Moves and counter-moves

Published : Jun 22, 2002 00:00 IST

The arrest of Jamaat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani is a key move in the India-Pakistan engagement on Jammu and Kashmir.

IMAGINE a game of chess played by several participants simultaneously on an infinitely large board with an endless number of pieces and with no time limits set: the first side to lose patience loses. Jamaat-e-Islami leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani's arrest under the Prevention of Terrorism Act is seen by some people in India's policy establishment as more than just another move in the India-Pakistan engagement on Jammu and Kashmir. Many hope that the hardline leader's arrest will prove the key to a larger opening up of democratic space in the State. But claims to the contrary notwithstanding, there are few signs that Pakistan is willing to give up the game just yet. And the ugly war of attrition in the State seems set to continue.

On record, State police officials say Geelani's arrest was the result of a surveillance operation that began in May. On May 25, the police arrested Imtiaz Bazaz, who runs a Srinagar-based magazine. Bazaz, they say, admitted to receiving funds from the United Kingdom-based secessionist leader Ayub Thakur for terrorist groups active in the State. He also named Geelani as one of the major recipients of funds routed into India by the head of the Hizbul Mujahideen chief Mohammad Yusuf Shah, better known by his alias Syed Salahuddin. Earlier this year, a series of Intelligence Bureau-directed raids had succeeded in interdicting a succession of cash deliveries intended for the Hizbul Mujahideen. Over a dozen Srinagar-based businessmen had been arrested for laundering these funds through their legitimate businesses.

Action against the Geelani family followed promptly. On June 9, the Delhi Police arrested Iftikhar Geelani, one of Geelani's two sons-in-law. Iftikhar Geelani is the Resident Editor of two Pakistan-based newspapers, The Nation and The Friday Times, as well as the bureau chief of the Jammu-based Kashmir Times. The police claimed to have found classified information on Kargil war-related Indian troop movements on his computer, along with separate evidence that he had acted as a conduit for terrorist funds. Altaf Ahmad 'Fantosh', Geelani's other son-in-law, was arrested in Srinagar simultaneously. The hunt for Asiya Andrabi, the head of the far-right Dukhtaran-e-Millat, whom Bazaz named as a major recipient of funds sent by Thakur, remains a fugitive.

Geelani's imposing home on the Srinagar-Humhama Airport road, protected by 10-foot high brick walls, was raided the same morning. From his home, and those of his sons-in-law, the police recovered Rs.10.25 lakhs and US$10,000 in cash, vouchers for recently purchased jewellery and documents relating to the purchase of two homes in an upmarket Srinagar neighbourhood. Director-General of Police A.K. Suri told journalists that documents relating to bank accounts and lockers were scrutinised.

Geelani, who had filed income tax returns for the past two years, had disclosed an annual income of Rs.17,100, of which Rs.7,100, ironically enough, was the pension he received as a former member of the Legislative Assembly. Some of the allegations made officially to justify the arrests are disputed, and supporters of Bazaz have pointed out that at least some of the supposedly-confidential data found on his computer were in fact widely-published, open-source material. On Geelani's income, however, the allegations seem well-founded. The Geelani residence had 14 servants and each of them was paid Rs.2,000 a month, which alone accounts for more than his stated income," Suri Points out.

CHARGES that Geelani was a key conduit of funds for the Hizbul Mujahideen are not new: and neither are disclosures that his sons-in-law were involved in the operation. In 1997, Frontline published (issue of September 5) the contents of an I.B. note which charged that Geelani used routed hawala funds through "the services of his son-in-law, Mr. Altaf Fantosh, who runs a cloth shop in the Lal Chowk outside the Tyndale Bisco School." "Fantosh", it stated, "received money on behalf of the Hizbul Mujahideen from his hawala connections in New Delhi." A first information report registered in New Delhi by the CBI's Special Investigation Cell II alleged that Geelani had violated the Foreign Contributions Act by receiving 2 million Saudi rials and a separate donation of Rs.10 crores from the Kashmir American Council.

This early investigation of Geelani started in earnest. Classified documents obtained by Frontline show that the Special Secretary then in charge of Jammu and Kashmir Affairs, V.S. Mathur, warned on May 5, 1997 that any lack of seriousness would "affect the credibility of the government". Soon after, however, the Union government began to consider senior hawala-indicted leaders of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) as potential political interlocutors. The then Prime Minister I.K. Gujral even referred to them as "old friends". The CBI investigation dragged on desultorily - some say on purpose - and eventually collapsed before formal charges could be framed. This background lends at least some credibility to Geelani's post-arrest assertion that the charges against him were "politically motivated".

What he did not explain was just what the political motivation was. In early 2001, as the Centre began a covert dialogue with the APHC centrists grouped around Abdul Gani Lone, Geelani emerged as a major obstacle. The first hurdle came in January, after the Centre agreed to allow an APHC delegation to visit Pakistan to meet political leaders on the other side of the Line of Control. Geelani refused to moderate his anti-India polemic, and the Centre refused to grant the members of the APHC delegation passports unless he was excluded from it. In an interview to the Urdu-language magazine Chattan, Lone attacked Geelani. "On the one hand," Lone said on the APHC's demand for passports, "we ask for a legal right that stands denied to us. But in the same breath we say that 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's break with the APHC centrists in fact dated back to the early days of the Ramzan ceasefire, when he had attacked the APHC mainstream's supposed secularism, and described the movement in Jammu and Kashmir as one that was essentially religious in character. The centrists, who then outnumbered Geelani six to one on the APHC executive, responded by protesting to Jamaat-e-Islami Amir (chief) G.M. Bhat. The letter asked that the Jamaat be represented in the APHC executive by its Amir, as all other organisations were. Geelani responded by attempting to force a showdown in the Jamaat's central council, the Majlis-e-Shoura. Again, he found himself outmanoeuvred. After a meeting on March 10, the Majlis declared that although "there is no issue in which Islam does not offer appropriate and practical guidance," the Kashmir issue was "human and political because alongside the majority community, the minority was also affected."

Cornered, the hardline leader responded by mobilising extreme-Right splinter groups. Protests were organised in support of the abortive January 16, 2001 Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) suicide-squad attack on Srinagar airport. Over a month later, policemen handling protests outside the Jamia Masjid in Srinagar were warned over the public address system that there was a Lashkar squad inside, prepared to block their entry. Armed cadre of the Hizbul and LeT appeared in public regularly, often at Friday prayer gatherings. The religious Right was able to cash in on the activities of their Hindu counterparts elsewhere in the country. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader K.S. Sudershan's call in March to Indian Muslims to sever their links with Mecca, followed by an incident of desecration of the Koran in Amritsar and Patiala, led a mob in Baramulla to burn down a Ram Ghat temple in the town. At the commemoration of Maulvi Mohammad Farooq's assassination on May 21 last year, cadre affiliated to Geelani shouted down the APHC centrists, and demanded an intensification of the armed struggle.

NEW DELHI'S strategists responded to the rise of the Right with a series of quiet manoeuvres. His key aides, Masrat Alam, Mohammad Yusuf "Mujahid", Shakeel Bakshi and Qazi Ahadullah, were jailed one after the other, on a variety of public safety and terrorism-related charges. Although the Hizbul's central leadership and the LeT pitched in to help Geelani, he was left with little ground-level support.

By November 2001, the APHC chairman was again calling for a "comprehensive ceasefire" as part of a three-point programme to end the conflict. Although the Hizbul rejected the call, and Geelani described it as a betrayal of the APHC constitution, Bhat responded with a thinly veiled attack on "vested interests who wish to capitalise on the bloodshed". The split in the Hizbul earlier this year further strengthened the APHC centrists, notably Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Lone.

Lone's assassination was the Islamist Right's desperate response to the political ground slipping beneath their feet. As the centrists scurried for cover in its wake, New Delhi had to act to salvage the dialogue process. Even as plans were being drawn up to arrest Geelani, former Union Law Minister Ram Jethmalani was preparing to fly to Srinagar to meet with potentially pro-election secessionist leaders. Jethmalani's journey sought to build on months of work by earlier government interlocutors, notably former Research and Analysis Wing chief Amarjit Singh Dulat, Planning Commission Deputy-chairman K.C. Pant, and former bureaucrat Wajahat Habibullah. India hopes that Geelani's arrest will now embolden potential fence-sitters inside and outside the APHC to contest the coming Assembly elections, or at least not to obstruct their conduct.

There is, however, one imponderable: Pakistan's counter-move. Until June 7, when United States Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage flew into New Delhi, the Ministry of External Affairs maintained that it would not de-escalate along the LoC until Pakistan ended cross-border terrorism. Within the next few days, undoubtedly pushed and cajoled by the U.S., it decided that this condition was unnecessary. This despite the fact that shelling continued along the LoC, and that at least two major infiltration attempts, through Drass and the Bimbar Gali in Poonch, have been interdicted since. New Delhi's claims of the rate of infiltration having come down have been rejected emphatically by State officials, notably by Kashmir Range Inspector-General of Police K. Rajendra, who announced at a press conference that while this was true of his zone of operation, the situation in Jammu remained bad.

Unless New Delhi is able to secure a meaningful decline in violence, Geelani's arrest is unlikely to be the key that will make dialogue, not destruction, the idiom of political discourse this September. Whatever the U.S. or Pakistan may have promised, there is so far little sign that the bloody game being played out in Jammu and Kashmir is about to end.

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