Published : Jan 22, 2000 00:00 IST

Investigations following the arrest in Mumbai of Harkat-ul-Ansar operatives who provided the infrastructure for the hijacking of the Indian Airlines aircraft to Kandahar show that the terrorist group's plans for a pan-Indian jehad are being real ised, aided by the Union Government's misdirected policies in Jammu and Kashmir and communal campaigns by the Hindu Right and the Islamic Right.

PRAVEEN SWAMI in Srinagar and Mumbai

WERE the hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight IC 814 part of a novel on Jammu and Kashmir, two secondary characters would perhaps have been key to decoding its dense narrative. One of these would be the passenger in seat 16C, an Indian official who had th e responsibility of monitoring terrorist activity in Nepal. S.S. Tomar, a Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) operative posted to the Indian Embassy in Nepal, was flying back to New Delhi to visit his wife Sonia, who had been hospitalised to correct problem s arising from the improper treatment of a fracture. Sonia Tomar is the youngest sibling of N.K. Singh, perhaps the most powerful bureaucrat in the Prime Minister's Office. Her eldest sister, Shyama, is married to the man who once led the force which oug ht to have carried out a rescue attempt when the hijacked aircraft was in Amritsar - former National Security Guards Director Nikhil Kumar.

More important, perhaps, would be a young unemployed Muslim from the Mumbai suburb of Jogeshwari, one of the areas worst hit during the Shiv Sena-led pogrom of 1992-1993 in the city. Abdul Latif dropped out of school at 14, when he was in eighth grade. W ith little money and facing bleak prospects, he spent much of his adolescence hanging around local mosques, listening to evangelist preachers. When he finally landed a job as a casual labourer in Saudi Arabia, Latif found that life did not improve much. Then, approached by Harkat-ul-Ansar agents scouting for recruits to operate in India, Latif promptly joined up. His cell in Mumbai would provide the infrastructure for the hijacking of IC 814.

But the twin stories of Tomar and Latif are just part of a larger crisis in Jammu and Kashmir. On the evening of January 13, three terrorists of the Lashkar-e-Taiba drove up to the front gate of the 1 Sector Rashtriya Rifles camp at Khanabal, near Anantn ag, and opened fire with assault rifles and an 85-mm rocket-launcher. It took a 12-hour operation, in which a Major and two civilians were killed, to eliminate the terrorists. The use of mortar and high explosives by the security forces to bring down a b uilding where two terrorists were holed up may have been the outcome of poor tactics, but the fact remains that the debacle at Kandahar was just a punctuation in a larger series of disasters.

Consider the figures. Since August, 15 camps of Indian security forces have been stormed, illustrating the renewed ability of terrorist organisations, which had been virtually decimated four years ago, to wage war. Over 330 Indian troopers were killed in 1999, the highest number ever in Jammu and Kashmir's decade-long insurgency. Just 1,043 terrorists were eliminated until December 15, 1999, compared with 2,443 in 1996. And this, horrifyingly, could be the good news. The Union Government's policies thre aten to turn the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir into a larger all-India communal war, a war in which both the Hindu and Islamic Right see more than a little political profit.

ABDUL LATIF'S interrogation is far from complete yet, but the contours of the hijack plot are beginning to emerge. In mid-1998, Latif, operating under the alias Patel, was put in charge of two Harkat-ul-Ansar cells in Mumbai. Born in Karachi in a poor mi grant family from India, Mohammad Rehan was trained in 1994-1995 by the Pakistan Army's elite Special Services Group at the Harkat-ul-Ansar camp in Khost, Afghanistan, where the terrorist organisation's commander Masood Azhar had himself trained. Rehan a rrived in India through Dhaka, travelling with another Pakistani, Mohammad Iqbal Malik alias Salahuddin, and Bhopal Mal Damai, a small-time smuggler from Nepal who took the name Yusuf Nepali after converting to Islam. Damai brought his wife Priya to Mumb ai, but she stayed separately.

Latif severed contact with his brother, who works as a janitor in a small restaurant, and his married sister. A small seventh-floor apartment near the Ram Shyam cinema on Mumbai's crowded S.V. Road served as home to this Harkat-ul-Ansar cell. A second gr oup of Pakistani nationals, three of them identified so far by their aliases Rashid 'Raju', Amjad, Arshad and two unknown, set up a similar camp at Amar Chawl, a crowded slum. Both cells had a simple task: they were to consider plans to secure the releas e of commander Masood Azhar, who had held in a Jammu jail since 1984. For 18 months, Latif put out ideas to engineer a jailbreak or kidnap an important politician.

Orders from Karachi came only in August 1999. Latif was told to catch a train to Calcutta, and then use the well-established network of small-time smugglers to cross over to Bangladesh. Once in Dhaka, he made contact with the group that was eventually to carry out the hijacking. He travelled back to Mumbai through Calcutta with four members of the group. Sunny Ahmed Qazi, Shahid Akhtar Sayeed and Mistri Zahoor Ibrahim, all Karachi residents, were probably recruited along with Rehan. Shaqir Ahmed, who us ed the alias R.G. Verma, was a resident of Sukkur. Intelligence officials believe that Masood Azhar's younger brother Ibrahim Akhtar Alvi, the third of six sons, flew directly from Dhaka to Kathmandu.

Back in Mumbai, Latif was ordered to obtain Indian documents for the hijack cell. Seven Travels, a small travel agency near the Mumbai Central Station, was paid to arrange the passports. Its now-jailed owner Suresh Bhatnathe and employees Prakash Jadhav and Vishnu Yeram put to work an established network within the Mumbai Passport Office. Ibrahim Akhtar Alvi, 35, now held two Indian passports, in the names of Javed Sadiq and Mohammed Alim. Latif also arranged passports for Qazi, Sayeed, Ibrahim and Ahme d through Seven Travels, and procured driving licences illegally.

Giving the Harkat-ul-Ansar hijack group iron-clad Indian identities cost money, and Latif chose to replenish his depleted resources in the fastest possible manner. On October 6, carrying only small arms, the members of his cell robbed a small, unguarded cooperative bank in the Borivili area in suburban Mumbai. Whether Latif had considered the risks involved, he has not so far told his interrogators. A secondary motive for the robbery appears to have been to bring the Harkat-ul-Ansar resident cell togeth er and give its members a sense of purpose. The around Rs.10 lakhs that the group robbed was divided among its members.

IN the first week of November 1999, Qazi and Sayeed, now carrying Indian passports that identified them as A.S. Qazi and A.S. Sayeed, left for Kathmandu. Latif dropped them at a guest house and returned to Mumbai. Four weeks later he travelled again to N epal with his two remaining guests, Shaqir Ahmed (who carried a passport naming him R.G. Verma) and Ibrahim (now known as Z.I. Mistry). Mistry, Verma and Sayeed booked economy-class tickets through a Kathmandu travel agency, Everest Travels and Tours, fo r the December 27 flight to New Delhi. An A.A. Sheikh and A.S. Qazi separately bought first-class tickets for the same flight. Then, on December 13, all five altered their travel dates, booking seats on IC 814 for December 24.

Ibrahim Akhtar Alvi Sunny Ahmed Qazi Shahid Akhtar Sayeed

Mistry Zahoor IbrahimShaqir Ahmed alias R.G. Verma.

Little is known for certain about what happened next. Latif has told his interrogators that he received a call from Kathmandu shortly before IC 814 took off, informing him that Ibrahim Akhtar had managed to make all arrangements necessary to execute the enterprise. Investigations suggest that weapons could have been carried into the departure lounge by Arshad Cheema, a First Secretary at the Pakistan Embassy. Cheema was seen at the Tribhuvan International Airport that afternoon, and obtained a VIP pass which allowed him unrestricted movement. Given that the Nepal Police subsequently discovered a large cache of forged Indian currency in Cheema's home, his involvement in other criminal activity appears on the face of it plausible.

Azhar's brother, for his part, appears to have telephoned his four associates from inside the departure lounge, having checked in early. IC 814 was delayed for over two and a half hours, allowing him time to complete the contact with Cheema before orderi ng the remaining members of the hijack cell to check in. Once IC 814 was in the air, Latif remained in contact with his handlers in Karachi. The Harkat-ul-Ansar operative was now told to function as something of a public relations officer for the hijacke rs. Three brothers from Jogeshwari - Rafiq Sheikh, Javed Sheikh and Muzaffar Sheikh - allowed Latif to use their public telephone booth to remain in contact with Karachi, a line he interchanged with his mobile phone.

Using Latif as a contact point for the hijackers made sense for more than one reason. In the event that the hijackers were arrested or shot, his role at the centre of the plot would allow the Harkat-ul-Ansar to claim that the entire operation was carried out by Indians. That, in turn, would affirm its long-standing claim that all Harkat-ul-Ansar operations in Jammu and Kashmir are part of a larger jehad against alleged repression of Muslim communities within "Hindu" India. And above all, the Harkat-ul-A nsar understood that important news establishments are immediately placed under surveillance by their national intelligence establishments during times of crisis. Incoming calls from India were almost certain to be intercepted, and would help deflect bla me from Pakistan.

ONE of those telephone calls was to prove disastrous. Among the journalists Latif contacted was a staff reporter of the British Broadcasting Corporation's Urdu service unit in London. The purpose of his call was to complain about the Indian negotiators' intransigence in Kandahar. RAW personnel engaged in what they describe as a technical operation intercepted the telephone call, made on December 28. When RAW chief A.S. Dulat visited Jammu to persuade Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah to allow the release o f Masood Azhar and Mushtaq Zargar, he promised rapid progress in Mumbai in the matter of tracking the hijackers.

Working with the telephone number provided by RAW, Mumbai Crime Branch investigators tracked down Latif. The Jogeshwari cell was tracked down by December 30. Two AK-56 assault rifles, which had been shipped in for the cell's future operations, and the sm all arms used in the Borivili bank robbery were found hidden in the apartment. The second cell had, however, disappeared from Amar Chawl. Sketches have been circulated of the three members of this second cell, who have been identified by their operationa l aliases, but investigators believe that at least two others were involved. "We've worked very hard to find these people," says Mumbai Joint Commissioner of Police D. Sivanandhan. "We'll get the rest soon."

There is little doubt that investigations are indeed on the right trail. Despite Pakistan's embarrassed denials of complicity, the fact remains that it has yet to explain just why Azhar has not been arrested or even questioned. Ibrahim Akhtar, for his pa rt, has not returned to his family's home in Bhawalpur. The Alvi family claims that their son is away in Saudi Arabia, but his continued absence in the face of his long-jailed brother's return home is mystifying. Embassy official Cheema's expulsion from Nepal, on politely phrased charges of espionage, have also proved an enormous embarrassment to Pakistan.

Yet, the investigation has shown that in at least some meaningful ways the Harkat-ul-Ansar's pan-Indian jehad is being realised. Latif's arrest is not the first of impoverished, riot-hit young people who turned to fascist terror. On August 20, 1999, the Jammu and Kashmir Police announced the unearthing of a Lashkar-e-Taiba cell, with operatives in Bhiwandi, near Mumbai and in Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Delhi. Earlier, Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives Mohammad Salim Junaid and Abdul Sattar were arrested along with Indian nationals Shoaib Alam, Mohammad Faisal Hussain and Aamer Hashim Kamran. Organisations such as the Jammu and Kashmir Islamic Front even liaised with Abdul Razzak Memon, an accused in the serial bombings in Mumbai in March 1993.

THE Bharatiya Janata Party's role in preparing the ground for the Islamic Far Right's new offensive is only too evident. The Mumbai riots of 1992-1993 marked the cumulative outcome of communal pogroms which littered the path of the BJP's Ram Janmabhoomi campaign. And the Hindu Right's role in transforming the war in Jammu and Kashmir from a localised insurgency does not end there. Official figures establish that the security situation in Jammu and Kashmir has deteriorated under BJP rule in New Delhi, of ten as the result of the Union Government's apathy and lack of support to anti-terrorist organisations (see separate story). It is hard to escape the cynical idea that the Hindu Right perhaps sees long-term benefit in the ongoing campaign of terror by re vanchist Islamic groups.

Tomar's presence on IC 814 becomes relevant here. It is no one's case that the RAW officer's presence on the flight significantly influenced policy, or that his life, despite his important connections, was a central concern. His story, however, merely il lustrates the web of power that surrounds many upper-middle class citizens who holiday in Kathmandu. The BJP is entirely willing to sacrifice the lives of soldiers - most of whom will never be able to afford to travel anywhere on vacation - on the Kargil heights or in counter-terrorist operations in Jammu and Kashmir. The standards for the Indian elite, however, are different. The future of Jammu and Kashmir is perhaps not important enough a cause for the BJP to have taken the hard decisions that were n eeded during the hijacking of IC 814.

This lack of will in Jammu and Kashmir is perhaps above all ideological. India's war in Kashmir has been premised on the need to defend its core secular foundations, a set of beliefs that the BJP and other elements in the National Democratic Alliance hav e long rejected. From being a war for the defence of India, the battle in Jammu and Kashmir has now become an enterprise of short-term political necessity: witness the Hindu Right's suggestion that the hijacking was the outcome not of its incompetence bu t of some form of supposed Hindu weakness. As the BJP pushes ahead with its campaign of communal mobilisation, predominantly Muslim Kashmir is set to become further sundered from the rest of the country, and even with the mainly Hindu areas of the State with which it has had historic linkages.

Apart from begging the United States to declare Pakistan a terrorist state, the BJP has no evident agenda for action. As Latif's arrest illustrates, the hijacking marks just one more phase in a much larger war, one which the rise of the Hindu Right has t ransfigured. India has always insisted, with good reason, that it does not want international interference in Jammu and Kashmir. Now its policy is confined to asking the U.S. to declare Pakistan a terrorist state. In the unlikely event that the U.S. does ever choose to denounce a compliant and strategically important regime, India will still have to deal with the problems it is confronted with. How it might do that, the Union Government has not had answers for, least of all after the Kandahar debacle.

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