She asked to meet at the bus station of a town in North Kashmir. At her in-laws’ home, she is not allowed to meet strangers. She had entered Kashmir in 2012 along with her husband, a former militant, and three children. Her home is in Islamabad, Pakistan, and going back is her “only goal”, the 32-year-old said.

“From giving me electric shocks to accusing me of having affairs, my husband has done everything to me,” she said. “Whenever I approach the police or authorities for any action, they ask me to bring witnesses. Who will testify for an outsider? I have no one here.”

On February 2, a day before Narendra Modi landed in Kashmir, she had gathered with other women at the Press Enclave in Srinagar. “Hum Pakistani hai, humein wapas bhejdo,” they appealed to the prime minister. “We are Pakistanis, send us back.”

As a new policy to rehabilitate militants is drafted in the Valley, promising jobs, a stipend and “reformative measures”, these women are a reminder of what went wrong with the old.

Crossing over

Hundreds of Kashmiri men who went to Pakistan occupied Kashmir for arms training or to escape Indian security forces in the first two decades of the militancy came back with wives. Many of them returned after the Omar Abdullah government introduced a “rehabilitation scheme” in 2010 for those who had crossed over to the other side of the Line of Control between 1989 and 2009.

The policy notified four points of return: the joint check post at Wagah-Attari, the Salamabad and Chakan da Bagh crossings along the Line of Control, Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport.

“Their dependents will be eligible for consideration under the policy”, the government promised. It was silent on the question of citizenship for these dependents.

Nine years later, the policy has left behind a trail of broken families, domestic abuse, unemployment and, for many wives of former militants, a yearning for home.

‘I have no identity’

Since 2012, the 32-year-old in North Kashmir, who has a bachelor of science degree, has been struggling to get a “written divorce” from her husband. “During one of his assaults in 2012, he pronounced talaq,” she said. After that, she started working as a teacher at a local private school for Rs 4,000 per month, hoping she would be able to rent a room and move out.

“But he does not allow me to do that. I live in a separate room in my ex-husband’s house which means he can assault or abuse me anytime,” she said. “I got in touch with many clerics and they have given fatwas that we are divorced but he has clearly said he will not give it in writing.”

But even with a written divorce, there is little hope of her returning to Pakistan. “When we came to India through the Nepal border, my husband destroyed my passport and other documents in order to avoid getting caught by Indian authorities,” she said. “Now, I have no identity, no passport or any official documentation to prove my citizenship.”

She has avoided approaching the courts so far. “A court case will run for years and it would be very hard for me to go to Pakistan,” she explained. “Secondly, I do not have the financial strength to seek justice.”

‘A larger cage’

Not all such marriages have failed but the question of identity and citizenship hangs over every one. Saira Bano, 42, originally from Karachi, is living with her husband in Kupwara, North Kashmir, since 2007. Unlike most other women, Bano came to India with a visa. Once she arrived in Delhi, however, her papers went missing.

“I was booked by the police under the Foreigners Act and jailed for three and a half months along with my two children,” she said. “My husband was jailed for six months. The case dragged on for eight years and, due to court proceedings, I could not leave India. Eventually, my in-laws proved before the court that their son was a state subject.”

But freedom from imminent arrest only made her realise that she lived in a “larger cage”. “After the case was over, I picked up my case file and went to every concerned department to allow me to return to Pakistan,” she said. “They did not entertain my pleas. Then I went to the Pakistan embassy in New Delhi which issued an emergency passport in my name. In 2018, I went to the Wagah border with my passport. The Indian authorities there first threatened us and then asked for various clearances. I have submitted all of them, still but all they say is ho jaye ga, that it will happen.”

In spite of her legal battles, Bano has done fairly well financially. She runs a boutique with 10-15 local employees. Her family also purchased some property, though none of it is in her name since she is not a resident of Jammu and Kashmir. But she still longs for home. “I crave to see my parents,” she said. “Even if it comes at the cost of leaving all this behind forever, I would like to go to Pakistan.”


‘Incomplete policy’

The problem lies partly in the gaps left by the rehabilitation policy. In 2017, the state government revealed that only 377 former militants, along with 864 family members, had returned from Pakistan since 2010. They had all come via Bangladesh and Nepal, however, and not by the approved routes for “inexplicable reasons and difficulties”. So, the government made them ineligible for benefits under the policy.

“When I approached the Indian embassy in Pakistan, they outright denied having such a rehabilitation policy,” said Dawood Ahmad, a former militant from Srinagar who returned through Nepal in 2012, along with his wife and four children. “I paid multiple visits to the Indian embassy. We were returning from Pakistan and it was the Indian government which had to issue visas to us but they did not.”

Ahmad, now 39, had gone to Pakistan for arms training in 1990. In 1994, he married a woman in Rawalpindi and settled there. Two years after the rehabilitation policy was announced, he decided to return home. “I still regret that decision,” he said. “The seven years I have been here I have only been begging for certificates and official identities of my four children. My oldest son wrote his Class 10 exam in Pakistan. For two years, he could not get admission here as the authorities didn’t issue a certificate in his name for admission to a higher secondary school. Their future is at stake.”

The rehabilitation policy does not give equal importance to the rights of women who returned with their ex-militant husbands, legal experts complained. “It’s an incomplete policy,” said Zafar Shah, a senior advocate in Srinagar. “A wife’s personality is independent of her husband; the law doesn’t recognise them together. We are discussing the rights of a woman who entered India under this policy, which actually didn’t apply to her. The policy applies to the man. Another issue is that she went legally from Pakistan to Nepal and then came to India illegally or secretly. Now, when they have destroyed their passports, they have lost their citizenship. Travel documents must need some nationality of a country. The question is which country’s citizens are they?”

Sometimes, the perilous crossing to Kashmir has ended in tragedy. Saira Begum was among the Pakistani women who accompanied her husband to Kashmir. The family lived in extreme poverty and, in April 2014, she committed suicide.

The same year, former militant Syed Bashir Bukhari set himself on fire in the village square of Kreeri in North Kashmir. Bukhari’s family had struggled for years to obtain Indian citizenship for his Pakistani wife and local schools had refused to admit their son.

‘Looking into it’

In February, Vijay Kumar, adviser to Governor Satya Pal Malik, who currently heads the state administration, said the government had “taken note” of the protests and had “asked for reports from certain agencies”. He acknowledged that there was a “humanitarian angle” to the problem.

A month later, Kumar said, “We haven’t been able to take a detailed view of the issue yet. I will be having a detailed discussion with the honorable governor about the matter very soon.”

In the aftermath of the protests, a senior official in the home department had also suggested that the plight of these women would be addressed soon. “It is a human problem and it is being attended to,” he claimed. “I will not say they will get a document or something but there will be a mechanism by which they will get some relief.”

Shah sees a legal way for giving Pakistani women married to former militants Indian citizenship. “Under the notification of 1927, the wife of a state subject acquires the status of state subject provided she lives in the state and does not acquire any other citizenship,” he explained. “If a Kashmiri is marrying a girl from Azad Kashmir, then he is marrying a Kashmiri girl because, constitutionally, Azad Jammu and Kashmir is part of India. If a local has married a Pakistani girl then, under the 1927 notification, she will acquire the nationality of her husband. Once she acquires the nationality of her husband, she has to surrender her previous nationality. Of course, she has to apply for citizenship to the central government, which will decide whether to grant it or not.”

But their experiences with the Indian authorities do not give the Pakistani women much hope. “We were better off in Pakistan,” Bano said. “Please help us.”

Also read: The story of a Kashmiri who crossed the Line of Control and returned to India 11 years later

How seven displaced families with Rs 1,500 built Latoo, a border village in Jammu and Kashmir