Ehsan ul-Haq, who now runs a shoe shop in central Srinagar after spending 21 years in Pakistan, remembered how he crossed the line with 300 others one night in 1990. A political campaigner, the 53-year-old remembered how he “wanted to make Kashmir into Switzerland,” but “through the years saw only destruction.”
“Once money entered into it, the cause was lost — all purpose, all direction, was gone,” said ul-Haq, who left his political party soon after arriving on the Pakistani side of the line.
He married a local girl, had five children and ran a stationery business. Of the original 300 who had crossed with him, 100 were killed fighting in the insurgency, a dozen had returned to the homes they had left as “returnees” under the new scheme and the rest had remained across the LOC, he said.
In all, about 4,000 men were still “over there,” he added.
Some former militants did not wait for the returnee scheme. Abdul Ghaffar Bhatt, 55, joined the Hizbul Mujahideen group, which is still active, in 1989. Bhatt had long been involved in a political Islamist organization, but the transition to violent militancy came after authorities in Srinagar bulldozed the car workshop he had recently set up.
“They had attacked my identity and my culture. They had detained me and my friends, but this was a direct attack on my income, my life. One day I was a king, the next, a beggar. I had a family, three children. I made my decision and left them,” Bhatt said.
For three years, Bhatt was a senior Hizbul Mujahideen commander, running operations against Indian troops and local security forces in and around Srinagar and sheltering in the militant camps across the LOC when necessary. These were years of intense violence in Kashmir as security forces struggled to contain an insurgency with significant local support. Human rights abuses were committed systematically by all involved.
“We fought for an independent Kashmir. Religion was important for me, of course, but we were all together — secularists, nationalists, Islamists,” he said.
However, infighting and the growing influence of Pakistani intelligence services — still officially denied by Islamabad — led Bhatt to lay down his arms.
“We had been united. Now we had all different groups. We were no longer a Kashmiri movement. Now I look back and I think we were used by Pakistan against India, like the US used the Afghans against the Soviets,” Bhatt said.
The veteran militant returned to Kashmir secretly seven years ago, slipping through India’s almost unguarded border with Nepal. Recognized and detained, he spent months in prison being interrogated before he was released. Now he spends his days in Srinagar with the children he did not see for decades. His 26-year-old son, Bilal, earns 7,000 rupees (US$118) a month selling newspapers. He does not want to follow his father’s path.
“We have to struggle for our freedoms, but peacefully, with no blood, no violence. This is what humanity demands. It is what most of my friends feel,” he said.