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A winter round

Print edition : Nov 15, 1997

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The ability of the terrorist groups in Kashmir to hold ground militarily has been curtailed, but they seek to assert their hold over civil society through the slaughter of grassroots-level political workers.

PRAVEEN SWAMI

THE harsh Kashmir winter has begun. As snow blankets the passes and the Valley braces for biting cold, the State Government has moved south to the winter capital of Jammu. The migration of the durbar, an awesome spectacle that involves the movement of millions of files and thousands of government officials, has a certain ritual significance. Marking as it does the end of the National Conference (N.C.) Government's first six months in Srinagar after the 1996 elections, this winter's durbar move is a time for introspection. If Farooq Abdullah and his party can congratulate themselves for having restored at least a semblance of democratic government in the troubled State, the next six months in Jammu will offer them a chance to contemplate the failures as well (Frontline, November 14). Such reflection will be vital, for the secessionist Hurriyat Conference and terrorist groups will also use the time to invent strategies to revive their eroding power in the Valley.

Kashmir's terrorist groups served notice of their intention on October 31, the day the State Secretariat formally closed in Srinagar. An RDX-based bomb placed in a car went off in the parking lot of the Regal Chowk area that evening, killing three people and injuring 20. The dead included two Army personnel, including an officer, and the Station House Officer of the Kothi Bagh police station, Mushtaq Ahmad. The security services personnel who were shopping in the area reached the car after one of the components of the bomb loaded in it sent up a plume of smoke shortly before exploding. A second 20-kg bomb placed in the petrol tank failed to explode. The car, which bore a New Delhi licence plate, was parked in the area clearly with the intention to inflict enormous civilian casualties in Srinagar's busiest shopping district. This showed a marked difference in emphasis from October 1996, when a car bomb was used to target the residents of the legislators' hostel in Srinagar.

Another bomb-laden car was located the next morning parked near the Accountant-General's office in the city. This happened during searches carried out in the wake of the previous day's explosion, and intelligence warnings that four vehicles were purchased in New Delhi by the same people who had purchased the car involved in the Regal Chowk blast. As in the case of the first car, the vehicle near the A-G's office had an RDX cache welded into a false compartment between the mudguard and the tyre, and a larger secondary cache in the fuel tank. Timed to explode at midnight, its purpose may have been more to spread fear than to inflict casualties.

The searches that led to the controlled destruction of this device, however, could not prevent a bomb attack at Karan Nagar, which critically injured Azi Begum, a sweeper, and wounded her husband, Abdul Khaliq, as well as three men of the Border Security Force (BSF). Police searches averted a similar tragedy on November 2, after an improvised explosive device planted in a busy street in Fateh Kadal area was identified.

The offensive was notable for its choice of targets. Terrorist groups' inability to hold ground and effectively engage the security forces meant that their ability to put civil society at their mercy had been sharply eroded over the last six months. Five top commanders of the Tehriq-ul Mujahideen, which claimed responsibility for the car bombs, were arrested by the Special Operations Group (SOG) of the Jammu and Kashmir Police days before the explosions. They included Ghulam Qadir Wani, its seniormost leader who was the amir-e-ala (supreme commander) of the organisation from 1990 to 1994. He had again taken over the organisation in March 1997 after the Tehriq lost its supremo, Abdul Rehman Moulvi, in a joint operation by the SOG and the Intelligence Bureau. Intelligence officials believe that the Tehriq's claims are fraudulent, the vehicles having been purchased well before the arrest of its leaders. Whoever carried out the attack, however, was clearly responding to the decimation of the leadership of the groups over the past months.

If the ability of the terrorist groups to hold ground militarily has been curtailed, how then might they assert their hold over civil society? The answer lies in the largely unreported but alarmingly regular slaughter of grassroots-level political workers. Official data in the possession of Frontline show that since the Farooq Abdullah Government came to power, there have been 39 major attacks directed at specific political activists in the Valley. Seven of these attacks were on recognised political figures. These include the bombing of Panthers Party worker Ramzan Bangi's quarters at the legislators' hostel in June, two attacks on Minister of State for Home Ali Mohammad Sagar, one on his Cabinet colleague Iftekhar Ansari, firing at Member of the Legislative Council Javed Shah, a grenade attack on Communist Party of India(Marxist) legislator Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami, and a similar assault on the Congress(I)'s Taj Mohiuddin. None of these attacks on protected persons claimed any lives, but they served to underline the vulnerability of public figures.

At the grassroots level, the toll is high. Sixteen village and block level workers of the N.C. have been eliminated by terrorists. Two persons belonging to the Janata Dal and three belonging to the Congress(I) were killed too. Some like Hamidah of Badgam, who was killed in March, or Showkat Ali Sofi of Soura, who was killed in August, were killed because they were children of local N.C. workers. A recent killing was that of 35-year-old CPI(M) worker Abdul Hamid Bhatt, killed by suspected Hizb-ul Mujahideen terrorists in Kulgam, the party's first seat in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly. Affectionately known as 'Gabbar' after the character in the 1970s Hindi film Sholay, Bhatt leaves behind three children, the oldest of whom is eight years old. He had led an underground life for many years, rarely staying in the same place for two successive days. The CPI(M) worker's father, Haji Ahmad Bhatt, was shot through the cheek at point blank range in 1994 for having shaken Tarigami's hand during Tarigami's visit to the constituency with the then Governor, M.A. Zaki. Others who had greeted Tarigami faced beatings, public humiliation and cash fines.

Democracy, argue those who support the conduct of Assembly elections in 1996, is the natural enemy of ideological reaction and religious revanchism. Yet, the proposition, reduced to crude prophecy, becomes a parody of itself. The end of terror may in fact prove a precondition for the restoration of the practices and processes that constitute a democratic civil society. As the recent arrest of eight mercenaries in Kacchama village showed, a growing number of Afghan war veterans are being recruited to fight in the Valley. Firing continues with alarming regularity at the Poonch border. Since May, when a confidential report by the Shiekhupura Deputy Commissioner to then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on the activities of Pakistan's religious Right was reported in the British press, the existence of 38 terrorist training camps in Pakistan has been public knowledge.

Next spring, the battle in the Valley will be joined again. What shape that struggle may take will depend on the Jammu durbar being aware through the winter that it must return to Srinagar next spring.

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