Pakistani wives of former Kashmir rebels struggle to survive

Having joined a rehabilitation scheme with their husbands, the women say India denies them travel and employment rights.

Pakistani women in Kashmir
The wives of former Kashmir rebels demand travel documents from the Indian government to facilitate their travel to Pakistan [Shuaib Bashir/Al Jazeera]

Shopian, Indian-administered Kashmir – For six years, Shabeena Naz has only been able to see her parents by looking through photos saved on her mobile phone.

In 2017, when her mother died in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir where Naz was born, she saw her face for the last time in a WhatsApp video.

Naz, a 38-year-old Pakistani citizen, lives with her husband and two children in Nagbal, a village south of Shopian district in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir.

She moved there in 2011 from Pakistan-administered Kashmir where her husband was being trained by rebel groups to join the fighting against India’s control of Jammu and Kashmir.

She is one of a group of more than 300 wives of former rebels in Indian-administered Kashmir who arrived under India’s rehabilitation policy for ex-fighters that was announced in 2010.

However, since arriving, the wives have not been able to visit their families in Pakistani territories.

Indian authorities have not issued passports or legal documents to the women – in turn restricting them from travel and making them ineligible for jobs and some state benefits.

When the families decided to join the rehabilitation programme, their passports were destroyed at the border.

They now have neither Pakistani nor Indian passports.

Less than 300km of hostile border divides the two parts of the disputed territory and separates Naz from her family.

In the time she has spent away, not only her mother but also her sister and one of her nephews have died.

“I could not go and share the grief of my family,” says Shabeena, who was tending to her apple orchard.

The group of wives often gather in the main city of Srinagar – Indian-administered Kashmir – to protest against their circumstances and demand travel documents so they can visit the Pakistani side.

For many of these women, life in Jammu and Kashmir did not turn out as they expected, and the financial pressures on their families are mounting as their husbands struggle to secure paid employment.

Pakistani women in Kashmir
Shabeena Naz pictured in her orchard in Nagbal village [Shuaib Bashir/Al Jazeera]

Sumaira Jan, 29, had looked forward to a good life with her husband’s family in Indian-administered Kashmir.

She arrived in Deebagh village, Shopian, in 2012 with her four children and spouse, Abdul Ahad, who had crossed into Pakistan-administered Kashmir for arms training in the 1990s.

She says the family faced problems as soon as they arrived.

“The police registered cases against all the families for illegal entry to the country. On our arrival, my husband was arrested. We started facing multiple battles, the difficulties had just begun,” says Jan.

Two years later, her husband died and her fifth child was born.

“Life became really miserable for me with nothing to meet the needs of my five children,” says Jan.

She lives in two rooms of her in-laws’ home in Shopian.

“Things would be a little easier if I had my family around and if I could meet them. They could have provided emotional support.”

“On Eid recently, my children had no new clothes to wear because I could not afford it … I was helpless.

“We feel lonely. Our only wish is to meet our families.”

She says they had lived a comfortable life on the Pakistan-administered side where her husband, after laying down his arms, ran a grocery business.

Pakistani women in Kashmir
Sumaira Jan’s husband died in 2014, adding further financial strain on the family [Shuaib Bashir/Al Jazeera]

In the early 1990s, hundreds of young men crossed over the border to Pakistan-administered Kashmir to get arms training and fight the Indian forces in Kashmir for independence or a merger with Pakistan.

While many were killed in gun battles with security forces, some later quit fighting and settled down in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

In 2010, Omar Abdullah, then chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, announced a rehabilitation programme, offering former fighters a chance to return under certain conditions.

According to the policy, people who travelled to the Pakistani side between January 1989 and December 2009 – and their dependents – were eligible for consideration. 

By 2017, 377 former rebels along with their 864 family members had returned via Nepal and Bangladesh, according to the region’s government. 

The policy promised they would be permitted to enter through Wagah, Atari, Salamabad, the Chakan da Bagh crossing or via Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi. 

However, most of these families came through Nepal instead, claiming they had not been allowed passage through the designated routes.

Most were accused of illegal entry.

Pakistani women in Kashmir
Naseema Akhtar, who lost her eyesight, lives with her husband and three sons in rented accommodation in Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir [Shuaib Bashir/Al Jazeera]

Some women such as Naseema Akhtar, 37, who hails from Sialkot in Pakistan, say the move has been hard on their families, while promises made in the policy like the basic citizenship rights were never fulfilled.

She lives with her husband and three sons in rented accommodation in the main city of Srinagar, and claims her in-laws threw them out a year ago.

“My three children are growing up and we can’t even dream of a good future for them as they do not have a state subject,” she says, referring to legal documents that would allow them some rights.

Naseema’s husband works as a watchman and her children are studying.

To add to their challenges, Naseema lost her eyesight completely after initially suffering from night blindness.

“I feel helpless as people do not even want to take me even as a domestic help when they hear I am blind,” she says.

To fight their case legally, the women have now appealed in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court to demand travel documents.

Tabish Lateef, one of the families’ lawyers, told Al Jazeera that the case is listed for a hearing in August.

Farooq Abdullah, president of Jammu & Kashmir National Conference (JKNC) and MP for Kashmir in India’s parliament, told Al Jazeera he will consult Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi about the women’s concerns. 

“I will take up their issue with the prime minister so that they are allowed to meet their families,” he said.

Vijay Kumar, an adviser to the Kashmir governor, told Al Jazeera that “the government will take all the concerned people into the consideration to discuss the policy”.

While the women are desperate to visit their families, the biggest worry for them is the “bleak future of their children”.

“My son will pass his higher secondary school this year, he is neither an Indian nor a Pakistani on the documents,” says Naseema. “Where would he go? They cannot get a job here nor they can travel outside.”

Source: Al Jazeera