They had quietly crossed the rugged mountains into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) to pick up arms and live a militant's life. Almost two decades later, many of the 'misguided' Kashmiri men are homesick and want to return home.
The Indian government has agreed to let them in but wants them to come back as quietly as they had left.
New Delhi believes it would be impossible to execute its ambitious plan to bring back hundreds of Kashmiri men— who first crossed the border in their teens or early twenties - with Pakistan's cooperation. Fears about their safety also mounted after some men willing to return went missing from across the border.
Government officials insist it would be naïve to send a list of approved names to the Indian mission in Islamabad and expect the "ex-militants" to pick up their travel documents and take the next bus, train or flight to India.
Families of over 700 Kashmiris who had crossed to PoK for weapons training had applied under Jammu and Kashmir government's surrender & rehabilitation policy. Security agencies have so far approved the return of 70.
"He (chief minister Omar Abdullah) wanted them to return in a group and hold a grand reception for them at Srinagar… That is not how such things can be done," a senior government official said.
It has been conveyed to the chief minister that the logistics need to be reworked, the official said.
"It has to be a clandestine affair…where the men quietly leave the country with their families and seek the Indian visa from a third country or enter through Nepal," a home ministry official agreed.
"The government would have to leave it to the judgment of the people who want to return to decide how they want to come back, facilitate their entry if necessary and let them go home after spending a few months at the security establishment's debriefing and counselling camps to prepare them for the life ahead," the official said.