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.
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.
However, those who have returned under the official scheme do not find life easy. Places in schools are hard to come by and government promises of vocational training are unfulfilled. Life is toughest for the wives of returnees who, with relations between India and Pakistan still poor, are unable to go back to see families and friends in Pakistan.
“It is a kind of hell I am living now,” said Farhat, 33, who married a former militant codenamed “Asgar” 15 years ago and came back with him to his native village in the hills of north Kashmir earlier this year.
The stunning view from their new home across orchards to the shimmering expanse of Wular Lake is no compensation for her previous life.
“We had a house, land, work, schools, everything over there. Here we have nothing. We made a terrible mistake. We have tried to go back, but cannot,” Farhat said.
Her 13-year-old son, Hamza, is now angry, moody and sometimes violent.
In Degoom, Dar, too, says he regrets his decision.
“My wife is so unhappy,” he said. “No one should come back until there is freedom here.”
Abdullah has suggested establishing some kind of peace and reconciliation commission for Kashmir.
“Ultimately we want to heal wounds. We want to be able to answer questions,” he said. “A lot of people have said that [a commission] is a post-conflict measure. My question is: what sort of benchmarks for violence do you want to set?”