Shabir Ahmed Dar has come home. His children play under the walnut trees where he once played as his father, now white-bearded and thin, watches them. The village of Degoom, the cluster of traditional brick-and-wood houses in Kashmir where Dar grew up, is still accessed by a dirt road and hay is still hung from the branches of the soaring chinar trees to dry.
However, Dar has changed, even if Degoom has not. It is 22 years since he left the village to steal over the “line of control” (LOC), the de facto border separating the Indian and Pakistani parts of this long-disputed former princely state high in the Himalayan foothills. Along with a dozen or so other teenagers, he hoped to take part in the insurgency which pitted groups of young Muslim Kashmiris enrolled in Islamist militant groups — and later extremists from Pakistan too — against Indian security forces.
“I went because everyone else was going. The situation was bad here. I had my beliefs, my dream for my homeland. I was very young,” he said last week, sitting in the room where he slept as a child.
The conflict had only just begun. Over the next two decades, an estimated 50,000 soldiers, policemen, militants and, above all, ordinary people were to die. Dar’s aim had been to “create a true Islamic society” in Kashmir. This could only be achieved by accession to Pakistan or independence, he believed.
Yet once across the LOC, even though he spent only a few months with the militant group he had set out to join and never took part in any fighting, he was unable to return.
“I was stuck there. I made a new life. I married and found work. I didn’t think I would ever come back here,” Dar said.
However, the 36-year-old has finally come home, with his Pakistani-born wife and three children. He is one of 400 former militants who have taken advantage of a new “rehabilitation” policy launched by youthful Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir Omar Abdullah.
Dar’s father heard of the scheme and convinced his son to return last year.
“I am an old man. I wanted to see my son and grandchildren before I die. I wanted him to have his share of our land,” said Dar’s father, who is 70.
The scheme is an indication of the changes in this beautiful, battered land. In recent years, economic growth in India has begun to benefit Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim-majority state. At the same time, despite a series of spectacular attacks on security forces by militants in recent months, violence has fallen to its lowest levels since the insurgency broke out in the late 1980s. The two phenomena are connected, many observers say.
It is this relative calm that has allowed Dar and the others to return and allows even some hardened veterans who have renounced violence to live unmolested.
“A few years ago the [Indian intelligence] agencies would have shot this down because they would have seen it as another move to infiltrate [militants from Pakistan],” Abdullah said two weeks ago.
However, the scheme is not an amnesty.
“If there are cases against them they will still be arrested [and] prosecuted... Largely this scheme has been taken up by those who have not carried out any acts of terrorism. Either they never came [across the LOC], or if they came we never knew about it,” Abdullah said.
So far there have been only two cases — one unproven — of people becoming active again in the insurgency on returning to the Indian side. Police officials confirm that the “returnees” live quietly. One reason for this is that most of the returnees, like Dar, left during the first wave of early enthusiasm for “the cause” which swept Kashmir amid repression in the late 1980s, but were swiftly disillusioned.