Crime as business

Published : Jan 08, 2000 00:00 IST


MUSHTAQ AHMED ZARGAR could not be more different from the two Harkat-ul-Ansar militants with whom he has been released under the hostages-for-terrorists deal at Kandahar. Unlike Masood Azhar, Zargar had no theological leanings and, by most accounts, litt le interest in religion. And if Azhar never fired a gun after a brief training stint in Afghanistan, Zargar revelled in violence. He is charged with responsibility for over three dozen murders in downtown Srinagar and had a reputation for brutality, even outright sadism.

Zargar became known in Srinagar by the nickname "Latram", which emerged from his frequent use of the phrase "latram, shatram" (talking nonsense). The son of a lower middle-class family which lives near the Gani Mohalla in Srinagar's Jamia Masjid area, he never made it past primary school. Zargar set up a partnership to polish copper and brass utensils, but his introduction to crime came early. In 1984, aged just 17, he had his first brush with the police when he was picked up for anti-social activity.

In 1988, Zargar was introduced to the world of terror by Zahoor Sheikh, an Anantnag resident and activist of the secessionist People's League. That August, he crossed into Pakistan through Trehgam and received training at a camp organised by the Jammu Ka shmir Liberation Front (JKLF). Zargar went to Pakistan for a second training stint the next May and returned through Uri. He then made a name for himself, carrying out several attacks on security force personnel and executing a series of murders of Kashm ir's Pandit community.

But Zargar's ego did not let him stay on in the JKLF for any length of time. In December 1989, he set up the Al-Umar Mujahideen, with a membership made up largely of recruits from downtown Srinagar. The organisation soon had an office in Muzaffarabad and with the patronage of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan it flourished. Without its own apparatus firmly in place in Jammu and Kashmir, the ISI saw in Al-Umar an instrument through which the ascendancy of the JKLF, which favoured independ ence for Kashmir, could be challenged. Zargar proved only too willing to do the job.

Most observers believe that the Al-Umar chief's motives were transparent. Zargar began using his influence to intervene in local business and property disputes. At least seven kidnappings for ransom are attributed to him. Even Srinagar businessmen who we re sympathetic to anti-India organisations complained bitterly of extortion. In one infamous instance, he ordered a ban on the use of Maruti vehicles in Srinagar. The ban immediately benefited a Srinagar businessman who held the dealership for a rival mo tor company, and whose daughter referred to Zargar as bhaijaan (brother).

Money and power had come Zargar's way, but few had any real respect for Al-Umar's brutal leader. What he did have was the tacit endorsement of Srinagar cleric Maulvi Umar Farooq, after whom the organisation was named. Maulvi Farooq saw in Al-Umar a line of defence against far-right groups such as the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, which had little respect for his religious authority. Indeed, one plausible explanation for the hijackers' keenness to secure the release of Zargar is that the ISI now hopes to use him t o pressure Umar Farooq, who has in recent months been advocating dialogue with India.

Zargar was arrested in May 1992. The fact that he is the only resident of Kashmir (under Indian control) on the list of 36 prisoners whose release the hijackers had sought offers some indication of the precise use that terrorists across the border hope t o put him to. Zargar's undisputed organisational skills and his residual apparatus in Srinagar city will be put to work to escalate violence in Jammu and Kashmir's capital. Such an escalation of violence would also serve to silence Maulvi Umar Farooq, wh ose father died for not toeing the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen line. Just how many people will have to pay with their lives for Zargar's freedom should become clear in the not-too-distant future.

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