The most significant arrivals in the Valley this summer are not tourists. They are Kashmiris returning to Kashmir after a lifetime of despairing they’d never be able to.
They had all bolted home to Pakistan through illicit routes along a notoriously porous border, fledgling teenagers most, fired by adolescent zeal to become part of returning armies that would “liberate” their homeland.
Kashmir was ablaze with “azaadi” (freedom) in the early 1990s. The gun was calling for volunteers so it could turn insurrection into “inquilab” (revolution).
It was vogue to cross the fence and turn mujahid (freedom fighter) who’d one day soon romp home a hero. Thousands of Kashmiri boys dared the dream, jumping headlong into what they believed the final hour of ferment before they’d be free.
The grand armies never gathered on the other side like they had imagined, or been promised. They never rose beyond being suicide bands tasked to pyrrhic missions and messy ends; they were bled in the crusade of a thousand cuts.
And came a time when the taps were turned on the enterprise, or so many of these men would tell you — the supplies stopped, the trainers vanished west into Afghanistan, the camps said they no more had any use for them. The gates were opened and they were let free with no mission assigned and nowhere known to go. The bulb had blown its filament; they were locked lightless.
Until last year, when a door was ingeniously opened ajar across what remains the most trust-averse frontier on earth. Abdul Rashid still carries his unlikely passport home like a talisman in his chest pocket: a crumpled column torn away from an Urdu newspaper in Lahore.
It reported an announcement by home minister P. Chidambaram and Jammu and Kashmir chief minister, Omar Abdullah, that should they abjure violence and pass sundry background filters, Kashmir’s lost boys in Pakistan could return home.
“It felt like Id to read the news,” Rashid tells us. “And today it feels like I have been gifted another life. Nothing is worth giving up home for; I cannot even believe I am here.”
It has taken him a year’s efforts to return, but they were well worth ending more than two decades away and adrift. “I was selling fruit off a cart in Lahore, I’d much rather do that here.”
We are at an undercover facility somewhere in the countryside west of Srinagar, a fenced-off acreage dotted with nondescript, mostly windowless, blocks. We haven’t been told in as many words, but this is probably what they call the “cooler” in police parlance, an off-limits interrogation centre.
Few of the men who dart about wear uniforms yet most are policemen, spooks in tan patent leather shoes who don’t carry calling cards and are short on niceties: there’ll be no photographs taken, no recording done, no locations named; notes yes, but they’ll sit on the meeting and listen in on what’s said, what’s not.
This is the hub of a bold and unprecedented — if also tacitly conducted — experiment between covert agencies of India and Pakistan to restore Kashmiri boys to their homes.
Once Chidambaram and Abdullah had resolved on the amnesty scheme last year, this is broadly how it began to work.
The boys stuck in Pakistan — men now, many of them married with children — got in touch with families back home or vice versa, nearly always on mobile phones. The families then filed amnesty applications which were put through layers of verification.
Once given the go-ahead by the police, all-clear messages were sent to the boys. They’d board a flight to Kathmandu from Karachi, carrying Pakistani passports. Once in Kathmandu, they’d surrender their Pakistani passports to Indian authorities, seamlessly return to being bona fide Indians, and be escorted to Gorakhpur.
Thereon, a train journey to Jammu and then by road back into the Valley. They’d be formally arrested, debriefed for a couple of days, then allowed home.
Simple though it may sound on paper, it’s an elaborate — and risk-ridden — operation that couldn’t have been effected without political will on the Indian side and logistical cooperation from authorities in Pakistan. There are backgrounds to be screened, passports to be issued, movements to be coordinated.
“It isn’t foolproof yet and we do run the risk of letting in malefactors who could foment fresh trouble,” admits a senior police officer monitoring the homecoming. “But the human quotient is immense. Imagine how fulfilling this must be for each family in Kashmir that is getting a lost son back; imagine what goodwill there is to create from this effort. If it is a risk, it is a risk worth taking.”
The cell overseeing the operation has received more than 3,000 amnesty pleas. Close to half of them, sources tell us, have been screened and some 200 cleared for returning this summer.
“It’s like an impatient queue wanting to return from Pakistan,” the officer says, “but we are taking them in slowly. Our job doesn’t end with their return; complexities follow. They have to be monitored, many of them need help with resettlement. Rehabilitation isn’t easy, especially with men who have been gone for the better part of their lives doing things nobody knows much about.”
One of them, for instance, has returned with an adult daughter who was taking her third year of medicine at the Karachi Medical College, a girl called Zuniya who has become reunited with a family she never knew in Srinagar’s Batmaloo neighbourhood. She has been pleading to be allowed to continue her studies: she is prepared to take a test to prove herself. The administration is now weighing the options of acceding to her request.
Another set sought to be given hypothecated auto-rickshaws to kick-start new lives. Financially manageable, says the police officer, but socially tricky.
“If we do facilitate auto-rickshaws, there will be a counter argument that we are rewarding those who decamped to wage war on the country; rehabilitation isn’t easy. Most of their wives are Pakistani. We’ll have to work that one out but for the moment, the project is to get them back.”
Rashid is part of a group of six just arrived after a week’s journey through Karachi, Kathmandu and Gorakhpur. They are motioned into the bare room of a block festooned in loops of concertina, and seated on armless chairs lined against the wall, still a little wary and nervous but exuding palpable excitement. Through a crack in the pane, they can see a russet twilight sky arched over picture-postcard habitations in the distance: Home.
Dawood leans out of his chair for a longer look and addresses the impassive officer seated across the table: “I never thought I would see this again, but perhaps tomorrow I will be home. I cannot explain what I am feeling, sir, thank you, thank you.”
Yes, the presiding spook offers reassuringly, your formalities are nearly done, go home and be at peace.
If debriefing sessions in the cold rooms of this compound have yielded information they can use, the plainclothesmen aren’t letting on. Neither are, understandably, the returnees forthcoming on life in military camps. If they were ever part of militant operations, they aren’t about to sing and queer their return.
The broad grid of each story is the same: undercover escape into Pakistan with armed groups, admission to camps in Manshera in Pakhtunwala and Chaklala near Rawalpindi, military training for months, even years, then nothing until they were all out.
Rashid turned street vendor, Bashir Ahmed became a shawl salesman in Pindi, Farooq Gulfami found a job as shop assistant in Karachi, Arif found apprenticeship under a motor mechanic and eventually trained in a Toyota facility near Lahore. He now wants to run his own repair shop in Anantnag.
Why did he go in the first place? “I wanted to see Imran Khan, he was my hero and going to Pakistan was my only chance.”
His mates laugh, Arif grins sheepishly; he hasn’t named any lofty passion for freedom as reason for escaping. “I was just a boy, they said they’d take me to Imran as long as I came.”
Arif never had his tryst with Imran, but he saw Lahore Fort and he saw enough of Pakistan. “I missed home terribly, but there was no way to return. I took the first chance I was offered. Things are better here, or not so bad, and this is home.”
Dawood, who escaped his Budgam village as a 13-year-old in 1990, has returned a father of four children with a Pakistani wife currently squatting in the compound just outside. They are visible from the window. There are other women with her, and children, all a little bewildered and evidently tired. What’s home for their husbands must feel like the beginning of exile for them.
“It was tough convincing them,” says Rashid. “For them this is a strange place, but there are children and there is a life here I wanted to return to. They can keep in touch with their folks on the phone; they’ll get used to it. Maybe in time they can even go on visits, but now it’s too early for all that. Now it is for us to begin life anew.”