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Print edition : Jul 15, 2005 T+T-

JKLF leader Yasin Malik's comments about Pakistan Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed's role in training Kashmiri separatists land the latter in trouble at a time when Pakistan is trying to shed its image as an abettor of terrorism.

B. MURALIDHAR REDDY in Islamabad

REVERBERATIONS of 9/11 continue to be felt across the world and it is no exaggeration to say that Pakistan tops the list of countries where they have caused the maximum impact. In the country, yesterday's friends have become today's foes and vice versa. Freedom fighters have suddenly become terrorists, and those who proudly proclaimed to be patrons of the so-called freedom fighters until the other day want the world to forget their past role.

This is somewhat the predicament of the country's Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed ever since Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) leader Yasin Malik made some `stray' comments on the "great role" that the former played for the cause of "Kashmir liberation" in the late 1980s when militancy first rocked the Kashmir Valley.

Yasin Malik, who was part of a nine-member delegation of Kashmiri leaders making their first official visit to Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) and Pakistan, is back in Srinagar after blaming a section of the media for distorting his comments on Rashid. But the denial is drowned in affirmations of the Minister's role in running training-cum-refugee camps for Kashmiri separatists under the aegis of some powerful Pakistani leaders in the 1980s and 1990s.

The controversy could not have come at a more inopportune time for the Minister. Rashid had applied for permission to travel to Srinagar, from where his family had migrated decades ago, on the Muzaffarabad-Srinagar bus on June 30. The Minister, known for his flamboyant style and high-pitch statements, was hoping that his visit to the Valley with a large media contingent would make a big splash. With India expressing concern over the reports of Rashid's role in running the camps, there is much speculation on whether or not the Sheikh will be able to make the journey.

Rashid is eager to put the controversy behind and board the Srinagar bus if not to earn a footnote in the history of the current phase of India-Pakistan rapprochement. A seasoned politician with a knack of being at the right place at the right time, Rashid is fully conscious that his failure to make it to Srinagar could be the beginning of the end of his ministerial innings.

Known as Farzand-e-Rawalpindi, or Son of Rawalpindi, the Sheikh had served as Information Minister in the Nawaz Sharif government too. He was elected to the National Assembly on the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) ticket in the October 2002 elections. Subsequently, he shifted his allegiance to the ruling PML(Q), and earned the sobriquet of `Lota' of Rawalpindi. Lota, a vessel used for ablutions, is a derogatory term used for political chameleons.

There are speculations galore on how and why things have come to such a pass for the Minister. Some even wonder if a veteran like Yasin Malik would have made such comments without a definite purpose. Malik could certainly have not been unaware of the implications of his comments, which were made on the occasion of the inauguration of a photo exhibition on `Kashmir struggle'. Besides Rashid, Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Asma Jehangir, who inaugurated the exhibition, and a horde of local and international journalists were present at the function.

Yasin Malik, who crossed the Line of Control (LoC) in the 1980s to train as a militant but subsequently became a votary of non-violent politics, took the gathering at the exhibition by surprise when he turned his attention to the Information Minister and said: "Sheikh Rashid has played a great role for Kashmir's liberation. He used to support the frontline jehadis from Kashmir, but few know of his contributions." When journalists asked the Minister for his reaction to the comments, he tersely remarked, "I have no idea about which Sheikh Rashid he [Yasin Malik] is speaking about. There are so many Sheikhs in Rawalpindi."

The matter would have ended there but for a front-page report in a local English-language newspaper, Daily Times, the next day under the heading: "Minister trained 3,500 Kashmiri militants, says Malik". The report said it was at the Information Minister's farmhouse on the outskirts of the national capital that some 3,500 Kashmiri jehadis, including Malik, received arms training. News agencies picked up the report and by evening the Indian External Affairs Ministry had put out a brief statement that it was a violation of the commitment given by Pakistan in January 2004 that it would not allow its soil to be used against India.

A panicky Minister contacted Malik and then issued a statement accusing a section of the media of distorting the JKLF leader's comments. Malik himself made it a point to contact Islamabad-based Indian correspondents with the request that his contradiction of the Pakistan daily's report be put out.

When contacted by an Indian television channel, Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir said: "Yes, according to the information I have, Sheikh Rashid's Rawalpindi farmhouse was dubbed Freedom House and used to be a hub of Kashmiri activists belonging to the JKLF. The camp was operational from 1988-90 to train JKLF cadre and Sheikh Rashid accompanied JKLF leaders, including Yasin, to the LoC several times. The camp's existence was known to high officials in Islamabad."

Worse still, Daily Times followed it up with an editorial titled "What's the big deal about Yasin Malik's admission?" It accused the Indian media and government of having seized on the remarks to launch a protest against the Minister for allegedly sponsoring "terrorist" camps for Kashmiri militants and accused the Pakistan government of fostering such sentiments at the "highest decision-making level".

The editorial said: "This is a ridiculous storm in a teacup. Everybody... knows that Pakistan has proudly supported the Kashmir cause and the freedom fighters, not terrorists. Mr. Hamid Mir, a well known columnist and current anchorman of a TV show, confirmed as much to an Indian channel two days ago when the controversy broke. Mr. Mir should know what he is talking about. He was the editor of an Urdu newspaper in Islamabad for many years that openly espoused the cause of armed jihad in Kashmir."

It added: "Much the same fact has been confirmed by a former agent of Pakistan's secret service, Khalid Khwaja, who told Adnkronos International (AKI) that the Pakistani Information Minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, established a military training camp on Fateh Jhang Road, near Rawalpindi, in the late 1980s which was disbanded in 1991 on the orders of the Nawaz Sharif government... But that was then, when jihad was a proudly preferred policy course of the Pakistani state. Today, however, the Pakistani state is busy seeking ways and means to outlaw the same jihad. And there is no doubt about its intentions."

The Pakistan People's Party (PPP) led by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto also confirmed Rashid's role. Naseerullah Babar, who was Interior Minister in the PPP government, in a statement claimed that Rashid himself had admitted to running such a camp. Subsequently, PPP spokesperson Farhatullah Babar confirmed Yasin Malik's `statement'. "In 1989, the PPP government had learnt that the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan's intelligence agency], without the government's clearance, had given to then Opposition member Sheikh Rashid hundreds of acres of land in the suburban areas of Rawalpindi. The PPP government had also learnt that this land was given to him to support the Kashmiri groups... . But, as the military was under the President, there was little the government of the day could do about it constitutionally," he said.

Babar alleged that hundreds of acres of land was given to the Sheikh for some "collateral purposes" and only 20 acres of it was used to train militants. Claiming that the "training camp story was anything more than a decoy to divert state funds to favoured political leaders to overthrow democracy", the PPP in a statement demanded an inquiry into the Sheikh's role in training militants.

Former Pakistan Army Chief Aslam Beg also claimed in an interview that when he was at the helm of the military he had received reports about the camp run by Rashid. Strangely, Rashid has not contradicted either the media reports or the statements by others.

EVEN as the Sheikh Rashid controversy rages, separatist leader Amanullah Khan, who is based in POK, has alleged that Kashmiri militants were initially trained by the ISI in the late 1980s. Amanullah Khan said the move had the blessings of Pakistan's then military ruler Zia-ul-Haq. Incidentally, Yasin Malik was a member of Khan's JKLF until they parted company in the mid-1990s. Recently, the two faction leaders agreed to join hands once again.

In a new edition of his book Continuous Struggle, which was first published in 1992, Amanullah Khan says the ISI first made contact with the JKLF in early 1987 through the organisation's senior leader, Farooq Haider. He says Haider made a deal with the ISI whereby the JKLF was to bring to POK young Kashmiris willing to fight Indian rule; they would then be given military training and arms by the ISI to start an insurgency in the Valley.

The JKLF was the first group to take up arms against Indian rule in 1988, with the aim of securing independence for Kashmir. Khan says he was not a part of the deal at the time it was made but went ahead with it because the JKLF was told that "General Zia-ul-Haq's ideology was similar to that of the JKLF. I remember thinking that Gen. Zia had said he wanted Kashmir to be a part of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), which clearly meant an independent Kashmir. So I went ahead with the deal."

According to Khan, the then chief of the ISI, General Akhtar Abdur Rehman, told the JKLF that the ISI would not interfere with its ideology. "I was told by Brigadier Farooq of the ISI that the agency would lend us unconditional support as directed by General Zia-ul-Haq," he says. "He also said the ISI would not intervene in JKLF's organisational matters."

Khan says it was also agreed that no JKLF leader "engaged at the political and diplomatic front" would accept money in cash from the ISI. It was a verbal agreement, he says.

The first batch of eight young fighters from Indian Kashmir were said to have reached POK in February 1988. They were given military training and weapons by the ISI and sent back with instructions not to start anything until they got a green signal from Pakistan, Khan writes.

Khan then says that three separatist leaders, Mohammed Afzal, Ghulam Hasan Lone and Ghulam Nabi Bhatt, were called to POK in June 1988. "After lengthy deliberations, we asked them to start the insurgency on 13 July, 1988.

"But for some reason, the insurgency could not begin before 31 July when the Amar Singh Club and the Central Post and Telegraph Office in Srinagar were bombed."

Khan says the JKLF parted ways with the ISI in early 1990 when the ISI demanded that one of its officers be allowed to attend the JKLF meetings "as an observer".

The Sheikh Rashid controversy and Khan's book are no doubt going to cause the Pakistani establishment a great deal of embarrassment even as it professes commitment to the United States' war on terrorism.