*Names have been changed to protect identity.
"I am neither an Indian citizen, no longer a Pakistani citizen, and can't even go back to my family in Pakistani-administered Kashmir (PaK)" said Bushra Farooq who lives in the north Kashmir town of Kupwara. "The only way I can see my parents and siblings is through a video call. I lost three uncles over the last decade. I mourned them all alone".
What's more, Farooq is lonelier now: she was divorced in 2019 forcing her to live separately with her two children. To make ends meet, she works at a boutique in Kupwara town run by a fellow Pakistani woman.
Farooq now curses the day she met Ahmed who had crossed over to PaK illegally in the 1990s for arms training. He was one among the thousands of Indian-administered Kashmiri(IaK) youth who went to PaK for similar reasons. But Ahmed stayed back in PaK where he married Farooq in 2008.
In 2010, when the Indian government announced a rehabilitation policy for Kashmiri militants in Pakistan and PaK who were willing to give up arms, Ahmed chose to return to IaK with his wife.
"We looked forward to a stable life" said Farooq who has set her phone’s ringtone as a ring song from the Bollywood movie Dhoom 3. “The song inspires optimism talks about “suns of hope" emerging from everywhere but we never imagined it would be such an unmitigated nightmare."
Nusrat Begum, another woman from PaK who, like Farooq, is also divorced and works at the same boutique, now lives at a rented accommodation along with her two children.
"I have nowhere to go," Begum said. "I think it would be better if the government would deport me."
Caught in between
In Kashmir these women are colloquially called “Pakistani brides,” wives of the former militants who arrived in Kashmir in the years following 2010 as part of the rehabilitation policy, initiated by the then Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah whereby the Kashmiri youth, who had crossed over to Pakistan from 1989 to 2009 for arms training were allowed to return in lieu of giving up militancy. According to government figures, 377 former militants along with 864 family members - wives and children – have returned to Kashmir
One reason for their statelessness is that this rehabilitation policy focused only on the return of the former militants, making no provision for their wives and children. On entering India at certain designated points, their Pakistani passports were immediately destroyed. No other legal documents were furnished to them in place either.
Saira Javed runs the boutique where Farooq and Begum work. She hails from Karachi and had arrived in India through Wagah border with documents in 2007, three years before the rehabilitation policy. She too hasn't been able to return to her parents, despite Pakistan ready to give her passport.
"[The] Indian government refuses to put an exit stamp on my passport," said Javed. "So, I can't leave."
Over the last year, Javed has lost father and brother, the latter dying from cancer, but she could only attend their funeral through the video call.
"I want to go back to my mother and sister in law who are now alone but the government won't let me and we are not even told why." she said.
The Evolution of the Rehabilitation Policy
It has taken several years to formalize this policy and was the culmination of a phase of a close engagement between India and Pakistan between 2002 and 2007. Helmed by the then Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh and his then Pakistani counterpart General Parvez Musharraf, the dialogue between the two neighbours envisaged a solution based on Four Point Formula which basically allowed both the countries to keep their respective parts of Kashmir with a degree of political autonomy to both the sides. During this period that the then Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) Chief Minister Omar Abdullah travelled to Pakistan and met Kashmiri militants there who expressed a wish to give up arms and return. On his return to India Abdullah convinced the federal government in New Delhi of the desirability of the move, paving the way for the enactment of the rehabilitation policy.
In 2014, government shifted in New Delhi. During this time, the rehabilitation policy was all but shelved - although some youth with their families kept coming until 2017. This, despite the fact, that the then J&K Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti who headed a coalition government with the BJP in the state, was a key proponent of legalising routes for rehabilitation.
Where these families are now
But the families who had already arrived haven’t had it easy since then. Since they don’t hold any legal documentation, everyday lives are complex. These women can’t vote, are ineligible for jobs and can’t go back to their families in Pakistan or PaK. They don’t even have Aadhar card, proof of identity and address, anywhere in India or a ration card, an official document for purchase of subsidized food. Similarly, their husbands and children also are denied legal documentation — husbands because of their militant past and the children because of the politically contentious nature of their parents and their association with them.
All these leaves several hundreds of people completely stateless.
“We are in a nowhere zone,” said the husband of one PaK woman who didn’t want to identify himself for fear of running afoul of the security agencies. “Our deepest sadness is that our children are unfortunate. They are suffering because of us.”
Yet another woman from Pakistani city of Abbotabad, Anila* left her daughter behind with her parents before heading to IaK in 2010 with her Kashmiri husband.
“I have now forgotten my daughter’s face,” she is quoted by the website of the Pakistani news channel Geo TV in a video statement. “I cannot even speak to her over the phone. In the rare instance that I do, all she does is cries and asks ‘When are you coming home? When are you coming home?”
Women lead Actions Asking for Rights
The women who have been affected have been taking charge. They have organized themselves, called press meetings, and demonstrated peacefully. In February 2021, the women met the region’s New Delhi appointed governor Majno Sinha who assured them of appropriate redressal of their issues.
Since then though there has been no follow-up action. Some of these women had tried to visit the office of the governor once again, they were instead hauled to lock-up for one day.
One reason for the hesitancy to move on this issue is that the present Indian government rejects rehabilitation policy for the militants who it calls “terrorists.” They do not approve of the return of the former militants and their wives from Pakistan and PaK, terming it “a grave threat to national security.” Stuck with this legacy policy of the previous era, government in New Delhi no longer lets any more youth return, neither does it have a policy of conferring legal status on the wives of the youth who have already returned.
In the latest development, the women have threatened to march to the volatile Line of Control (LoC) dividing two parts of Kashmir if the government doesn’t give them passports, documentation, or act to deport them.
"Currently we are in a COVID-19 lockdown, so we are limited in what we can achieve," said Javed. "But once the lockdown is over we will resume our protest.”
Going forward, the women want to continue their struggle.
"We can't afford to rest on our hands," said Saira Begum who heads the group of Pakistani and PaK women and helps them organize protests. "We have two clear-cut demands: give us passports or else deport us".
There has so far been no public response to the crisis from the Pakistan government, even though speaking to Pakistan media, Pakistan Foreign Office has said that the issue is being raised “at the highest levels” with Indian authorities.
“We have taken up this matter with the Indian side at the highest level for expeditious repatriation of these women multiple times,” Pakistan’s then Foreign Office spokesperson Aisha Farooqui is quoted to have said by Geo TV. She added that the ministry is now awaiting “necessary clearance from the Indian side”.
Noted Pakistani human rights activist Ansar Burney too has been vocal about the issue. Burney has even written a letter to the UN Secretary General to draw his attention to the issue. He has also tried to get the Pakistan government to act. In early 2019, months before withdrawal of Kashmir’s autonomous status, Burney had also written letters to the then Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj and the then Kashmir governor Satya Pal Malik urging them to enable these women to return to Pakistan but nothing has changed on the ground.
Meanwhile, these women continue to work for either citizenship or deportation back to their families .
“What is wrong with our demand?” asks Saira Javed. “We just ask the government if you don’t want us in Kashmir, send us back to where we came from. But they won’t do that either.”