Kashmir militants give up fight and head home

File photo (2001) of militants training in Pakistan
Image caption The once prolific supply of militants to fight Indian rule in Kashmir could be on the wane

Twenty years after they took up arms to fight Indian rule in the Kashmir valley, hundreds of local insurgents are now returning to their homes after renouncing militancy.

The reasons are diminishing support from the Pakistani government, a realisation that the "Kashmir jihad" is going nowhere and a promise of amnesty by the Indian government.

"It's no use staying on here," says former militant Mohammad Ahsan who lives in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir.

He is now preparing to leave for his home in Srinagar valley on the Indian side.

"The jihad is over, and poverty is catching on to us; it's better to live on your own land and around your own people than in virtual exile where one day you'll be forced to beg for a living," says Mr Ashan.

He has managed to put together 130,000 Pakistani rupees ($1,500; £960) to buy air tickets to the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu, for himself, his wife and two children. From there he will cross into India to reach Srinagar.

Futile militancy

Militant circles say there are about 3,000 to 4,000 former Kashmiri fighters stranded in and around Muzaffarabad.

Many want to return home, but some do not have the means to pay for the journey.

India and Pakistan both claim Kashmir - they have fought two wars over the territory.

A Line of Control (LoC) divides a narrow strip of Pakistan-administered Kashmir from the bulk of the region, which is held by India.

Beginning in 1988, thousands of Kashmiri youths from the Indian side crossed over the LoC into Pakistan to train in guerrilla warfare, arm themselves and then go back to fight Indian forces in their homeland.

They kept Kashmir on the boil for a decade during the 1990s, but were increasingly frustrated when Pakistani groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Al-Badr and Harkatul Mujahideen started to gain ascendancy in the "Kashmir jihad".

These groups brought with them greater resources to eclipse local groups, and professed foreign religious ideologies that were less tolerant of local sensibilities.

By the mid-2000s, after tens of thousands of Kashmiris had been killed in the uprising without shaking Indian rule, the futility of the militant-driven movement was becoming obvious and there was increased international pressure on Pakistan to withdraw support to these groups.

'Normal lives'

The gradual winding down of the movement has left the bulk of the native Kashmiri fighters in a state of suspended animation.

Image caption Militants still operate in Kashmir, but the insurgency could be running out of steam

Those who could raise funds for a journey back home decided to test an earlier offer of amnesty by the Indian government.

Others have simply been sulking as return routes across the LoC - which would be a much cheaper option - are still closed to them.

During 2011, roughly 100 former militants left Pakistan along with their families and returned to their native villages on the Indian side.

Their fate was closely watched by fighters still stranded in Pakistan.

"Nothing bad happened to them," says Rafiq Ahmed, another former fighter in Muzaffarabad who has been in touch with some of the returnees.

"They were held by the Indian police for debriefing for a few days, and were then released. They are now living normal lives."

Thus emboldened, more than 500 fighters have returned to their native homes on the Indian side during the first five months of 2012, says Ghulam Mohammad, a former insurgent who is close to the people involved with the repatriation issues of Kashmiri militants.

"Most of them were married and they have also taken along their families - some 1,000 to 1,500 people in all," he says.

Cash strapped

Mr Mohammad says that between 10 and 15 former fighters are leaving Pakistan every week, along with their families.

They fly to Kathmandu on a Pakistani passport. From there they cross into India and reach Kashmir, where the returning men report to the local police to confirm their arrival.

"The Kathmandu route has two advantages; it is familiar to former militants and their 'handlers' who used it in the past to smuggle militants into India, and it is away from the public glare and therefore suitable to keep this exodus under wraps," he says.

The insurgents' departure comes amid reports of drastic cuts in the money which militant circles say the Pakistani security establishment used to pay them for their activities.

According to these circles, the practice of disbursing funds to various groups for operations inside Indian-administered Kashmir was stopped by the military government of former president Pervez Musharraf in 2006.

In recent months, they say, Pakistan has halved the funds which it still pays to these groups to meet their establishment expenses - such as office rent, stationery, transport, fuel or food.

Militant sources say that these funds can barely support small groups of core activists within each of roughly a dozen Kashmiri militant organisations that still run offices in Pakistani-administered Kashmir.

Pakistan denies giving the insurgents any support other than moral and diplomatic backing for their movement.

Although many former militants say those who have gone back in recent months have benefited from the Indian amnesty, some who have already returned to the Indian side told the BBC they have been disappointed by the lack of opportunities in their native land and are finding it difficult to rebuild their lives.