Srinagar: When Bushra Farooq was engaged to be married to Aultaf Ahmed, it helped that they were both Kashmiri—although from different countries.
She was legally Pakistani and he Indian, even though he rejected the notion when he crossed over in the early 1990s for arms training.
Their match was arranged through his relatives, based in north Kashmir’s Baramulla district, and they were married in 2008 in Abbottabad in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
“Soon after our marriage, my husband started a business of cold drinks and vegetables,” Farooq told Article 14, “and life seemed quite good after I became a mother of two kids."
But Ahmed missed his family back home. “Seeing the pain in the eyes of my husband who missed his parents and family, hurt me always,” she said. “But other than speaking to them on the phone there was no other way to meet.”
In 2010, there appeared to be a way home for Ahmed.
The Jammu and Kashmir government of chief minister Omar Abdullah, in consultation with the Centre, introduced a “rehabilitation scheme” for those who had crossed the line of control between 1989 and 2009. Under the amnesty, former militants could return to Kashmir and be united with their families, provided they had “given up insurgent activities due to a change of heart and are willing to return to the state”.
Farooq came from a region that India since 1947 has claimed as its territory by virtue of an accession treaty between New Delhi and Maharaja Hari Singh, the last autocratic ruler of then princely state.
Indeed, in March 2020, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi reaffirmed to Parliament that the “entire Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh have been, are and shall be an integral part of India”. This included “territories that are under illegal and forcible occupation of Pakistan”.
In other words, Farooq and hundreds of women who crossed over as part of the 2010 amnesty, came, in the Indian view, from a part of India.
A Short-Lived Happiness
There were other conditions to the 2010 policy. Returning militants and their dependents, including wives and children, were to enter India through four approved points, including the Wagah border and the Indira Gandhi International Airport at New Delhi.
However, most avoided these routes fearing scrutiny from Pakistani militant groups and that nation’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), choosing instead to come through Bangladesh or Nepal. In 2017, the state government said 377 militants and 864 dependents had returned to India under this policy. None had used the designated entry points.
Farooq was just happy for her husband who would be returning home after nearly two decades.
That happiness was short-lived.
In 2012, when the family decided to make the trip to Kashmir via Nepal. Farooq’s husband took her passport and never returned it, she said. Then, after spending less than a year with her in-laws, her husband began living in a separate room in the same house.
On 21 January, 2019, he divorced her, and Farooq—now a tailor in a boutique—began living in a rented room comprising a small kitchen and a living room in North Kashmir’s Kupwara district with her two sons aged 12 and 9.
After her divorce, Farooq said, she requested the Baramulla district administration several times to be sent back to Pakistan. It’s been around five years since her first request to return, but there’s been no response.
On 19 November 2012, the police filed a first information report (FIR) under section 14 of the Foreigners Act, 1946, and a charge sheet was prepared and presented in the court of a judicial magistrate in North Kashmir’s Baramulla district.
Section 14 is used against those who overstay their visas, but that does not appear to apply to Bushra since she came over under the amnesty.
“I never knew that coming as a bride to this part of the world at the government's invitation would mean that I would be held as a criminal,” said Farooq.
No Succor From The Citizenship Act
In February 2020, during a speech to Parliament, Modi said the Congress and other opposition parties “see citizens based on their faith. We are different. We see everyone as an Indian”.
That argument does not appear to apply to the former brides of Kashmiri militants, all of whom, as we said, came from territories regarded as a part of India.
The controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, has nothing to offer to these women who married Indian citizens, or their children. The law provides a pathway to Indian citizenship only for persecuted religious minorities, including Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Christians, Jains and Buddhists, from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
The Act explicitly excludes Muslims from eligibility saying that since Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh are Muslim-majority nations it is “unlikely” that Muslims would “face religious persecution” there. That exclusion sparked widespread protests across India, as being discriminatory to Muslims and using religion as a basis for citizenship.
Certainly, Farooq has been denied citizenship, even travel documents.
“If we are not citizens of this country, then deport us to the place where we have come from,” she said. “We came to Kashmir through legal means after the rehabilitation policy was announced. There are many of us who came, some of us are now widows or divorced, living on antidepressant medicines with nowhere to go.”
Imprisoned With Daughters, Aged 1 and 2
Like Bushra, Saira Javid, another Pakistan-born bride who married a Kashmiri, came with her husband, Javid Ahmad Dar and two daughters to India.
According to Javid, Dar crossed the border in 1989 for arms training, as many did in a year when they were swept up in an insurrection after allegedly rigged elections.
Unlike Bushra, she came to Kashmir in January 2007, before the amnesty was announced, travelling through the Wagah border on a valid one-month visa that allowed her access only to New Delhi, said Javid.
“I was happy since my husband was going to meet his parents and family after a long time, and I too was going to meet my in-laws for the first time,” she said.
The day she arrived in India, she said, her in-laws asked for her passport and other travel documents saying that they wanted to get her visa extended. Instead, they tore up her passport to preempt the possibility of her returning to Pakistan along with their son and grand-daughters, she alleged.
Javaid’s problems had only just begun. In February 2007, the police filed an FIR against her and her husband under section 14 of the Foreigners Act, for “entering into any area of India, which is restricted for his (sic) entry”, a violation punishable with a jail term up to eight years.
Javaid along with her two daughters, the younger aged just one and the other not much older at two, were sent to the Women’s Central Jail in Srinagar, where they spent the next three and a half months, and her husband spent six months in Srinagar Central Jail.
“I came as a bride, but I landed in jail in Kashmir,” said Saira.
“My husband went into depression and tried to commit suicide many times, but I made him understand that though I was not from this place, he had my support,” she said.
After her release from jail, her husband’s family turned them out, citing irreconcilable “cultural differences”. She and her children have been living in rented accommodation since.
Javaid also had a court case to deal with. “It took 10 years,” she said. “But finally (in 2011-12) the court ruled that my husband was a citizen of India, and based on that court also observed that citizenship should be granted to me also.”
But no travel documents were issued despite the court judgement.
Many Attempts To Bring Militants Back
The Rehabilitation Policy of 2010 was not the first of its kind. There were two others.
In 1995, former militants were offered benefits by the central and state governments, including a one-time payment, a monthly stipend and vocational training.
Surrendered militants were to be trained to be a part of the Ikhwan Force, a pro-government militia that would help identify militants. The project collapsed when the Ikhwanis found themselves targeted by former allies and the promised benefits frequently failed to materialise.
In 2004, the next rehabilitation policy was unveiled, under which, once again, promises were made about financial benefits and absorption into paramilitary forces.
The 2010 policy, for the first time, mentioned wives and children, who, it said, would be lodged in counselling centres, where they were to be “debriefed” and provided with documentation.
As many as 377 former militants along with 864 family members returned from Pakistan under the policy, the state government said in 2017. But since they came via either Bangladesh or Nepal and not the four approved entry points, as we said. they were ineligible for its benefits.
Over a decade later, the policy has left a trail of broken families; many wives, such as Bushra, abandoned or divorced by their husbands, now find themselves in a country where they have no relatives and few friends; or such as Saira, who continue to be married but are unclear about their legal status in India.
In July 2019, the Pakistani wives of former Kashmiri militants who had returned to India following the 2010 policy appealed to both the central and state government to either grant them Indian citizenship or deport them. They also appealed to the United Nations and human-rights organisations.
In January 2021, a group of increasingly desperate women once again demanded deportation, saying they had lost all hopes of getting Indian citizenship.
The Women Who Contested Elections
Two of the Pakistani women, Somiya Sadaf and Shazia Aslam, even contested recent District Development Council (DDC) elections from Dragmulla in Kupwara and Hajin in Bandipora.
Although they were allowed to contest, the administration said it had received complaints about their citizenship and, so, deferred counting in both seats.
Conceding that the rehabilitation scheme had gone into “cold storage”, Nasir Aslam Wani of the National Conference, who was a state minister at the time it was introduced in 2010 told Article 14: “It is a huge humanitarian issue and the government should take a human view of it.”
The state’s first woman chief minister and PDP President Mehbooba Mufti said the problems of these women began when they reached Kashmir. Many, she said, were jailed along with their children simply because they had not entered via the officially designated routes.
Even now, she said, their children were “discriminated against” and denied admission in schools.
“Sadly, the latest addition to their woes has been the manner in which the administration has stopped counting in the segments where they fought the DDC elections,” said Mufti. “This, despite the fact that their nomination papers were cleared by Election Commission of India itself after due diligence.”
Mufti recalled to Article 14 the case of a woman whose father and brother had died in a road accident in Pakistan. The woman had approached her in order to help her get permission to attend their burial in Pakistan. Permission was denied.
“It is a humanitarian issue and needs to be addressed at the earliest so that these women can live a dignified life here and are allowed to visit their families back in Pakistan whenever they want,” Mufti said.
On 19 April 2021, Article 14 sought an official response from the J&K administration, after trying to contact Rajiv Rai Bhatnagar, an advisor to the lieutenant governor, he said he would not be able to comment on that as this is not in his domain.
“I don’t look after that area, so I cannot give you an answer about this,” he said.
Article 14 also tried to get a comment from to the official spokesperson of the Jammu and Kashmir Government, Rohit Kansal, but after he asked us to text, there was no response from him.
Aadhar, Voter Cards Issued But Not Passports
At a boutique and women’s beauty parlour that she runs in the main market in the north Kashmir town of Kupwara, Javaid has employed other Pakistan-born women who came over during the amnesty.
“These women are widows and don’t have anyone to look after them,” said Saira. “They are earning their livelihood through this job.”
Like Javaid, none of the women working for her have travel documents, and their citizenship status is ambiguous. Javaid said she has a voter card and an Aadhar card. She is also listed in the electoral rolls.
“When we are eligible to cast votes as Indians, then why are we not given passports?” she asked.
“Our applications for passports are taken but the verification reports are always adverse for us,” said Javaid. “Police officials in their remarks (to passport authorities) mention us as non-nationals, which stops the passport authorities from issuing us passports.”
Although she’s free to travel anywhere within India, travel outside the country is restricted because of a lack of a passport. “If the government of India thinks we are not nationals of this country, then they should deport us,” said Javaid.
Stuck In The Twilight Zone
Fozia, from Muzaffarabad in Pakistani Kashmir said the rehabilitation policy turned out to be a “nightmare” for her.
After 19 years of marriage, she and her Indian Kashmiri husband Ghulam Hassan Lone decided to return to India. Like so many others, he had crossed the border in the 1990s to get arms training in Pakistan, she said.
In September 2007, Fozia, her husband and three children returned to the Valley. But, she said, 15 days after their arrival, her husband’s brothers threw them out of the house.
The parents had died, and the brothers made it clear that her husband could not make a claim on any family assets, she said. The family now lives in a single rented room in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district, where her husband sells fruit on a cart to make ends meet.
It’s the same story with Asifa (name changed at her request), another Pakistan-born woman who married Zahoor Ahmed Lone, a Kashmiri man in Aathmuqam area of Muzaffarabad’s Neelum valley in 2008. Later that year, the family moved to Kashmir under the rehabilitation scheme.
The marriage did not last. In 2020, Zahoor Ahmed Lone divorced Asifa, who now lives with her two daughters in a rented home in Kupwara.
“When my father came to know about my divorce, he could not bear the shock and died of a cardiac arrest,” said Asifa. “Now I don’t want the rest of my extended family to know I am divorced.”
When they call from the Pakistani side of the border, Asifa’s family inquires about Zahoor’s well-being and asks to speak to him, but she always makes excuses for his absence.
For some women, the trauma has been too much to bear. Saira Bhat, a Pakistan-origin bride from Naidkhai area of North Kashmir's Bandipora district, immolated herself in 2014 and died in a Srinagar hospital.
Other women are struggling with mental health issues. “At least for these cases the government should allow them to go back to their relatives,” said Javaid. “There is no one here who can care for them.”
(Jahangir Sofi is a journalist based in Srinagar.)