Twenty-five-year old Tabeena Mir, not her real name, grew up hearing stories of Kashmir in her modest house of four rooms in Pakistan. She has lived most of her life in the Punjab province’s Rawalpindi city, all along hoping to witness Kashmir’s scenic beauty that she had only pictured through her father’s nostalgia and later, images she saw on the internet.
Ms. Mir was born to a Pakistani mother and a Kashmiri father, who crossed the border along with thousands of other Kashmiri youth after the rigged elections of 1987 led to an outpour of anger and the eventual eruption of the militancy.
In 2016, her father, who she requested also not be named, decided to move back to Kashmir under the much-touted “surrender and rehabilitation policy” for militants, introduced in 2010 by the then chief minister Omar Abdullah. Ms. Mir was twenty-one at that time and was overwhelmed with the thought of finally being able to see Kashmir.
The Mir family became one of the 377 families of former militants who returned to Kashmir since 2010. It has now been four years since their return but Ms. Mir’s enthusiasm is now replaced with perpetual anxiety about her future in a home that she had never known. Having grown up in Pakistan, hearing stories of a distant homeland, she today finds herself in an identity crisis compounded by the stark contrast of life in Kashmir.
Lack of belonging
“I still lack a sense of belonging,” Ms. Mir sighed. She has often felt that she, her four siblings and her mother, were not welcome in Kashmir. “People here make you feel that you are not Kashmiri,” she said. “We don’t even speak Kashmiri. That way we feel like the people don’t accept us.”
It wasn’t just the inability to blend with the society in Kashmir. For Ms. Mir, getting an admission to a college had been a months-long struggle owing to her early education in Pakistan based schools and the lack of official documentation – such as the Permanent Resident Certificate – in Kashmir. “I felt disheartened and I thought that was it, I was not going to study anymore. I was going to be a high school passout for life,” she said, adding that the struggle had depressed her.
When she did manage to secure a seat in a government-run college, Ms. Mir was concerned about how she was going to deal with students coming from a different background, lifestyle, and language.
“I also had to work harder than we used to do in Pakistan,” said Ms. Mir, adding that there were no clampdowns in Pakistan and they had regular classwork. “I had no idea about the situation in Kashmir. Looking at the frequent [gunfights], detentions and clampdowns, it’s different than what we had thought.”
For her, life has taken a different turn ever since she came to her father’s birthplace. “We had freedom in Pakistan but it is different here,” she said, adding that they never saw army and police personnel everywhere in Pakistan. But what has now worried her again is the new rules that define who is a resident of the region.
The old State Subject Law was replaced by the Domicile Certificate Rules of 2020, imposed in J-K in April this year, eight months after the erstwhile state of J-K was stripped of its semi-autonomy and divided into two Union Territories by the Government of India.
“Only those people who are citizens of India can qualify for being domiciles,” said Salih Peerzada, an advocate at J-K High Court. “For somebody to avail domicile, they first have to be a citizen of the country.”
Mr. Peerzada added that the domicile law doesn’t specifically mention the wives of former militants who have returned from Pakistan under the 2010 surrender policy for militants but “it says about the children.” Under the law, he said, the Pakistani wives are foreigners who cannot get the domicile unless they first acquire Indian citizenship. “Even if they are granted citizenship,” he added, “they still have to live in Kashmir for fifteen years post the grant of citizenship.”
On 1 September, several Pakistani origin wives of former Kashmiri militants held a peaceful protest in Srinagar, urging the central government and the administration in J-K to take concrete measures towards their dignified rehabilitation in Kashmir.
Though the children of Permanent Resident Certificate (PRC) holders, which all former militants who crossed over to Pakistan administered J-K are, would be eligible for the domicile. However, for many like Ms. Mir, whose fathers have lost their PRCs, their future is uncertain.
Ms. Mir is certain that her career will suffer on the account of her Pakistani background and a citizenship status in limbo. “I am not sure if I will get a job or admission for my master’s degree in any part of India. It is going to be challenging,” she said.
After a brief pause, Ms. Mir said, almost in a whisper: “I will always call Kashmir my second home. Pakistan will always be my first home.”
“Scared for their future”
Currently, Ms. Mir lives on the ground floor of the two-story house of her father’s cousin in Tikker, Kupwara. Life has been difficult ever since she has come to the valley. “There are so many problems, so many problems,” she said.
“Do not regret a war that has matured you,” Ms. Mir said, quoting the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. The lines resonate with her, she feels that she wouldn’t have matured if she hadn’t come to Kashmir. Unaware and helpless about her future, all that Ms. Mir has to say is that “raasta milega toh hum bhi chal padenge, if there is a way out, we will take that.”
Unlike Ms. Mir, her mother regrets coming to Kashmir. “We always have to face difficulty because of the non-availability of the documents,” said 49-year-old Noor, not her real name. “We don’t have any documents. We don’t have proof of being an Indian citizen.”
Ms. Noor wants documents like passport and domicile certificate to live a life as everybody else in Kashmir. “My husband is a Kashmiri and I and my children are rightful to get the same identity as him,” she said. “When children who have grown up here have no future, how can there be a future for someone who has come from some other place?”
The struggle for many like Ms. Noor is often reported in Kashmir, through the regular protests that the wives of former militants hold in Srinagar. “I am scared for our children’s future but I have tied our hopes with Allah,” said Ms. Noor, who regrets leaving the “free place” she lived in for forty-five years to come to Kashmir.
The story originally appeared in our 7 – 13 September 2020 print edition.