A beleaguered force

Print edition : January 30, 1999

Members of the Jammu and Kashmir Ikhwan, the counter-terrorist militia, have become targets of terrorism and political hostility and victims of official apathy.

A PET monkey guards the entrance to Prem Raj Nivas, a sprawling bungalow in old-city Anantnag, and snarls at visitors with mock aggression. However, inside the bungalow, there is nothing faux about the assault rifles hidden under warm winter pherans and peeking out from sandbagged windows. At Prem Raj Nivas, the New Year was celebrated with rocket and automatic weapons fire.

Once the stately home of a Kashmiri Pandit family, which left it in 1990 after receiving threats from terrorists, Prem Raj Nivas now houses over a dozen members of the counter-terrorist Jammu and Kashmir Ikhwan militia and their families. The Ikhwan militia was instrumental in ending the Hizbul Mujahideen's reign of terror in the south Kashmir town five years ago. However, with terrorist attacks against militia members increasing during the past year, Prem Raj Nivas has become not so much a home as a fortress. Forty-nine Ikhwan militia members were killed in 1998, largely in ambushes or during attacks on their homes. Today, members of the Ikhwan militia, who have become targets of terrorism and political hostility and victims of official apathy, are uncertain about how much longer they can hold out.

Abdul Rahman, an Ikhwan member, with his wife and daughter outside Prem Raj Nivas in Anantnag.-NISSAR AHMED

ABDUL RAHMAN, an Ikhwan member, lives in Prem Raj Nivas along with his wife Mastnaz and their infant daughter. He said that he left the Hizbul Mujahideen in 1995 because he was disgusted with the mindless violence unleashed in Jammu and Kashmir by the far-right organisation. Rahman paid the price for his decision: the Hizbul Mujahideen set fire to his home in Watpora. Rahman and his younger brother were forced to leave their six-kanal farm in Watpora and move to Anantnag. They have still not received the mandatory compensation from the Government. Rahman fought back for four years and earned a reputation as one of the best counter-terrorist soldiers. In 1995, he was instrumental in killing three Hizbul Mujahideen cadres at Kokernag; on Christmas day last year he assisted a Rashtriya Rifles operation at Watnara, in which another terrorist was killed. However, Rahman has gained nothing for his efforts. Promised jobs and rehabilitation packages have still not materialised. Even the Rs.1,500 that is supposed to be paid to the Special Police Officers (SPOs) - a category that has been created in the Jammu and Kashmir Police Department to benefit individuals who cannot be formally employed in the police force - has not been paid for four months now because of the State's cash crunch.

Mastnaz is bitter about the world she lives in. "When we married three years ago, we decided to do so believing that my husband would soon have a secure job in some government agency or would get loans to start a business. Ministers from Delhi used to come and make promises every other day. But today we have nothing. We do not even have money to celebrate Eid." "But," she added, "perhaps I should be grateful for the fact that at least we are alive." Rahman is, however, less certain. "Maybe I should have just stayed on with the Hizbul Mujahideen. I would have been dead, but my family would have been richer than it is now, and we would have been living on our land. And I wouldn't have had the welfare of a wife and a daughter to worry about."

Farooq Ahmad Magray does not have a family to worry about, but he voices similar sentiments. The one-time Harkat ul-Ansar member fought in the autumn encounter at Ahgam village last year in which 18 terrorists were killed. He said: "I could have been shot there just like the soldiers... The soldiers will get medals and promotions and become heroes, but I don't even get my SPO payment. It is a joke, except I can't bring myself to laugh about it." Losses suffered by the Ikhwan members, Magray said, have never been similarly compensated. As in the case of many Ikhwan members, Magray's family members too had to flee their village in the face of terrorist reprisals. Their house was vandalised. One brother joined the Ikhwan, while a second, who had a job, moved to a town with their parents. Magray's fourth brother, who is physically handicapped, lives alone in the village. "He was beaten up a couple of times by the Hizbul Mujahideen there," Magray said, "but most of the time he is left alone. He has to fend for himself because none of us is in a position to look after him."

Ikhwan members in Anantnag. The Ikhwan militia was instrumental in ending the Hizbul Mujahideen's reign of terror in the south Kashmir town five years ago.-NISSAR AHMED

Jammu and Kashmir Ikhwan battalion commander Jehangir Khan is candid about what official neglect of his organisation has led to. "I am not supposed to say this," he said, "but my boys take what they can get from wherever they can get. They take five rupees from push-carts and a little more from autorickshaw drivers and truck owners... It is very bad for discipline, but I cannot tell the boys not to do it until I can offer them a decent pay."

However, not all Ikhwan enterprises are innocuous. There are numerous allegations about Ikhwan members indulging in illegal timber trade and running drugs. One of the principal allegations against the Ikhwan is that it is involved in killings, appropriation of properties and extortion from businesses owned by members of the Jamaat-e-Islami, the religious organisation which sponsors the Hizbul Mujahideen.

Jehangir Khan appears to be unrepentant. "I retired from the Army and bought a truck, which I was running till 1990," he said. "I entered into a deal with the Al-Umar organisation, which protected my business even after the violence began. But in 1991 I was kidnapped by the Hizbul Mujahideen because they thought that I was an informer since I had been a soldier earlier. In 1992, they killed my son and burnt my truck. Nobody showed me any mercy or compensated me for my losses. Nobody has the right to preach to me."

Jammu and Kashmir Ikhwan battalion commander Jehangir Khan (in the foreground) heading for Gruri village in a boat.-NISSAR AHMED

Jehangir Khan's sentiments find wide acceptance. Gruri village, which was cut off from the rest of Anantnag when the bridge connecting it with the highway was burnt down by terrorists, is perhaps best described as an Ikhwan village. None of the Ikhwan members here was forced to leave his land, for they defected en masse from their respective terrorist groups in 1995 and defended Gruri. Jamaat-e-Islami members and supporters were driven out of the village. Like most Kashmir villages, this village too is in an abysmal condition. Its lanes turn to slush after the smallest downpour, there is no running water, and no electricity flows through its supply lines.

If the Ikhwan is making money, there is very little evidence of it in the village. The 30-odd Ikhwan members in Gruri rely on the local unit of the Rashtriya Rifles for hand-outs of rice and pulses. Like militia members elsewhere, the group in Gruri has been severely hit by the non-payment of SPO dues. "You can't live on rice and dal," Munir Khan, the local Ikhwan commander, said. "You might say that we have to provide for our own kababs." Some money does come in the form of rewards received after successful anti-terrorist operations or occasional Central intelligence fund transfers. However, Ikhwan members say that these are no substitute for a secure rehabilitation programme. Much of the reward money is ploughed back into contingency funds to provide for the families of members who have been killed, since state compensation is invariably late and, if the Ikhwan is to be believed, at times does not come at all.

Gruri can be reached only by boat now; the bridge, which is being rebuilt, is guarded by Ikhwan cadres from a sandbag bunker since the threat from terrorists is ever-present. (In the first week of January, two foreign mercenaries and two Kashmir-based terrorists were shot dead at the nearby Nowbugh village.) Terrorists mount sporadic attacks on the Ikhwan bunkers that have been built in homes situated at vantage points in the village. Because of the ever-present threat, Ikhwan members are unable to cultivate their land even though they have managed to hang on to it. Munir Khan said: "How can I till my field with ten guards standing around me? We created the Ikhwan to bring peace. But there is no sign of peace yet, and I don't think there will be any soon."

IKHWAN members are angry about the political hostility that is directed at them. Congress(I) Member of Parliament and former Union Home Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and his daughter and Bijbehara MLA Mehbooba Sayeed are central targets of their ire. Both have sought to consolidate anti-National Conference (N.C.) sentiment with unconcealed overtures to the Jamaat-e-Islami, attacking militia groups in particular for "terrorising" the organisation. Three months ago, when Rashtriya Rifles jawans surrounded a group of terrorists at Shalu Galu village, the terrorists offered to surrender if Mehbooba Sayeed came in person and guaranteed their security. This provoked more than a little bitterness among the Army and the Ikhwan.

However, the real reason for the political hostility towards the Ikhwan go deeper. For one, the N.C. itself has sought to disassociate itself from the militia groups, whose anti-terrorist work and alleged forced extortion invariably bring them into conflict with ordinary people. "We are a convenient punching bag," said the Ikhwan's overall commander, Liaqat Khan. "We can be blamed for everything that goes wrong so that the Government doesn't have to take responsibility for anything." Moreover, the Ikhwan earned the N.C.'s wrath by fielding its own candidates against the ruling party in all the elections since the crucial 1996 Lok Sabha elections.

There has been a lack of official alacrity in honouring commitments made to groups that have been instrumental in decisively shifting the balance of power in the Kashmir region. In all fairness, the issues are complicated. Government officials point out that it is not just the Ikhwan and other militia groups that do not receive compensation on time. Bureaucratic incompetence and the State's long-standing problem of cash crunch mean that there is little money to be handed out in the first place. Besides, the State Police Department, which was supposed to induct surrendered terrorists into its ranks, has refused to do so, fearing indiscipline. Moreover, few Ikhwan members want jobs in Central agencies such as the Central Reserve Police Force since such jobs are transferable; they do not want their families left behind, unprotected.

Ikhwan members keep watch from a bunker in Gruri.-NISSAR AHMED

Solutions have to be found, but few people appear to be serious about looking for them. One plausible reason for this inertia is the fact that despite polemical threats, militia members understand that they have no option but to continue living as they are. Jehangir Khan said: "We cannot return to the terrorist groups because they will slaughter us. And we cannot run away since we do not have the money to do so." Many Ikhwan leaders, including the high-profile Mohammad Yusuf 'Kuka' Parrey, expected the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition Government to bring about changes, only to discover the bitter reality after several rounds of talks. Others such as MLC Javed Shah, who backed the N.C., have similar views. "No one gives a damn about us," he said. "All the promises made to us were just so much hot air."

"He is just like us," Rahman said of the pet monkey. "He guards people, or at least he thinks he is doing so, and he gets a few scraps of food for his efforts. One day, he will grow old and die and we will get another monkey and no one will remember him."

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