confession," Zubair says. "But we have moved our bail application in the NIA court and it's in the final stage."
While these kids crave a normal childhood, their mothers—the Pakistani brides married to former Kashmiri militants—are campaigning for either citizenship or deportation to Pakistan. The government hasn't made any formal statement on their deportation and prefers to remain silent on this issue.
"We Can Vote, But We Are Illegal Immigrants?"
Laiba Javid wants to prepare for NEET to study medicine. "The issue is even if I qualify the exam, I won't get work even with my degree when I don't have any citizenship rights," Laiba says.
"We are eligible to vote, but when it comes to our passport we are illegal immigrants," she says.
Labia's mother had applied for a student passport for five years so she could complete her degree. But the administration has denied it.
When Laiba's mother raised the issue with the authorities, they were told that her two children including Laiba are born in Pakistan and the other two in India. "If they had to divide us as Indians and Pakistanis, then why did they announce the rehabilitation policy? This policy persuaded my parents to come to Kashmir. Is this the peaceful life they were promised?"
The anguish over identity runs so deep for the children with Pakistani mothers and Kashmiri fathers that they often question their parent's choice. "My parents came to Kashmir with a thought that they will be absorbed in the mainstream under this policy," says Syed Ruhullah, a teenage son of Safiya, a Pakistani woman who now lives in Sopore, in Kashmir.
"The policy mentioned that we will get citizenship, identity papers and travel documents but my parents got nothing," he says.
Recently, his mother's application for the domicile certificate of her children was denied for being "illegal immigrants." "When kids don't have citizenship and neither travel documents, how will they have a future here? We are not able to get our rights in Kashmir. The crisis of nationality is impacting us and all the other children living in the same state," Syed says.
Most of these children live with their Pakistan-origin mothers away from their Kashmiri families, because of the cultural differences. Many of them are not accepted or abandoned. "We would be called outsiders at home," Syed says, remembering the time spent with the family from his father's side.
"Even Kashmiri children question our identity," he says. "It seems we are from nowhere. My mother was booked under the Foreigners Act for supporting her husband to return to Kashmir. But now, she and her children are paying the price."
Safiya was booked under the Foreigners Act as they had entered Kashmir from 'an undesignated route without proper documentation.'
"No One Wants To Recognise Us As Kashmiris"
In South Kashmir's Shopian district, around 60kms from Srinagar, Amina and her mother Shehnaz are planting tomato samplings. Amina is a school teacher in a local private school. Last year, her father died due to a brain tumour making the 23-year-old the new head of the family.
In 2011, Amina's father Yousuf Bhat returned to Kashmir along with his family after the rehabilitation policy was announced.
Amina and her younger sibling were born in Pakistan. She was 12 when she came to Kashmir with her parents. Eleven years later, she says she doesn't see a future for herself in Kashmir.
"I have all the documents except my passport," she says. "We are kids of men who belong to Kashmir. We are Kashmiris as our father belongs to Kashmir. But no one wants to recognise us as Kashmiris, not our families here or the government," she says.
To demand citizenship and passport rights for the Pakistan-origin families, Kashmir's noted advocate Parvez Imroz filed two petitions in J&K High Court in 2018. The petition argues that according to municipal and international law, after marriage the domicile of the wife merges into that of the husband as a legal consequence of the nuptial knot and they get the legal status of their husbands. On the contrary, the petition notes that the Pakistan-origin women and their children have been turned into "stateless persons".
It also argues that GoI is a signatory to the UN declaration of Human Rights which underlines that everyone has the right to a nationality.
However, the petition is still stuck in the courtroom as the state is yet to file an objection.
According to the J&K constitution of 1957, most of the petitioners are the state subjects of J&K who belong from the different parts of Kashmir across the Line of Control and they cannot be treated as refugees as they are state subjects of J&K. The issue was dealt with in the Mohsen Shah case in 1973, as per the petition filed in the J&K High Court.
The administration, so far, has turned a blind eye to the issues alleging that these families have come through "illegal routes".
"Majority of them have come illegally through the Nepal route which was not a designated route mentioned in the policy. Some of them have expired passports, so living illegally here they should be aware of the consequences. They can go back to Pakistan and there is no question of keeping them hostages in Kashmir," P K Pole, Kashmir's Divisional Commissioner told BOOM.
However, the catch is that the government has been completely aware that it is the Nepal route that has been used by the former militants to return to Kashmir. The documents submitted in 2017 by the government said that no youth has been able to return via appropriate routes due to "inexplicable reasons and difficulties".
"The biggest chink in the policy is that Nepal is still not exactly a sanctioned route. It is the route we are using because the ones that the policy originally envisaged required some sort of complicity on the part of the Pakistan authorities, which is clearly not going to happen," Omar Abdullah, the former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, had said in an interview in 2013.
Former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, too, has demanded Nepal to be recognised as an official point but there has barely been any response from the Indian government.
The families, meanwhile, live with the "illegal" tag in the Valley, dreaming of a passport and to leave the place they thought would be their home.
Updated On: 2022-05-06T20:31:02+05:30