Heartbroken Kashmir rebel is now a grocer

12 November 2008
The Hindustan Times
Neelesh Misra

Surankote: There was something odd about this image: the young militant was just out of jail, struggling to make ends meet for his family and fighting a costly trial. Across the region, he says, his commanders had new homes. 'Thousands of us were involved. We feel we faced terrible injustice. The leaders built their homes,' said the young lean man with the uneven beard as he looked over his shoulders at the sound of the door opening. The man - we will call him only by his first name, Muhammad - was a militant for more than 10 years. He was served two prison terms - the last ended in 2005 - and is still dealing with cases dating back to the 1990s, when he was with the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). He now runs a grocery shop, refuses to have his face photographed and seeks anonymity. 'So many people died, so many were taken away by security forces and disappeared, so many homes were wrecked - but what did we get?' Muhammad said in Urdu, often also switching to English sentences as he sat in his neighbour's shop in a narrow lane. Surankote, 220 kilometres north of Jammu, was one of the biggest hubs of militancy for two decades, a transit point for guerrillas walking in from Pakistan through mountain passes along the Line of Control. Now things are quiet, but there is new turmoil for former rebels. 'Did the movement's leadership support us with even 500 rupees a month to fight our cases?' Muhammad said. 'After a point, everyone made the militancy a business.' Living in anonymity was difficult - he had to move from his hometown and start a new life. Outside the shop where he sat, walls were plastered with posters of different political parties. 'I have never voted in my life. If I get my voter ID card in time, I will vote this time,' Muhammad said. But he still strongly advocates freedom for Kashmir. Across the state, thousands of youth who joined the militancy during the end of the 1980s decade or the 1990s face trauma after returning to the mainstream. This election, they are not on the political agenda. Government rehabilitation programmes do not reach all former militants, and a huge number are jobless in a state with widespread unemployment. Most cannot even get a 'character certificate' - a must for being hired. Muhammad was doing his BSc course in 1989 when he gave up education and joined the militancy. He said he crossed the border and received armed training in Pakistan, and became an armed guerrilla. He says he never killed anyone. Now Muhammad spends Rs. 2,000 every month - much of his month's earning - in travelling to and staying twice every month in Jammu, where he has to appear in court in connection with his cases. His classmates have moved on. One is now a superintendent of police, one a deputy superintendent. There is a doctor and an engineer. At home, things do not look good. 'My wife and four children were badly affected by my joining the tehreek (movement). My in-laws helped them a lot. My financial condition became very poor,' Muhammad said. But he still dreams. 'Look at the Irish, the Palestinians, the Tamil Tigers. They all saw a dream. It is not a crime,' he said. 'I still want independence for Kashmir, but now I cannot do anything about it. I am helpless.'