Hundreds married to men who travelled to Pakistan for militant training now find themselves stateless
Under dark skies in Kashmir’s heavily militarised town of Kupwara, Saira Javed mournfully recalled her happy childhood.
Recounting her early life in Karachi, a bustling metropolis over the border in Pakistan, she spoke vividly of her father, Abdul Latif, who would take their large family on weekend picnics and of the moonlit nights she spent dying her hands with henna.
But for over a decade, Javed has only been able to catch glimpses of her Pakistani homeland through infrequent and grainy video calls made on low-speed internet.
“We don’t have an existence here, our children have no existence here,” said Javed.
She is one of hundreds of Pakistani women trapped in Indian-administered Kashmir, who have lost their identity, rights and freedom. They married Indian Kashmiri militants when, sometimes many years ago, these men crossed over into Pakistan for training. While there are no official statistics on how many are stuck in Pakistan, it is thought to be around 400.
Kashmir has been a source of dispute between India and Pakistan since partition. In the early 1990s, a militant anti-Indian insurgency erupted in Indian-controlled Kashmir and thousands of young Kashmiri men began travelling illegally over the border to Pakistan to receive training and arms. Some ended up staying for years, often getting married.
But when these men eventually crossed back over to Kashmir with their new families, their Pakistani wives became stuck and stateless, with no legal rights rights in India but also ineligible for documents to go back to Pakistan.
Some of the women, thinking the journey to Kashmir would be brief, left their children behind in Pakistan and have spent the years since enduring the agony of forced separation. Dozens were later divorced by their Indian husbands, leaving them destitute, alone and yet unable to return home.
Speaking at a news conference on Monday, several made a desperate appeal to the Indian authorities, saying they had “lost hope of getting citizenship rights”.
One of the wives told reporters at the press conference: “We see the last glimpses of our dead relatives on the phone. We see their funerals on video calls. What can be a bigger tyranny than this? Imagine the plight of one’s daughter or sister if she can’t visit her home for nine to ten years, or you can’t see her dead body.”
Javed married Javed Ahmad in 2001, a Kashmiri who had crossed over into Pakistan for militant training in 1990. As the Indian military strengthened its presence along the border, Ahmad was among thousands of militants unable to cross back over into India. The long wait made him disillusioned with militancy, and instead he settled into life in Pakistan, working in real estate, getting married and starting a family with Javed.
But in 2007, at the insistence of Ahmad, Javed and her two daughters accompanied him back to Kashmir. On their arrival, her husband’s family insisted they stay for good and tore up their Pakistani passports.
“We fight every day to go back,” said Javed. Her father died late last year and she had to endure it alone. “What could I have done? I cried,” said Javed, who now runs a boutique where she provides work to other Pakistani wives.
“It has been a struggle. We hold protests and wait for any reply. I have cried so much now that even my tears have now dried and I am not able to cry anymore. Fourteen years is too long to wait,” she said, adding that she does not want her children to have a similar life of suffering and disconnection.
Most of the former militants travelled over the border with their wives around 2010, when the Kashmir government, encouraged by warming relations between India and Pakistan, announced a rehabilitation policy for former militants stranded in
However, the policy was never properly implemented which meant most of the 400 or so former rebels, and around 800 of their family members, had to enter India through informal or illegal routes. The majority flew to Nepal and then travelled to Kashmir by road, meaning their presence was never officially recognised.
Life proved tough, with many facing unemployment, property disputes with relatives and acceptance issues that forced them to live in poor conditions, with no access to state support. The wives – seen as outsiders and never given proper citizenship – all spoke of an overwhelming yearning to go back.
At least one woman killed herself; another is suffering from severe mental illness. Others are struggling to make sense of their lives and a society that has ostracised them.
Ishrat Bano was a teenager when she married her husband, Nisar Ahmad, who had crossed into Pakistan in 1990 with two friends to train for the insurgency when he was just 16.Advertisement
Instead, Ahmad stayed in Pakistan for 22 years, abandoning militancy and becoming a tailor, but after his mother died, he was determined to return home. In 2012, he took his wife and their three children on an arduous journey through Nepal, taking three planes and exhausting their savings.
But Bano found that “the life here is slavery”. The wives are not technically illegal citizens but instead exist in a citizenship no man’s land, denied the right of political participation and ineligible even for a ration card. Bano admitted concealing her suffering from her family in Pakistan. “We lie to them that we have a very comfortable life, a big house, a car,” she said. “If we get a chance to go, we will never come back.”
Dozens took part in a demonstration last October in Srinagar, the main city of Kashmir, and demanded that they be given citizenship and documents to visit Pakistan. A group met Lt Governor Manoj Sinha, the chief administrator of Kashmir region, who “assured them of appropriate redressal of their issues”. However, such assurances have so far come to nothing and the women are now threatening to march en masse to the volatile India-Pakistan border, known as the Line of Control.
Among the protesters was Fozia Begum, 42, who was raised in Muzaffarabad in Pakistani-administered Kashmir along with her five sisters and three brothers, most of whom are now dead; but she could not return home to mourn them.
She was 17 when she married Ghulam Hassan Lone, who, like many others, had crossed the border to fight for Kashmir’s freedom but swiftly abandoned the conflict. The family travelled to Indian-administered Kashmir in 2007 but she has regretted it ever since.
“There is no peace here,” said Begum. She refused to talk about her memories and life in Muzaffarabad and said it was “too painful to scratch the wounds” adding: “If I talk now, I will not be able to sleep later.”
Begum said: “I am here during the day but I am there in my dreams.”