In a significant gesture, the government on Thursday said it was ready to 'welcome' Kashmiris who had gone to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir if they were ready to return after giving up militancy.
"The idea that any Indian who had crossed over to PoK and wishes to return India is certainly welcome," Union Home Minister P Chidambaram told reporters backing the proposal mooted by Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah.
"The idea is accepted... This idea must now be translated into a scheme," the home minister said, adding it was one of the recommendations of one of the Working Groups appointed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for recommending measures to address problems of Jammu and Kashmir.
Replying to questions at a briefing after meetings of the Cabinet and Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs, Chidambaram said the return could be facilitated through a scheme which will entail identification, screening, travel, debriefing, rehabilitation and reintegration.
Noting that 'PoK is actually an Indian territory,' he said the government 'should facilitate the return' of those who had gone across the Line of Control for 'some reasons.'
Significantly, his statement counters the view of his Cabinet colleague and former J & K chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad who has questioned the idea of allowing the return as he apprehended that they could come here to 'create trouble.'
Thousands of Kashmiri youths had crossed over to PoK from 1989 to join militant ranks. While many of them infiltrated back, a large number has not returned. Around 800 of them are understood to have conveyed their desire, through various channels, to return home.
"We will consult all sections of opinion in Jammu and Kashmir," Chidambaram said.
The leader of opposition in Jammu and Kashmir would also be consulted on this issue, he said, adding 'Then we will formulate a scheme. It will take time.'
Chidambaram said this when asked to comment on Abdullah's proposal that a surrender and rehabilitation policy should be formulated to allow Kashmiris to return from PoK.
Abdullah had said at the chief ministers' conference on internal security last Sunday, "To encourage more militants to return to the state and manage their transition to civilian life, a new surrender and rehabilitation policy of militants is under active consideration of my government."
However, Azad questioned the idea, apprehending it could be used as a cover by Pakistan to push foreign militants into India.
"Who will take guarantee of these youth willing to return? How can you prove that these are the same youth who had gone to that side for arms training and are now willing to come back on their own choice? Some foreign terrorists can take advantage of this move," said the Union Health Minister and senior Congress leader from the state on Tuesday.
"Pakistan has not handed over the accused involved in the Mumbai terror attacks so far. Who can trust them in this case? There are chances of adopting a strategy to push militants (into India) taking cover of this surrender policy," he said.
The issue of return of Kashmiri youth from PoK shot to prominence in 2006 when a delegation of leaders from Jammu and Kashmir, including Omar Abdullah and PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti, went to Pakistan.
Several Kashmiris bottled up in PoK met them and pleaded to facilitate their return, saying they were 'homesick.'
The issue later had its echo in the state assembly but the government stated that there was no proposal to facilitate the return of these renegade militants.
State Transport Minister Ram Sharma, however, said the matter would be taken up at appropriate time.