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The Hizbul meltdown

Print edition : May 25, 2002 T+T-

The emergence of deep fissures within the Hizbul Mujahideen is likely to aid efforts at building a credible opposition in Jammu and Kashmir.

FRIENDS of dissident Hizbul Mujahideen commander Abdul Majid Dar have a simple response to charges that he has betrayed the jehad in Jammu and Kashmir. They point to the story of the sons of Hizbul Mujahideen boss Mohammad Yusuf Shah, better known by his nom de guerre, Syed Salahuddin.

Shah has five sons, not one of whom has joined the ranks of the hundreds of young cadre that the Hizbul Mujahideen's Muzaffarabad-based leadership sends to their death each year. Twentytwo-year-old Wahid Yusuf recently started studies at the Government Medical College in Srinagar, after he was controversially granted an almost unprecedented transfer from a privately run institution in Jammu. Wahid's oldest brother, 35-year-old Mohammad Yusuf, works as a laboratory technician at the government-run Sher-e-Kashmir hospital. Thirty-year-old Javed Yusuf works on the family farm at Soibugh. His younger brother, Shahid Yusuf, lives outside the State, having completed a degree in agricultural sciences. The youngest, Mayeed Yusuf, is a quiet, apolitical Class XI student.

Dar was expelled from the Hizbul Mujahideen on May 3 on charges of having defied the diktat of the central leadership of the organisation that he return to Pakistan and for maintaining covert contacts with the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). While it has been clear since October last year that the Hizbul Mujahideen was divided between Kashmir-based leaders seeking dialogue with the Indian government and Pakistan-based hardliners, the decision to expel Dar has provoked a meltdown in the organisation. The bulk of the mid-level command in the Hizbul Mujahideen's south and central Kashmir divisions have thrown their weight behind the dissident leader. Dar also appears to command considerable support within the Hizbul Mujahideen's seven-member command council. As such, his expulsion could have significant consequences both for the Hizbul Mujahideen and for political life in Jammu and Kashmir.

Signs of the divisions within the Hizbul Mujahideen's top leadership were evident at the May 2 meeting where the decision to remove Dar was made. Apart from Shah, only two members of the command council backed the decision. Former north division chief Abdul Rashid Hajam, alias Tahir Ejaz, and former Anantnag district commander and deputy south division commander Abdul Ghani supported their chief's allegations. Two others - former Srinagar and north division commander Majid Jehangir and Ghulam Rasool Dar, a member of the Hizbul Mujahideen delegation which had met Union Home Secretary Kamal Pande in August 2000, angrily walked out of the meeting. The two who remained, Pir Panjal regiment commander Samsher Khan and former south division commander Khalid Saifullah, argued that Dar needed to be given more time to return to Pakistan.

Immediately after Dar's expulsion, fissures showed up in the Hizbul Mujahideen's field commands. The head of the organisation's Dachinpora unit, code-named Zahoor-ul-Islam, and some 50 cadre, took the unprecedented step of sending a signed petition to Shah. The chief of financial affairs, Farooq-ul-Islam, in turn, termed the decision an "unfortunate step". Cadre in the Hizbul Mujahideen's south zone continued to report to Khurshid Ahmad Zargar, who was sacked along with Dar. Zargar, a one-time veterinary surgeon who operates under the code name Asad Yazdani, is among Dar's most powerful aides. Key figures in the crucial north Kashmir division also made their discontent clear. They included Altaf Ahmad, code-named Abu Amir, who is responsible for the launching of personnel from training camps in Pakistan across the Line of Control (LoC). Although Hizbul Mujahideen spokesperson Salim Hashmi denied angrily that there was a rebellion within the ranks, the facts were clear.

The drama surrounding the sacking of Dar was predictable. In October 2001, alarmed by Dar's efforts to initiate a dialogue with the Union government bypassing Pakistan, Shah replaced his field commanders. Shortly afterwards, Zargar spoke out in support of a dialogue. He argued that while "the armed movement brought the Kashmir issue out of the cold storage, at the same time we accept that the gun alone is no solution to the problem". Matters spiralled out of hand, and in late November 2001, the Hizbul Mujahideen's command council ordered Dar and his associates to return to Pakistan. It also directed the Srinagar-based press not to publish statements issued by the dissident faction. Dar's subordinates reiterated their loyalty to him, and made clear that they had no intention of leaving Kashmir until their replacements were in place.

Shah's team was led by the 54-year-old Ghulam Hassan Khan, variously code-named Saif-ul-Islam and Engineer Zamaan. Ageing and unwell, and with his entire family resettled in Pakistan, the portly leader had little stomach for the fight he was faced with. Informed sources told Frontline that in private he had complained that if Shah was really determined to revive the Hizbul Mujahideen, he ought to go to Kashmir himself. By the time Khan arrived in October 2001, the stage had been set for the internecine conflict which he so feared. On August 25, 2001, the Baramulla-based pro-Shah leader Shaqir Ghaznavi had organised the assassination of Dar's associate, Farooq Sheikh Mirchal. Soon after Khan's arrival, the Indian intelligence succeeded in cracking hawala flows to several of the new commanders, strangling the resources that they needed to operate. Among the first of the seizures were funds intended for Mirchal's successor Javed Ahmad Rather, code-named Zubair-ul-Islam as head of the Kupwara division. The Shah faction did not need genius to deduce who the informers might have been.

Within Kashmir, then, the Hizbul Mujahideen's factions were well and truly at war. After a brief lull in early 2002, the battle resumed - this time through political proxies. The threat to the Hizbul Mujahideen came from a series of independent political initiatives for dialogue. In early March, a group of Srinagar lawyers met High Commissioner Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, and called for Pakistan to back a democratic process centred on peace, governance and the restoration of peoples' dignity. Subsequently, they were invited to Pakistan and, in April, they called for a renewal of dialogue between Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Soon afterwards, at a covert meeting in Dubai with Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) Director-General Ehtaz-ul-Haq, All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) leaders Abdul Ghani Lone and Umar Farooq made clear that they believed that engagement with India was necessary. Pakistan, both are believed to have argued, had neither diplomatic nor military leverage to secure concessions from India.

Another key line of centrist assault came from within the Jamaat-e-Islami. Shah's main sponsor is Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who is the organisation's political chief and its representative in the APHC. Geelani found his authority coming under challenge by Khaliq Hanif, a one-time hardliner. With Geelani in hospital, Hanif succeeded in pushing through an unprecedented political resolution, where the Jamaat-e-Islami stated that it would not oppose the Assembly elections, due in the next few months. The resolution added that should the APHC choose to do so, the Jamaat-e-Islami, as its largest constituent, would oppose its decision. The resolution was a breakthrough for the centrists, led by the Jamaat-e-Islami's overall leader, Ghulam Mohammad Bhat. Two years ago, Bhat had brought about Dar's engagement with the political establishment after months of quiet, painstaking contact with key players in India and abroad.

A few column-centimetres of newsprint provoked the final showdown. On May 1, the Srinagar newspaper Greater Kashmir carried an article authored by the Hizbul Mujahideen's deputy commander-in-chief Abdul Ahmad Bhat, who uses the code-names Moin-ul-Islam and Umar Javed. Bhat stated that if "today India begins a genuine process of settlement and peace, we will not wait till tomorrow. We will give up our defensive (military) operation right now". The Hizbul Mujahideen deputy chief added that if "India takes an initiative with good intentions, she will find us ten steps ahead of her one step. We will at once give up guns and observe real ceasefire so that (a) solution-finding path receives a headway". This was interpreted as an endorsement of efforts by the Prime Minister's Office, led by former RAW chief Amarjit Singh Dulat, to bring a coalition of secessionist groups into the electoral process.

Shah, who had appointed Bhat to contain just these kinds of ideas, was infuriated. The expulsions of Dar, Zargar and their associate, central division commander Zafar Abdul Fatah, followed the day after the article appeared. Other mid-level commanders who backed Dar were also removed after they protested against the decision. Bhat promptly denied having written the article. Few people, however, buy this claim. Reliable sources told Frontline that Greater Kashmir had indeed received an Urdu-language article through a credible intermediary acting for the Hizbul Mujahideen deputy chief. It was then translated from the somewhat clumsily written original text into English by a senior staff member. Although the translation departed from the original on several points, in its substance the content of the printed article was faithful to the Urdu text.

While Bhat may have backed down, clearly, others have no intention to do so. That raises the obvious question - where does the rebellion now go? There is little doubt that the Dar faction has taken heart from the growing calls for dialogue and democracy. While the APHC's Lone and Umar Farooq have long been exploring the possibility of participating in elections, they have now been joined by elements in the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Srinagar-based Kashmir Bar Association and a welter of minor figures. All concerned are, understandably, holding their cards close to the chest. Nonetheless, such groups have been in contact with mainstream political parties, working on the prospect of building a joint opposition front. However, two key obstacles remain. The first is the National Conference's (N.C.) reputation for election-time sharp practice. Its alleged rigging of local elections to a business body in Handwara recently, where a figure associated with Lone won the first round, has done nothing to reassure potential opposition candidates. Second, and more important, elections must be held latest in October, and this allows no time for a new front to build the kind of political infrastructure and cadre that are needed to go into elections.

At least some people in power are considering means to resolve the situation. One scenario involves offering Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah a chance to become the Vice-President of India in return for his agreeing for a six-month imposition of Central rule at the end of his term in October. The Army has its own reasons to back such a move. Early autumn invariably sees an upturn in violence, since infiltrators and arms move steadily across the LoC all summer. Under other circumstances, the Army has the resources to secure elections in Jammu and Kashmir irrespective of the season. Now, however, with the bulk of its troops committed to forward positions, Army planners would be happier if elections are held at the end of the winter of 2003. Passes across the LoC would have been blocked by snow for several months before this period, and the levels of violence would therefore be low. The obvious problem with this plan, however, is that the N.C. has no reason to collaborate with a project that would allow a stronger opposition to emerge.

Experience shows that Pakistan-based groups have the resources to negate the military consequences of the Dar faction ceasing military operations. Levels of violence during the Ramzan ceasefire of 2000 to 2001 were higher than during the same period in previous years. No reduction of violence, then, can be expected as a result of the meltdown of the Hizbul Mujahideen. But if politicians follow where Dar has led, violence as a means of discourse will be stripped of legitimacy. Should the Assembly elections see at least the beginnings of a credible opposition, Jammu and Kashmir would have taken a meaningful step towards peace.

Post-split line-upCentral Command

Amir-e-Jihad: Mohammad Yusuf Shah, alias Syed Salahuddin

Supreme Command Council: Khalid Saifullah, alias Amir Khan; Abdul Rashid Hajam, alias Tahir Ejaz; Majid Jehangir; Ghulam Rasool Dar, alias Riyaz Rasool; Abdul Ghani, alias Liaqat; Samsher Khan

Kashmir Command

Chief operations commander, Kashmir: Ghulam Hassan Khan, alias Saif-ul-Islam, alias Engineer Zamaan. Replaced expelled commander Abdul Majid Dar

Deputy chief operations commander: Abdul Ahmad Bhat, alias Moin-ul-Islam, alias Umar Javed

North Kashmir Division

Division commander: Javed Ahmad Rather, alias Zubair-ul-Islam, alias Abu Ubaida. Replaced Farooq Sheikh Mirchal, assassinated in August 2001

District commander, Kupwara: code-name Asghar alias Asghar ibn-e-Rahim

District commander, Bandipora: code-name Ibrahim

District commander, Baramulla: code-name Shabbir Ellahi

Launching commander: code-name Altaf, alias Abu Amir

Central Kashmir Division

Division commander: Abdul Rashid Pir, alias Shardar Khan Replaced expelled commander, Zafar-ul-Fatah

District commander, Srinagar: Javed Ahmad Sheikh

District commander, Badgam: code-name FerozeSouth Kashmir Division

Division commander: code-named Abid. Replaced expelled commander Khurshid Ahmad Zargar, alias Dr. Asad Yazdani

District commander, Kulgam: code-name QamarDistrict commander, Pampore: Naim MalikDistrict commander, Qazigund: Shabbir BhaduriDistrict commander, Tral: Mohammad Hanif