Asia

Zeal for insurgency wanes among former Kashmir militants

  • 5 July 2015
  • From the section Asia
Demonstration in Muzaffarabad calling for Pakistan to control all of Kashmir (June 2015)
Image caption A rally in Muzaffarabad in support of army chief Raheel Sharif's contention that 'Pakistan and Kashmir are inseparable'

Pakistani army chief Raheel Sharif's recent statement that "Pakistan and Kashmir are inseparable" has added to tensions between India and Pakistan. The two nuclear-armed neighbours each claim Kashmir in its entirety, and occupy different parts of it. But as the BBC's M Ilyas Khan discovered on a recent visit to Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir and the base camp for the insurgency, all is unusually quiet.

Although a 15-year insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir ostensibly ended in 2003 when Pakistan agreed to curb the movement of militants on its side of the territory, there have been renewed hostilities since late 2012.

General Sharif's latest statement has added to fears that militant violence may resume.

But in Muzaffarabad, the men who took the fight to India appear to be keeping a remarkably low profile.

No citizenship rights

Behind the glass front of a small shop at a car wash, a greying man with a lean, youthful physique lifts a saucepan off a gas stove and pours boiling tea in cups arranged in a tray.

Another man snatches the tray from the counter and breezes past the door.

"People who come to get their vehicles washed always want tea while they wait for the job to finish," he explains.

The money he makes at the end of the day, though not huge, is still enough "to make me thank God for it", he says.

Image caption This boy is the grandson of a militant from Indian-administered Kashmir who was killed in the late 1990s
Image caption The children of some former militants in Muzaffarabad receive a subsidised education
Image caption Rashida Shafi, whose militant father was killed in 2002, wants to build a future in Muzaffarabad by becoming a doctor

He is a former militant from Indian-administered Kashmir who is now stranded in Pakistan - a refugee, with no citizenship rights and no realistic chance of returning to his village across the border.

Once a gun-toting "freedom fighter", he now has a wife and kids, in a city where he has no blood relations and no sense of belonging.

I point to some recent attacks by militants on Indian positions along the Line of Control (LoC), the de facto border dividing Kashmir, and ask him if he expects to be recalled to duty by the militant outfit he enrolled with as a fighter.

He gives me a long, blank look.

"There's no mobilisation, no queues to enlist for training, no hustle-bustle at the offices of [jihadist] organisations, like the old times…"

"I left my home because I wanted to win this war; but Pakistanis only wanted to needle the Indians. They agreed to a ceasefire, and allowed the Indians to build a fence along the LoC.

"So I think time to liberate Kashmir [from India] by force is up now."

"Besides," he adds after some brooding, "I don't want my children to turn out like the children of Afghan refugees, making a living by scavenging on garbage dumps in Pakistan."

There are some 3,000 to 4,000 former militants from the Indian side in Muzaffarabad - leftovers of approximately 30,000 people who abandoned their homes in Indian-administered Kashmir during the decade following the 1989 uprising, crossing into Pakistan to receive training and arms.

Expenses slashed

Most of them went back to fight against the Indian forces. Many were killed, while many others slipped back into normal lives in homes they had once left.

Those on the Pakistani side became stranded when Pakistan, buckling under international pressure, announced a ceasefire with India in 2003 and demobilised all fighters.

Image caption Muzaffarabad is on the Pakistani side of the line of control
Image caption Funerals of militants in Indian-administered Kashmir became all too commonplace

Nearly all of them are now middle-aged, and are raising families. And the war funds that once sustained them are drying up.

Pakistan stopped paying for militant field operations in Indian Kashmir in 2006. In 2012, it halved administrative expenses to jihadist organisations for running their offices in Pakistani Kashmir, forcing all but a few to close shop.

These expenses have been further slashed during the last year.

The former militants are forced to eke a living out of running road-side businesses or doing day jobs at car washes, construction sites and restaurants.

The government pays each former fighter a monthly stipend of 7,000 rupees ($70; £44) out of an official account in addition to another monthly payment of 1,500 rupees ($15; £9) for each member of his family.

While this is not enough for a decent living, families whose male members are alive are more fortunate compared to those headed by war widows.

There are thousands of them on both sides of the LoC, and at least 150 are registered in Pakistani Kashmir.

Widows' stipend

Halima Bibi, a former resident of the Uri area in Indian Kashmir, is one of them.

She now lives with her two children in a small dark shelter at Ambor, a cramped refugee settlement at the southern end of Muzaffarabad.

Image caption As the conflict ebbed, some militants chose to surrender in India
Image caption Experts say that while Pakistan still wants to escalate tensions in Indian-administered Kashmir, it only wants to do in a controlled manner, using non-Kashmiri groups
Image caption Enthusiasm for the insurgency in Pakistani-administered Kashmir is waning

In 1995, when she was barely in her late teens, her family married her off to a suspected double agent - a militant who had been fighting the Indian forces since 1990 and had just been released from an Indian detention centre in Uri after surrendering.

A year after the wedding, he left again for the Pakistani side but was arrested, this time by the Pakistanis, and kept in detention for a further seven or eight months.

In 1997, he slipped back into Uri, and told Halima to get ready for a trip across the LoC.

"We walked for two days to cross into Pakistani Kashmir," a frail looking Halima recalls.

Three years later, he was killed while leading a team of militants into Uri, leaving Halima alone to fend for herself and two children in a strange city.

She now lives off the usual government stipend for war widows of about $150 and the $30 a month salary she receives from a local school where she works as a cleaner.

I ask her if the war is worth revisiting.

Frustration

"The war has given us nothing. It has just taken away the men," she says with a flat face, without a tear in her eyes.

So who launched a couple of recent attacks along the LoC in which a number of militants and Indian soldiers were killed?

According to an informed member of a major Kashmiri jihadist group, that was the work of the Lashkar-e-Taiba group which is made up of Pakistani fighters rather than Kashmiris.

Such analysis is shared by Arif Bahar, a Muzaffarabad-based Kashmiri analyst, who says there are now indications Pakistan may want to escalate tensions in Kashmir, but only in a controlled manner, using non-Kashmiri groups.

This is causing frustration among stranded Kashmiri fighters.

"It is Pakistan's moral and legal responsibility to support us in our struggle with guns so that we can defeat the Indian army," says Uzair Ghazali, a former militant who campaigns for the resumption of jihad in Kashmir.

But oblivious to this longing for home among former fighters, their children are looking to a new future in Muzaffarabad - and Pakistan.

Image caption Sixteen-year-old Asad Mir looks neat, confident and relaxed at Sawera school - he says that he has no interest in dying in a war as his father did
Image caption Halima Bibi's husband was killed while leading a team of militants - leaving her alone to fend for herself and their two children in Muzaffarabad
Image caption India's deployment of tens of thousands of security forces in Indian-administered Kashmir has made life harder for the insurgents

And they are helped in this by a number of good quality schools that charge hefty fees from the children of affluent locals in order to fund free education for those who have lost one or both parents to the war or natural disasters.

Asad Mir, 16, is a 10th grade student at Sawera (Dawn) Model School, a well-regarded English-medium public school in the upscale Shaukat Lines neighbourhood of Muzaffarabad.

His sister also studies at the same school, while his elder brother works as a salesman at a general store.

The family lives off the meagre government pay-outs, but he looks neat, confident and relaxed - thanks to free education and free transport to school that is provided for him and his sister from their home in a refugee camp.

"I love maths. I want to be an engineer," he says, with a determined look in his eyes.

His father was from Baramulla, and was killed during a militant operation in that area.

"I was just three years old then. My sister was one. They say the [Islamic Front] organisation's vehicle came to pick him up from our home at the camp, and he never came back. My mum says his body was never found."

Asad says he has no interest in the war, not only because it took away his father, but also because he does not want to go to his father's home and village across the border.

"I don't know anyone in Baramulla. Mum says Muzaffarabad is our home now. I think she's right."

None of the former militants interviewed for this piece wished to be photographed.

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