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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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 to return to our homes with dignity and freedom,” 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.
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.
Reproduced from the BBC