When the Kashmiri men stranded in Pakistan finally got the chance to return to Kashmir, their wives of Pakistani origin had little inkling that they would be walking into a trap — rendered nationless and a society reluctant to accept them.
These women gave up their homes so their husbands, who had crossed over to Pakistan-administered-Jammu and Kashmir (PAJK) in the 1990s as impassioned young men hoping to become militants but didn’t, could return to theirs.
With a surrender and rehabilitation policy, the then Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) government wooed these weary men in 2010; about 489 of them returned, many with their wives of Pakistani origin.
While the policy assured documentation for spouses and children, more than a decade later these women and their children find themselves struggling for basic documents — their identity reduced to wives and children of former militants.
Helpless, these women have held repeated protests since their arrival in Kashmir. Prominent among them, two women have taken different paths — protest and electoral democracy — for the same goal: citizenship and travel documents to visit their families in Pakistan.
Raising their voice
Born and brought up in Karachi in Pakistan’s Sindh province, Saira Javaid married Javaid Ahmad Dar, who hails from Kupwara’s Lolab, in 2001. The couple returned to Kashmir along with their two daughters in 2007, three years before the policy was rolled out.
Life changed for Saira soon after she arrived in Kashmir and settled in Kupwara’s Drugmulla. She gave birth to two more children but continued to face lack of acceptance from not only the general public but also her husband’s family, who subjected her to domestic violence.
Since 2007, Saira has consistently yearned to visit her family in Pakistan. In 2018, the Pakistan embassy in New Delhi granted her a fifteen-day passport. About five days later, she reached the Wagah Border — the only road crossing between India and Pakistan — but immigration authorities demanded that she get an exit visa from Indian authorities.
Saira had to return to Kashmir to resolve the matter with the state government and was given a “clearance certificate”. About five days later, she again attempted to travel to Pakistan but the authorities again disallowed her from travelling.
Saira said that the state and central government authorities kept passing the buck onto each other. “When Kashmir had a state government, we talked to them [but] they said they can’t do anything —the matter is of the Central government, only they can solve our matter. When we approached central government offices, they told us to go to the state government,” she said. “We are trapped between the two.”
Helpless and unheard, Saira took to protest to raise her voice — and that of other women like her who have been denied citizenship travel documents. Eleven years later, these women of Pakistani origin continue to hold protests in Srinagar, the seat of power in Kashmir. “I was alone when I first protested. Then [gradually] more women joined me,” she said.
The authorities monitored her but remained indifferent to their plight, said Saira, who has lost the count of protests she has organised so far. “The problem is no one gives any answer here even though they monitor us when we hold protests,” she said. “We are in a prison.”
Despite many around her giving up, Saira said that she “hasn’t lost courage” and hopes to travel one day. “I have seen the hardship here,” she said. “Some have committed suicide or lost their senses. Some have also been divorced [after arriving here]. They have nowhere to go. Many are struggling to make both ends meet and facing mental trauma.”
“Even if I am left alone,” said a determined Saira, “I will fight until our demands are met.”
Through the ballot
When 36-year-old Somiya Sadaf, born in PAJK’s Muzaffarabad city, contested the recently conducted District Development Council polls, Saira again protested what she saw as preferential treatment to one while most women like her were stuck. Sadaf contested the Drugmulla DDC seat as an independent candidate.
The result to the Drugmulla seat, however, remains withheld with the election authorities verifying her eligibility. But Sadaf is among the few women of Pakistani origin who have received Indian legal documents.
“Government has given me clearance and all legal documents,” she said. “I didn’t become an obstacle for anyone, so no one made it for me…When we were in Pakistan, we were sincere with them. Now we are here, we have to be sincere with [India].”
On the resentment from other women of Pakistani origin, Sadaf said: “Some are happy, some are unable to fathom it. I can’t change anyone’s mind.”
Her main agendas for becoming a councillor, Sadaf said, were to bring development in her area and highlight the plight of women like her. The plight of women of Pakistani origin was “highlighted again, more than these last ten years, when I contested the elections”, said Sadaf. “If I [am elected], I would have helped Pakistani women.”
Sadaf came to Kashmir with her husband Abdul Majeed Bhat, a resident of Batergam in Kupwara, in 2010. They run a dairy and poultry farm while Sadaf is also engaged with a government scheme under the J-K Rural Livelihood Mission providing counselling to local youth on livelihood.
Sadaf believes that the results for the Drugmulla seat have been withheld because of protests by other women of Pakistani origin. “I am not afraid because I am not wrong,” said Sadaf. “When I come forward, I will definitely talk about giving our women travel documents.”
As per the surrender policy of 2010, “The wives, children and other dependants of those returnees who have married in PoK/Pakistan during the period 1.1.1989 to 31.12.2009, will be considered for entry into the country as per the existing laws of the land and the necessary certificate for entry will be issued to them.”
These families, as per the policy, would be lodged in “Counseling Centres” till the time “they are thoroughly interviewed, de-briefed and all necessary documentation is prepared.” The centre’s in-charge “shall take such action as deemed necessary in order to enable the successful reintegration of the returnee into society.”
More than a decade later, this and other aspects of the much hyped surrender policy continue to remain unimplemented. These women and their children continue to suffer for the want of documentation, hampering their education and career prospects besides dividing families.