The killing of Lone

Print edition : June 08, 2002

The Islamist Right guns down Abdul Gani Lone, the moderate voice in the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, threatened by his rear-guard action to begin dialogue with the Centre.

THE night before the killing of Abdul Gani Lone, a small group of terrorists arrived at Khairpora village, in Kupwara. Abdul Jabbar Bhat and Abdul Khaliq Bhat were ordered out of their home and marched to the dense Batpora forest. Both men were tortured, and then beheaded. Their killing brought the number of cadre the National Conference (N.C.) has lost to terrorists this year to 20. The People's Democratic Party (PDP) has lost one activist. In 2001, 31 N.C. activists were killed along with two from the PDP and one from the Congress(I). In 2000, there were 30 killings.

TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP

Abdul Gani Lone.

Lone's May 21 assassination has made clear that meaningful political life in Jammu and Kashmir is near-impossible as long as guns shape the terms of dialogue. For all the efforts by his colleagues in the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) to obfuscate the issue, there is no doubt about why the veteran politician was killed. Since at least 1998, Lone had been a key player in quasi-covert dialogue with the Union government. He had on several occasions condemned terrorist violence and demanded that politicians be allowed to shape the future of the State. With Assembly elections due in Jammu and Kashmir before October, it was widely believed that he would back independent candidates contesting on an anti-N.C. platform.

There is very little doubt about who killed Lone, either. Shortly after the killing, Indian intelligence picked up conversations on a Lashkar-e-Toiba frequency which made clear that three operatives, code-named Abu Hadid, Abu Hamza and Abu Rahel, carried out the execution. At least two of the group are believed to have been present at a well-attended rally on May 21 held to commemorate the assassination of religious leader Mirwaiz Mohammad Farooq by the Hizbul Mujahideen in 1990. Ironically, the rally had a large contingent of vocal supporters of the Islamist Right, who opposed the efforts by Farooq's son, Umar Farooq, and Lone, to engage the Indian government in political dialogue. The hit-squad made its way towards Lone after the rally ended, and first killed his police-assigned personal security officer.

Coming just hours before the arrival of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in Jammu, the assassination was intended to drive home to New Delhi the fragility of its peace efforts. The Centre's dialogue with Lone and Farooq had been conducted through the Prime Minister's Office. Vajpayee's key aide Brajesh Mishra, and former Research and Analysis Wing chief Amarjit Singh Dulat, have spent over two years putting together a deal intended to enable APHC centrists to participate in the coming elections. At the end of April, Lone had still seemed unprepared to contest elections because he felt that his party, the People's Conference, had little chance of coming to power. The dialogue process had, however, succeeded in dividing the APHC down the middle, and stripping Pakistan-based terrorist groups of much of their political legitimacy.

Understanding just why terrorist groups were so threatened by Lone's efforts requires engagement with the changing contours of secessionist politics in Jammu and Kashmir. In key senses, the events were initiated by the 1997 release of the supreme head of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Ghulam Mohammad Bhat. In November 1998, the Amir-e-Jamaat called for an end to what he described as "gun culture", and stated that his organisation had nothing to do with the Hizbul Mujahideen, the terrorist group that it had spawned. Bhat's second-in-command and the Jamaat-e-Islami's representative on the APHC, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, responded with outrage. The showdown with the Jamaat-e-Islami, in which its Amir prevailed, was to have profound consequences for the APHC as a whole.

By April 1999, the new trends within the APHC became visible. That month, the organisation's current head, Abdul Gani Bhat, called for a dialogue between secessionist and pro-India political groups, including the N.C. and the Congress(I). The outcome of this dialogue, he suggested, would constitute the will of the people of the State, and would then be communicated to the governments of India and Pakistan. This constituted a sharp departure from the APHC's long-standing demand for a three-way dialogue involving India, Pakistan and itself. The Kargil war delayed, but did not derail, sustained dialogue involving the APHC centrists and pro-peace elements in the Hizbul Mujahideen. These efforts were to lead to the Hizbul Mujahideen declaring a unilateral ceasefire in July 2000. The Pakistan-based command of the organisation later pulled out of the ceasefire, provoking a rebellion by local commanders. Soon afterwards, the Centre initiated its own ceasefire, hoping to keep the dialogue process going.

The funeral procession of Abdul Gani Lone in Srinagar on May 22.-RAVEENDRAN/AFP

Lone visited Pakistan in the midst of this crisis for the marriage of his elder son with the daughter of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front leader Amanullah Khan. During a meeting with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, the People's Conference leader made clear his support for the ceasefire and bilateral dialogue with India. In an interview to The Washington Post, he said that "the biggest danger now is from the extremists". The far Right, Lone said, "will make serious efforts to undermine the ceasefire". To prevent that outcome, the Centre offered the APHC centrists the opportunity to visit Pakistan to consult leaders there. The sole condition was that the team should not include Geelani. While the visit did not materialise, Geelani found himself isolated within the APHC on the issue. Lone was among his most bitter critics. "On the one hand," Lone said on the APHC's demand for passports to travel to Pakistan, "we ask for a legal right that stands denied to us. But in the same breath we say, allow us to go to Pakistan, and when we will reach there, we will tell the Mujahideen to sharpen their weapons against India. I see no logic in it."

Geelani responded to his marginalisation in the APHC executive by successfully mobilising the Islamist Right on the streets with the support of terrorist groups. Bhat's enthusiasm for dialogue dulled considerably after a near-successful attempt on his life on February 22, 2001. Lone led a stubborn rear-guard action, hoping to push the APHC to begin dialogue with the Union government's mediator, K.C. Pant. Terrorist threats, again, ensured that he would not succeed. The General Council of the APHC rejected the centrists' calls after a grenade went off during the meeting called to discuss the issue. At a function marking Mirwaiz Mohammad Farooq's death anniversary last year, armed men gathered around the rostrum shouted Bhat down. Haath mein haath do, Lashkar ko saath do (walk hand in hand with the Lashkar-e-Toiba), went the slogans, Hurriyat mein rahna hoga to Pakistan kehna hoga (all those in the APHC must support Pakistan).

TO his Credit, Lone refused to cave in. Although he and Umar Farooq were now the only committed pro-dialogue elements in the APHC executive, September 11, 2001, transformed the landscape substantially. The APHC came under intense pressure to begin a dialogue with India and prove its representative character. Most people sought to dodge the issue. Earlier this year, its executive set up an election commission of its own, and said it would hold parallel elections at an undefined stage. Lone and Farooq now seized the initiative. In mid-April, both were granted permission to travel to Sharjah to hold an extended meeting with Sardar Abdul Qayoom Khan, the head of the Kashmir Committee set up by Pervez Musharraf. The meeting was the first in several years between major political figures from both sides of the Line of Control. Pakistan's intelligence chief, Ehtaz-ul-Haq, is also believed to have been present on the sidelines of that meeting.

Lone offered little insight into what had been discussed with Khan during the April 17 meeting. He did, however, reiterate his commitment to dialogue. "We will go back and take the ideas we discussed here to our respective governments so that violence can end," he said. "If the (Indian) government is not ready to allow self-determination," Lone continued, "the alternative is that they should be ready to settle the dispute through a meaningful dialogue involving all parties concerned." This in itself was of a piece with stated APHC policy. What was significant was that Lone did not join Khan in attacking India's human rights record in Jammu and Kashmir the previous day. Even more important, in a subsequent interview he demanded that jehadi groups "leave us alone", as they were defaming the "freedom movement". Meanwhile, Geelani again came under fire from within his own party, which passed a resolution supporting the "conciliatory stance adopted by Umar Farooq and Abdul Gani Lone".

The centrists had now become too much of a nuisance for the Islamists to tolerate. The intimidation directed over the past two years at the centrists had to be made tangible. Tragically, the enterprise appears to have succeeded, at least for now. Lone's elder son, Sajjad Lone, lashed out at the Islamists after the assassination, charging Geelani, the terrorist groups and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence with having engineered the killing. Geelani was even roughed up by People's Conference workers. Within a day, after a meeting with Geelani and Bhat, Sajjad Lone had been silenced. He attributed his remarks to an "emotional outburst", and joined Bhat and Geelani in calling for an investigation into the event. The funeral procession itself was hijacked by the Islamists, who chanted pro-Pakistan slogans.

Sajjad Lone's predicament is not new. Although it is well-known who the killers of Mirwaiz Mohammad Farooq are, his son has never named the Hizbul Mujahideen as the author of the outrage, at least not in public. All major APHC members, including Geelani, function with the protection of the Indian state they revile. Their guards belong to the Jammu and Kashmir Police, a clear sign of who the politicians fear. While it is tempting to vest sainthood on Lone, the fact is that his political career was marked by symptomatic ambiguities and opportunism that haunt politics in Jammu and Kashmir. Like others in the APHC, he repeatedly stood for election under the Indian Constitution, first as a member of the N.C., and then twice held office as a Minister in Congress(I) governments. He floated the terrorist organisation, al-Barq, to protect himself from the wrath of his rivals, not out of ideological commitment. In 1993, with order restored if not law, he helped found the APHC, and largely disassociated himself from al-Barq's activities. In private, Lone often said that he was willing to accept solutions short of independence: but never spoke of this conviction before an audience.

Jammu and Kashmir clearly needs leaders who can say in public what they believe. Sadly, their chances of staying alive for long afterwards do not seem all that bright.

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