Deception, fraud, and dishonesty. Those are the words that Dawood Ahmad uses to sum up a local government rehabilitation policy that allowed him to return home to Indian-controlled Kashmir after spending 22 years in Pakistan.
“The promises they [the government] made that we can come and get rehabilitation here - we haven’t gotten anything,” Ahmad said while holding his young daughter. “We haven’t even been able to get our kids admitted into schools. My oldest son still has not gotten into school.”
In 1990, a then 15-year-old Ahmad crossed into Pakistan-controlled Kashmir at the start of the armed insurgency. He said he spent one month in a Pakistani training camp before he went to live with his uncle in the city of Rawalpindi. There, he married, had children and ran his own shop.
After hearing about the new policy, Ahmad said he returned to Indian-controlled Kashmir’s main town of Srinagar last year in order to see his mother and start a new life in his homeland. It’s a decision he said he regrets after repeatedly being questioned by Indian authorities and his wife not being allowed to visit her ailing mother in Pakistan.
“No one accepts us, we don’t get a card to vote in the elections,” Ahmad said. “People say we are here illegally.”
Authorities said at least 300 people have crossed back into Indian-controlled Kashmir from Pakistan as part of the rehabilitation program.
Indian-controlled Kashmir’s chief minister, Omar Abdullah, announced the policy in 2010 to allow militants who allegedly trained in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir to return home through Nepal. Government officials said this is the only route former militants can take since Islamabad is not involved in the process and has consistently denied it has provided help to militants fighting in Indian-controlled Kashmir.
The chief minister’s political secretary, Tanvir Sadiq, said the government wants to extend its hands to former militants so they can regain their lives and not be tempted to take up arms again.
“They were misguided. They went to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and then they wanted to return back because they felt the gun is not the solution. And at times when you are misguided, you do not know what to do,” Sadiq says. “We wanted to provide them with a platform, a way to come back to their homes and be with their families.”
Sadiq concedes there have been issues with implementing the new policy, but that problems with school admission are being worked out. He emphasizes that while the men are promised help, such as loans, they are not guaranteed employment.
Abdullah’s political secretary said the chief minister is committed to the policy, even speaking out on behalf of former militant Liyaqat Ali Shah, who was detained and later released by New Delhi police in March.
Chief Minister Abdullah said Shah had returned to India to surrender and take part in the rehabilitation policy. He disputed Delhi police claims that Shah was planning a terrorist attack, telling Kashmiri lawmakers in a strongly worded speech, “if a man comes to attack a shopping mall, will he come with his wife and child … as if he were going on a picnic?”
Former militant Ahsanul Haq has been working in his brother’s shoe store in Srinagar for the last year, after spending 23 years in Pakistan.
He said he left Indian-controlled Kashmir at the age of 30 after India failed to keep its word to allow Kashmiris self-determination. Haq said both India and Pakistan have failed to keep their promises for peace, leaving people to suffer on both sides of the Line of Control.
“The son may be here [on the Indian side], the father may be there [in Pakistan]. This is all the same place, it just happens to be divided into two. We want the end of this dividing line," Haq said as he sits behind the counter of the shoe store.
Haq points to the recent deadly cross-border violence in which Pakistani and Indian forces accused each other of violating the cease-fire. He says innocent civilians on either of the border were killed.
“If India and Pakistan opened a dialogue to improve relations and resolved their issues, then Kashmir will benefit and both countries will benefit,” the former militant said.
Haq and Ahmad both said they wish they had not returned to their birthplace and instead could go back to their lives in Pakistan.
Despite their sentiment, more than 1,000 others in Pakistan have applied for the rehabilitation program in hopes of returning home to Indian-controlled Kashmir.