The government has long been criticised for its failure to treat Kashmiris with the dignity and respect they deserve, or protect their democratic rights as Indian citizens
Sufaira Jan, 15, has finally got a passport today. Perhaps she can still take part in the course for exchange students in the United States, even though the last day is over. If she cannot join the year-long course, it would be yet another proof of how some Kashmiris are discriminated against in our free democracy. Other Indian students selected for this scholarship-based education programme have already left for the US. Today, after hurriedly granting her a passport, government authorities are hoping that she is not left out of the programme.
For Sufaira, from an orphanage of Kashmir’s Beerwah township, had been denied her passport simply because her uncle had at one time been a terrorist. The fact that he had surrendered to the government years before Sufaira was born did not make any difference to the Criminal Investigation Department of the state government, which had not cleared her background check for her passport.
Sufaira’s uncle, Farooq Ahmad Ganai, had been a militant and had surrendered in 1995. As a surrendered militant, he and his family members are supposed to be able to lead a normal life of dignity and peace in Kashmir. But there is a big gap between what the government promises on paper and what it delivers to its citizens. And it has long been criticised for its failure to treat Kashmiris – not just the surrendered militants and their families – with the dignity and respect they deserve, or protect their democratic rights as Indian citizens.
So, as a relative of a former militant, Sufaira was denied a passport. Never mind that it would quash her dreams of studying in the US, for which she had worked hard and qualified in several rounds of tests and interviews in Kashmir and New Delhi. Never mind that by denying a 15-year-old talented student her right to study overseas, after she had won a scholarship, the CID officials would be planting seeds of frustration in an adolescent that could easily be exploited by others and turned into hatred.
This callousness harks back to years of neglect and deliberate disrespect that our government has subjected Kashmiris to. Very often in the past, the short term petulance of our mindless government officials and dangerous lack of intelligence of our intelligence departments has been responsible for egging bright young men and women towards militancy. Killing young men in fake encounters, abducting citizens to torture them apparently to get information on terrorists, raping women and committing various atrocities on the people of Kashmir for decades had alienated the government from Kashmiri citizens and pushed youngsters towards militancy.
Now, while the government talks loftily about the rehabilitation of surrendered militants, on the ground the old discrimination, fear and stigma remains. Depriving Sufaira of her passport and denying her the right to study in the US on the scholarship she has won, was part of that old mindset. Thankfully, media hullabaloo made the government sit up and change course. That surrendered militants are still plagued by the police and security forces was talked about quite a bit as long as Afzal Guru’s trial, incarceration and execution was in the public eye. Many believed that it was easy to frame Guru because he was a surrendered militant. It was clear that reformed Kashmiri extremists, even after giving up arms and putting oneself at the mercy of the government, cannot expect justice and equality from the state.
And more recently, the plight of former militants from Kashmir was highlighted as the government’s rehabilitation policy came under public scrutiny. It appeared that all was not well with the much-hyped policy of 2010, by which the government was inviting former Kashmiri militants to come back home from across the border. Over 200 ex-militants answered the government’s call and picked their way back to India from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, hoping to settle into a normal life with their wife and kids back in their homeland.
But that has not been as easy as advertised. Contrary to the government’s claims that these ex-militants have been given security and monetary incentives, the families of the surrendered militants claim that they have not even been given their basic rights as citizens. They do not have a passport or a ration card, they have no identity proof, no proof of residence – nothing that would help them fit into ordinary life. Without these basic documents, their children cannot get admitted into school.
Many of the former militants had married Pakistani women who left their families as they picked up their kids and followed their husbands into India. They are now illegal residents, they neither have a visa given by India, nor an Indian passport as they had expected. They have not been given citizenship, nor valid travel documents as a legal alien. They cannot even go visit their families across the border. And they have no identity in their new country, their husband’s motherland. Their children too, have no identity in their father’s homeland. As for the surrendered militants themselves – they are practically chained to the government’s security apparatus. They need to report regularly to the police, and often their children need to report as well.
All this came into focus earlier this year, when the Delhi Police arrested Liaqat Ali Shah from Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. He was a member of the Hizbul Mujahideen, said the Delhi Police, and he had come to carry out a terror attack during Holi.
The Kashmir government disagreed. It said that Liaquat had come with his wife and stepdaughter to surrender before the authorities under the government’s rehabilitation policy. Confused and embarrassed, the Government of India handed over the investigation to the National Investigative Agency (NIA) and the Prime Minister decided to have Kashmir’s rehabilitation policy for surrendered militants examined. And what they found was not a surprise.
In our somewhat respectable democracy, the stereotyping of Muslims as terrorists happens more readily if you are a Kashmiri Muslim. We remember the jailing and torture of Iftikhar Gilani, the Delhi bureau chief of ‘Kashmir Times’, for months, before intense lobbying by the media and politicians got him released in 2003. Similarly, Tariq Ahmed Dar, a young Kashmiri model, was jailed for several months in 2006, as a ‘Pakistani spy.’ And surrendered militants and their families face far more than the ‘ordinary’ Kashmiri.
As the attempt to deny Sufaira her passport shows. It is admirable that Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has managed to swiftly sort it out. Hopefully his government would be able to tackle the larger picture too, and sort out the problems that surrendered militants and their families face every day in the land they have chosen as home.
Antara Dev Sen