Battle lines in Kashmir

Published : Jan 22, 2000 00:00 IST

The government's war against terrorism and parallel efforts to buy peace spell skewed priorities.


EARLY in the autumn of 1999, one of the principal architects of Jammu and Kashmir's decade-long carnage was quietly released from jail. Former Hizbul Mujahideen commander 'Master' Ahsan Dar, still facing a welter of terrorism-related charges, was driven in a bullet-proof government vehicle to a rented home in Srinagar's Gogjibagh. Weeks later, on October 6, the State Government issued orders subjecting one of the State's most successful officers in its battle against terrorism, Superintendent of Police Manohar Singh, to a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into charges of engineering the extra-judicial execution of a terrorist.

It does not take a genius to see just what is going on in the State. Even as top leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party in New Delhi broadcast their commitment to the war against terrorism, the National Conference(N.C.), which has since 1998 resembled no thing so much as a kind of Muslim branch office of the BJP, is busy buying peace. The surrender at Kandahar was preceded by a series of smaller, little noticed surrenders, all of which have signalled that India's pro-active National Democratic Front (ND A) Government is in fact at its most weak-kneed in decades.

Ahsan Dar's release was shrouded in secrecy. No official announcement was made of the event, and Dar himself, unlike other terrorists let off as part of tacit deals, avoided any form of media contact. The silence was perhaps unsurprising. Dar had been th e most feared face of the Hizbul Mujahideen, leading its twin offensives against the Indian state and anti-Pakistan insurgent groups. Infuriated by the efforts of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) to take direct control of the Hizbul Mujahideen, Dar formed a breakaway faction, the Muslim Mujahideen. The Muslim Mujahideen still exists, led by Dar's one-time bodyguard Ghulam Nabi Azad, but it is now a pro-India militia.

Dar had been arrested in a raid on a home in Srinagar's upmarket Jawahar Nagar area, shortly after he returned to Srinagar from Kathmandu, flying through New Delhi on a fake passport. Among the first to visit him was the man who owned the Jawahar Nagar h ouse, his one-time aide Mohiuddin Lone. Lone, a public works contractor with significant interests in Kupwara, had spent a year in jail with Dar before being released. In 1996, in the build-up to the Lok Sabha elections that year, he had lobbied energeti cally for Dar's release, along with a group centred on Firdaus Ahmed Baba, better known by his alias Babar Badr. "But both (Union Home Ministers) S.B. Chavan and Inderjit Gupta flatly refused to let Dar go," Lone admits, "and we did not pursue the matte r."

No official in Srinagar was willing to discuss the issue on record, but privately said that Dar was released because warrants issued against him under the Public Safety Act had expired. But this argument holds no water. Other top terrorists have, upon be ing granted bail, been promptly booked and jailed again on fresh charges. Among those subjected to such treatment in recent times are Dar's one-time associate Abdul Aziz Dar alias General Moosa, Hizbul commander Mushtaq-ul-Islam, and Noor Mohammad Kalwal of the near-defunct Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front. Fresh charges are imposed because of the obvious risks involved in letting top terrorists move around again.

So why, then, was Dar released? The group around Baba promised, for example, to set up a political unit that would oppose Pakistan, a promise that was promptly delivered. Dar, by contrast, made no commitments, not even to renounce violence publicly. Inde ed, Dar's release had been opposed in 1996 because his interlocutors believed that there was a possibility he would be pushed into reactivating the Hizbul Mujahideen network in the Baramulla-Kandi belt. In the event, Hizbul Mujahideen commander Ali Moham mad Dar was despatched from Pakistan for this task after the 1996 elections, but could inflict only minor losses until he was shot dead in 1998.

One possible motive for Dar's release lies in Mohiuddin Lone's family. Lone is the brother of Mushtaq Lone, the Jammu and Kashmir Minister of State for Home. Although Lone claims he has ideological differences with his brother, he has been granted an off icial security-zone flat in the Tulsi Bagh area. And despite having been booked on terrorism-related charges, he makes a lucrative living from the State Public Works Department's construction contracts. Lone denies his brother was approached to secure D ar's release, but in the absence of any other cogent explanation, the theory is one that many subscribe to.

"Dar wasn't charged with murder," says Lone, "so what's wrong if he's released"? Neither was Ahmed Umar Sheikh, released in exchange for the hostages on board Indian Airlines IC 814. With Dar, as with Sheikh, it is motives that are important, not the eve nt. Dar's release came packaged as part of a set of election-eve measures designed by the N.C. to appropriate the pro-insurgent position of the Peoples' Democratic Party (PDP). The release of terrorists from jail is a central platform of the PDP, and all owing Dar to benefit from his bail broadcasts an obvious signal. But swapping terrorists for votes, as the Union Government did for the hostages, is not the worst of the N.C.'s little scandals.

Superintendent of Police Manohar Singh was not in his office when terrorists attacked the headquarters of the Special Operations Group (SOG) in Srinagar in December. Although he was clearly the target of the attack, Manohar Singh escaped. Most people put it down to luck, but the S.P. does not count himself particularly fortunate. He was away in Jammu trying desperately to find a flat for his wife and infant son, who have been displaced for over a year after their farm home came under attack from terrori sts. Although the Jammu and Kashmir Government provides accommodation for one-time terrorists, it evidently cannot find space for a decorated officer.

Not that housing is the Srinagar SOG chief's biggest problem. In January 1998, one of the units under his command picked up Abdul Rashid Ganai, an operative of the Hizbul Mujahideen. A day after his arrest, on January 23, Ganai was handed over, as mandat ed by law, to a local police station. On January 25, Ganai complained of severe pain, but died before he reached hospital. His parents complained to the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) that Ganai had been arrested on January 21, and that he had died of injuries sustained during interrogation.

Before the SHRC could get to work, interesting things happened. At the mandatory inquest proceedings carried out under Section 176 of the Code of Criminal Procedure by the Badgam District Magistrate, Ganai's parents stated that he had in fact been kidnap ped by unidentified gunmen a fortnight before his arrest. This affirmed police intelligence reports that Ganai had been picked up by the Hizbul Mujahideen faction of Shaukat Ahmed Ghazi at that time following charges that he had embezzled the organisatio n's funds. Ganai's post-mortem too suggested that burn injuries on his body "could have been old", and that his internal wounds were of a type that would manifest themselves over "a period of weeks".

The District Magistrate came to the only conclusion he could come to. It would, he recorded in the inquest, be an "injustice" to hold the SOG responsible for Ganai's death. Meanwhile, Ganai's parents withdrew the complaint they had submitted to the SHRC.

Then, a strange set of events began. In March 1999, the SHRC recommended a CBI investigation into the affair. Before passing the order, it neither asked for the inquest report nor took the normal step of asking for a report from the Director-General of P olice. The SHRC order did not explain why investigation could be carried out by the Inspector-General of Police attached to it for precisely this purpose.

Minister for Home Lone sat on the file for seven months. Then, as news of the N.C.'s electoral reverses came in, he requested the CBI to begin investigations, again without calling for the inquest report or the police version of events. Manohar Singh was left carrying the can, desperately contacting expensive High Court lawyers to prepare his eventual defence. The message went down the ranks. Although the SOG was pushed and prodded into starting winter operations, most troopers were simply not willing t o take the risk of being punished for doing their job. When terrorists invaded their headquarters, Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel retreated to defensive positions, while SOG personnel chose to wait for orders before acting.

The CBI inquiry against the SOG, and Dar's release, are just symptomatic of a larger set of problems. When Lone visited Panjipora village in October, he took time to commiserate with residents whose homes had been destroyed in the course of an encounter with terrorists. That was entirely legitimate. But the Minister did not find reason to visit the Battalion Headquarters of the Border Security Force (BSF), to meet troops who had seen six of their colleagues killed in the same operations. In fact, during a visit to Rajouri, he charged the Jammu and Kashmir Police with bringing in Sikh terrorists to harass local Muslims. A successful covert operation targeting the Ranjeet Singh Neeta faction of the Khalistan Zindabad Force had to be terminated.

SKEWED priorities in New Delhi mirror themselves in Jammu and Kashmir. Director-General of Police Gurbachan Jagat, for example, has been summoned at least twice before the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to explain slow progress in investigating the murder of Jamaat-e-Islami activists last year. Officials claim that the murders were the outcome of a feud between its leaders G.M. Bhatt and Syed Ali Shah Geelani over gaining control of the organisation, while the Jamaat claims it was subject to a campaign of extermination. Whatever the truth, New Delhi does not seem similarly concerned about investigations into the murder of 893 civilians killed and 1,153 civilians injured by terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir until December 15 this year.

The results are empirically demonstrable. Figures for the period up to December 15 show that just 3.16 terrorists were killed for every Indian security force trooper killed in 1999, down from 8.41 in 1994, 5.19 in 1995, 4.95 in 1996, and 5.80 in 1997, pe riods of supposedly soft rule.

India lost more personnel in Jammu and Kashmir, 295 of them, than it has in any previous year. On the other hand, only 1,043 terrorists were killed through the State, although they are estimated to be present in larger numbers than at any time since 1994 . That this came about despite the fact that security personnel were subjected to just 1,120 attacks in the year, against 2,116 in 1997, makes clear just how demoralised the troops are.

All of this illustrates the enormous changes that have occurred on the security landscape in Jammu and Kashmir since 1996-1997, when even top terrorist leaders despatched from Pakistan were unlikely to survive three months after they crossed the Line of Control. Part of the problem is that the NDA Government appears more concerned with its overseas image than engaging with the nuts-and-bolts realities of Pakistan's terrorist campaign. The N.C. leadership, for its part, rests secure in the knowledge that it is now judged not as a party of power, but as the Muslim face of the Hindu-communal NDA alliance. Desperate to secure what remains of its shattered credibility in Jammu and Kashmir, making peace with terrorists appears the sole option available to lo wer-level politicians.

When a massive mine explosion at the crowded Batmaloo vegetable market left at least a dozen Srinagar citizens dead early this month, not one State Minister was willing to go on television to condemn the incident. Nor did the N.C. hold a single meeting t o attack terrorists. Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, for his part, was away in London, a city in which he seems these days to spend almost as much time in as Srinagar. It takes a truly awful government to make President's Rule, or the regimes of P.V. Nar asimha Rao, H.D. Deve Gowda, and I.K. Gujral, seem like models for the kinds of administration Jammu and Kashmir should have. In the less than two years it has been in power, the NDA has succeeded in achieving just that.

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