TERROR UNABATED

Print edition : April 25, 2003

Terrorism-related violence continues to tear Jammu and Kashmir society apart, raising serious doubts about the effectiveness of Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed's `healing touch'.

in Srinagar

IN early March, the most ordinary thing happened in the tiny hamlet of Pannad, near Darhal in Rajouri district of Jammu and Kashmir. Two groups of villagers clashed over a family dispute involving property, and then proceeded to the local police station to file complaints against each other. Then, something less ordinary happened. One of the groups complained against the other to local terrorists. On March 27, a large group of terrorists walked into Pannad, and lined up Fatima Bibi and four of her relatives. As their friends and family members watched helplessly, their noses were cut off with hunting knives.

Mourning relatives with the body of Abdul Majid Dar in Sopore on March 23.-SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP

Three days later, Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was handing out government jobs to victims of terrorism in the border town of Kupwara - many with stories not very dissimilar to that in Rajouri. His `healing touch' programme, Sayeed said, was being "wrongly projected" by "vested interests". "They are enemies of the people," the Chief Minister said. "They will not be allowed to succeed. My government will continue the policy of the healing touch."

"Sayeed," promised Nemi Chand Jain alias Chandraswami, "will not face any serious difficulties in the near future." True to form, the godman was wrong. On March 23, exactly 13 days after the godman's visit to Jammu, dissident Hizbul Mujahideen commander Abdul Majid Dar drove to the new home he was building near Sopore for his sister, Rehana Dar, and mother, Shah Begum. Even the one Hizb guard who usually accompanied him was not present that day, a sign that Dar anticipated no trouble. For the past two months, intelligence officials in Pakistan had been pushing Dar to return to Pakistan. Although the organisation's top leadership was bitterly hostile to the architect of the Hizb ceasefire of 2000, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) seemed to be keen to mend fences with him. In November 2002, a bitter clash between Dar's supporters and those of another Hizb leader, Amir Mohammad Yusuf Shah, had left two persons dead and a dozen injured. Soon afterwards, 200 supporters of Dar, informed sources say, were moved from the Hairpur camp near Taxila to another location at Tarbela. Dar was now asked to return, set his group in order, and move forward to initiate a dialogue with India.

Dar, of course, had reason not to feel safe. Shah's key aide, Ghulam Rasool Khan, better known by his code names Saif-ul-Islam and `Engineer' Zamaan, had been scheduled to replace Dar after the dissident commander's 2001 expulsion from the Hizb. Khan, however, had been afraid to pass through Kupwara, a territory controlled by Farooq Mirchal, Dar's most important lieutenant. In August that year, the path for his return to India was cleared. The organisation's Baramulla district commander Shaukat Ghaznavi and Pattan battalion commander Mohammad Ali, both opponents of the Ramzan ceasefire, invited Mirchal to a meeting. He never returned to a subsequent scheduled meeting with his aides in Sopore.

The head of a well-known Srinagar news agency, which routinely releases Hizbul Mujahideen press releases, told Mirchal's family that he had been arrested by the Rashtriya Rifles' 21 battalion. Mirchal, the journalist said, could be released for the right price. The claim, sources in the family told Frontline, soon turned out to be smoke. Mirchal had in fact been executed by the Hizbul Mujahideen, leaving Dar, so to speak, without his right arm.

Nonetheless, the dissident commander was inclined to travel to Pakistan. Once there, he hoped, he would be safe. In the past, pro-dialogue figures such as Imran Rahi and Firdaus Asmi had made their opinions known on Pakistan soil, but were protected. More important, Dar believed that pressure by the United States on Pakistan to move forward with the dialogue process would ensure his safety. It is possible that he was right, and that this was precisely what provoked Shah to act on Indian soil. Dar was shot dead by unidentified men who his family believe were just one more of the many Hizb cadre who routinely arrived to meet him.

If Shah hoped to avert a full-blown split in the Hizb, he miscalculated. On March 27, some 200 Hizb cadre led by Tufail Ahmad announced the formation of a new organisation. The group marched through Muzaffarabad, shouting slogans denouncing Shah as a traitor and a murderer. Then, on April 2, Shah suffered another blow when an Intelligence Bureau-led operation succeeded in tracking down Khan and eliminating him just a few hundred metres from the Chief Minister's residence. But Dar's killing shattered the six-month lull in Jammu and Kashmir. Outrage followed the massacre, a sign that the modus vivendi between elements of the People's Democratic Party (PDP) and the Shah-affiliated Hizb has evaporated. A desperate Chief Minister even opened himself to criticism within his own party, and granted the Union Home Ministry a direct role in shaping security policy in the State. Sayeed even backed down on plans to release on parole prisoners who face minor charges.

The big questions, then, are obvious. Is the `healing touch' dead, or can it still survive? Is it responsible for the recent upsurge in violence, or is the violence a desperate reaction to the policy? And just who is responsible for what is going on in Jammu and Kashmir?

CLASSIFIED data accessed by Frontline help cut through the fog of claims and counter-claims on just what is actually going on in Jammu and Kashmir. Sayeed, for one, has gone to some length to dispel rumours that he has been soft on terrorism. On the face of it, the figures support his claims. On almost every conceivable index, Jammu and Kashmir has been a safer place during his reign than during the same period in previous years. Between November 2002, when the PDP-led coalition took office, to March 15, 2003, the numbers of terrorism-related violent incidents, attacks on security force personnel, the killing of civilians and security forces all fell dramatically from the corresponding periods of 2001-2002 and 2000-2001. The figures for 2000-2001 are particularly interesting, since Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's much-advertised Ramzan ceasefire was then in force. Sayeed has clearly been more successful than the Union government in lowering the level of violence.

But one other figure gives cause for concern - and shows how misleading a casual glimpse at the figures can be. The number of terrorists killed during Sayeed's reign has also fallen precipitously - whereas it was 797 between November 2001 and March 15, 2002, the figure for the period between November 2002 and March 15, 2003 is 462. The decline in the elimination of terrorists is far more marked than any other category of killings. The savage assault initiated after the Ramzan ceasefire actually saw the number of security force personnel killed fall in the November 2001-March 15, 2002 period by 24.7 per cent from the same period the previous year. By contrast, the fall from that time until the Sayeed period is just 21.8 per cent. The fall in civilian casualties in the Sayeed period is 10.1 per cent; it was 12.5 per cent in the previous year of heightened warfare. One index that showed a sharp increase in the post-Ramzan ceasefire period in 2001-2002 was the number of attacks on the security forces, which has fallen by 51.3 per cent under Sayeed. Since official figures record all fire engagements as constituting attacks on the security forces, even if they are initiated as part of an encounter, the figures make clear there has been a sharp reduction in the overall levels of offensive operations.

PUT simply, then, the assertion that the `healing touch' has led to a reduction in civilian and security force fatalities is flawed. In fact, the aggressive anti-terrorist operations of 2001-2002 were able to secure even sharper reductions in percentage terms. Some of these fallacies of analysis have been perpetuated by people who ought to know better, notably Chief of the Army Staff General Nirmal Vij. Speaking to journalists on March 23, he attributed the overall decline in fire contact with terrorists as an outcome of the "weakness of militants and the increase in counter-terrorist operations". Although no figures are available on the overall number of operations, the sharp reduction in attacks on security forces and killings of terrorists suggests that they have declined. Even if General Vij's assertion can be accepted at face value, his claim of terrorist weakness is absurd. In the 2001-2002 period, 4.92 terrorists were killed for every security force personnel whose life they took. That figure has now come down to 3.47, an obvious indicator of improved terrorist efficiency.

Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani and Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed at the spot of the massacre in Nadimarg.-

Sayeed could, of course, argue that he has never asked for a cutback of forces on anti-terrorist operations. At a closed-door meeting on March 29 with senior police officials in Kashmir, the Chief Minister repeatedly made that point. But, a top source told Frontline, he demanded to know from Anantnag Senior Superintendent of Police Munir Khan the reasons for the elimination of Mohammad Amin Singh, a listed terrorist. Amin Singh is the son of one of Sayeed's most trusted political confidants, Bijbehara-based Ghulam Nabi Singh. Munir Khan responded that Amin Singh had fired on a police patrol, leaving it with no option but to respond. The Chief Minister, the source said, appeared dissatisfied with the response. Officers at the meeting took his tenor to suggest that action against terrorists close to the PDP was unwelcome. This understanding may not be correct, but other recent actions of the PDP have contributed to the unease.

On March 25, the government announced that it would ask the State Human Rights Commission to investigate the cases of all 3,744 persons reported missing since 1990. Since many of these cases do not even involve allegations of kidnapping or extrajudicial execution by the security forces, the action has been interpreted as the outcome of an a priori official assumption of guilt.

PERCEPTIONS, right or wrong, do matter, and this is a fact that any politician understands. In Sayeed's six and a half months in office, police personnel at the cutting edge of counter-terrorist operations have been demoralised. The worst example came at Nadimarg, where Frontline found that Head Constable Ghulam Mohammad War and Constable Abdul Rashid were being investigated for direct complicity in the massacre (see separate story). An even worse example came at Ind, near Gool, where terrorists raided a heavily armed police picket, overrunning 56 police personnel and locally recruited special police officers. The police made no effort to resist the March 16 raid, carried out to avenge the killing of top Hizbul Mujahideen commander Iqbal Fareed. Again, four members of the picket are being investigated for having provided terrorists cover to reach the location and locking up a room containing arms and ammunition. No comparable incident has taken place since 1997, when then Director-General of Police Gurbachan Jagat started widening the counter-terrorist activities of the Jammu and Kashmir Police.

But Sayeed is not the only one with questions to answer. At least part of the problem has arisen from confused policy making in New Delhi. In January, the Union government began replacing Border Security Force (BSF) units with Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel. The move, initially restricted to just six battalions, was part of the recommendations of the 2001 Group of Ministers Report, which envisaged the CRPF setting up 200 new battalions with Rs.121 crores worth of specialised equipment by 2005. For reasons the Union government best understands, what was to be a carefully phased move turned into a near-scramble. BSF units, in the belief that they were soon to be replaced, began to wind down operations by February. The move has now, mercifully, been rescinded, but only after a good deal of damage was done. Even worse, this year's Union Budget has slashed Army expenditure on what it calls "other equipment", a euphemism for Pakistan-specific infantry gear. While funds have been made available to raise new Rashtriya Rifles battalions, these are likely to have less-than-sharp technical teeth.

Sadly, the Opposition has not questioned these moves. Union Minister of State I.D. Swami's recent assertion that BSF and Army units would now be posted to "sensitive areas" in Jammu and Kashmir should have led someone to ask him just which sensitive area in the State did not have these already. Instead, Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi came up with a polemically effective promise to provide "drastic changes in the protection of minorities in Kashmir." The fact is that Muslims, not Hindus, have been the principal victims of violence in the State year after year, and that there simply are not enough personnel to defend all vulnerable communities. The real answer is increased funding to expand and modernise police and paramilitary units, something neither the State nor Central government seems interested in doing. Congress(I) leader Ghulam Nabi Azad in turn attacked the Union government for failing to check infiltration, something no government has been successful in doing.

Worst of all for Jammu and Kashmir, some of the chickens released by the PDP and the Congress(I) last October are coming home to roost. Sayeed was made Chief Minister in a deal that allowed him unchallenged political control of the mainly Muslim Kashmir, in return for Congress(I) hegemony in the Hindu-majority Jammu. Bhim Singh's Jammu-based Panthers Party, squeezed for political space between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress(I), responded with an aggressive mobilisation on regional demands. It demanded that four of the 24 Assembly seats held vacant for residents of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) be released to the estimated 500,000 refugees who came across the border in 1947, and that nine further Assembly seats be granted to Jammu in recognition of the fact that it now outnumbers Kashmir by some 300,000 voters. The move was calculated to left both the PDP and the Congress(I) incensed. Then, after Panthers Party-sponsored Bills asking for State subject status to both PoK and West Punjab refugees were rejected, Bhim Singh walked out of the PDP-led alliance's coordination committee. The move came after Deputy Chief Minister Mangat Ram Sharma angrily advised Panthers Party MLA Balwant Singh Mankotia to "get out" of the government. Bhim Singh, in turn, described the Congress(I) as the "number one enemy of the people of Jammu", and said the region's problems were the creation "not of Kashmiri leaders, but touts of Kashmir".

Sayeed might be smiling at the pressure brought on his larger alliance partner, but the PDP has its own problems. The National Conference has started to poach aggressively on the secessionist sentiment the PDP has fed on. Party leader Mustafa Kamal recently demanded a plebiscite on Jammu and Kashmir's future, claiming that the promises made to the National Conference in 1974 had not been implemented.

A YEAR after the National Conference took power, Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah's office issued a press release heralding his achievements in office. It announced that "measures have been taken to ensure accountability of security forces and the police", and said that the government was working to bridge "the burgeoning gap between the administration and the people". The government, it noted, had "periodically reviewed the cases of detentes [detenus, sic.] and released them after proper screening." It was working for the "return of migrants to their homes and hearths with dignity and honour", and was enthusiastically perusing cases against "senior officers" who had been "amassing assets disproportionate to their known sources of income", All these efforts are key elements of government policy, now relabelled as the `healing touch.' If the `healing touch' is not to end up deepening the wounds in Jammu and Kashmir, Sayeed needs to apply his mind to why it did not work the first time around.

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