Terror in twilight

Print edition : September 08, 2006

Is the Hizbul Mujahideen preparing to come to the negotiating table?

BY PRAVEEN SWAMI in Srinagar

SYED SALAHUDDIN, CHIEF of the Hizbul Mujahideen, addresses a gathering at a mosque in Multan, Pakistan, on August 11.-

MOHAMMAD Yusuf Shah's sons make a perfect advertisement for just what the massive expansion of education and government employment in the decades after employment has meant for Jammu and Kashmir's rural elites.

His oldest son, Shahid Yusuf, 35, works as a teacher, while Javed Yusuf, 30, is an agricultural technologist, who trained at the prestigious Sher-i-Kashmir University of Agricultural Science and Technology. Shah's third son Shakeel Yusuf, 26, works as a medical assistant at Srinagar's Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences. Wahid Yusuf, 23, studies in Sri Maharaja Hari Singh Government Medical College, after the family's affluent contacts helped him obtain a seat through a quota controlled by the Jammu and Kashmir Governor. Momin Yusuf, 19, the youngest of Shah's sons, studies engineering in the town of Pattan. Shah himself lives in a palatial urban home, far from the family's orchard holdings in central Kashmir, and drives to work each day in a Toyota Land Cruiser.

The perfect middle-class fantasy? Not quite. From his home in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Shah commands the Hizb, the numerically strongest terrorist group in Jammu and Kashmir. A spate of recent media pronouncements, though, have fuelled speculation that the man the world knows by his nom de guerre, Syed Salahuddin, might be preparing the ground for a political future.

On August 17, the Hizbul Mujahideen's amir-i-jihad, or chief commander, told the Srinagar-based Kashmir News Service that the organisation was willing to initiate a dialogue with New Delhi even as the conflict continued, mirroring "experiments in Afghanistan and Vietnam".

A ceasefire, he added, could come about if India brought troop levels "in Jammu and Kashmir to the 1989 position," adding that "it should release detainees, it should stop all militarily operations, it should acknowledge before the world community that there are three parties to the dispute." Two days later, Shah repeated this formulation word-for-word to The Indian Express.

In 1987, two years before the long jehad began in Jammu and Kashmir, Shah contested the election on behalf of the Muslim United Front (MUF) - a formation which marked the political coming-of-age of an alliance between the rural elite and the bazaar, or petty-bourgeois trader class. These were classes that had long founded their social legitimacy on the high traditions of Islam, as articulated by the Jamaat-e-Islami and Ahl-e-Hadith. Jammu and Kashmir's dramatic economic growth in the post-Independence period had brought substantial gains for this class, but political power remained firmly in the hands of the peasant-based National Conference.

HIZBUL MUJAHIDEEN CENTRAL division commander Abdul Rashid Pir, who was killed in May 2004.-

Figures like the ageing Islamist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who the Hizb's website acknowledges to be its political leader, have defended the MUF's traditions through the long jehad. Yet, two decades of conflict have claimed the Islamist political networks that politicians like Geelani had built up over decades.

Despite the abiding power of the jehadi terror organisations, Islamists have been unable to mount a coherent ideological challenge to the Indian state. Is Shah now preparing to take up the political battle he abandoned in 1990, when he joined the Hizb?

Mohammad Ashraf Parrey was just 16-years-old when he joined the Hizb. In the summer of 1995, just weeks after he was recruited, Parrey made his way across the Line of Control (LoC) to the Hizb's base at Jungle Mangal, in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. For the next several months, he trained at facilities dotted around PoK and the Northern Areas. His mentors included Hamid Tantrey, who, using the code-name `Commander Masood', was among the Hizb's best-known operatives.

Like hundreds of other men who crossed the LoC, though, Parrey had no intention of ever returning home. "Life was peaceful there," says the Hizb's district commander for Pulwama, who was arrested in mid-August. "We did not get much money, just Rs.300 a month for expenses," he recalls, "but it was great waking up without having to worry that this day was to be your last." His peers seemed to agree: some married, set up homes and ran businesses in and around Muzaffarabad. Parrey himself joined ideological and religious study classes, faked ailments and, on one occasion, hid out at a friend's tea shop, to avoid making the journey back to serve with a combat unit in Jammu and Kashmir.

In 2000, a year after the Kargil war, Parrey ran out of excuses. The Hizb in south Kashmir had split down the middle, after a pro-dialogue faction within the terror group began a short-lived dialogue with the Government of India, and then revolted against their amir-i-jihad when he called off a brief ceasefire. Shabbir Bhaduri, the Hizb's pro-Shah division commander in south Kashmir, was in desperate need of cadre, and Parrey was sent across the LoC with dozens of other long-term residents of the Jungle Mangal camp. Once in Srinagar, though, he promptly married. With the aid of a Rs.2,50,000-loan from the organisation, Parrey purchased a house. Although he rose to head a district command, he rarely participated in armed operations, choosing instead to use his home in Srinagar as a base to funnel funds to foot-soldiers fighting on the ground - skimming a percentage off the top in return for his services.

Supporters of Ghulam Rasool Dar, chief operation commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, carry his body in the funeral procession at Gotapora in Srinagar on January 17, 2004.-RAFIQ MAQBOOL/AP

Hizb cadre like Parrey, on both sides of the LoC, are amongst the strongest advocates of participation in a dialogue process. "We all understand that there is no point to this jehad," he says, "twenty years of fighting have not liberated an inch of Jammu and Kashmir." Across the LoC , an investigation by the Karachi-based Herald magazine found a mood of "lethargy and disorientation" in jehadi training camps, in the wake of funding cut-backs by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). A generation of Hizbul Mujahideen operatives who founded the organisation have either died in combat or served time in prison - and those who remain are now in their 40s and 50s, with little inclination for active field service.

But not all in the Hizb's field units share this perception, particularly the generation of young men who are now acquiring command of battalion and district-level units. Few of this new generation of leaders, who emerged at a time when the Islamist networks that gave birth to the Hizb were in ruins, has strong ideological convictions. Several south Kashmir Hizb commanders, such as Panzath-based Riyaz Ahmad Deva, are known to have large interests in contracts for public works. Deva, local contractors claim, acquires contracts through relatives, ensuring that potential rivals are warned off putting in competing bids for projects. Others, like Laroo-based Fayyaz Ahmad Naikoo and Batapora-based Sajjad Ahmad `Tahir', target contractors and businessmen for extortion. The massacre of Nepali migrant workers recently is thought to have been driven by Ahmad's desire to coerce contractors dependent on outside labourers into making payments. In a recent interview, Shah acknowledged the problem, accepting that "some criminals have managed to infiltrate the ranks of the Mujahideen".

It is not hard to see just why many of the Hizb's cadre, most of whom joined the organisation in their teens, find the idea of peace unattractive. Diaries recovered from Farooq Ahmad Bhat, the Hizb's commander for the district of Kulgam, show that 280 residents of Anantnag and Kulgam, Bhat's areas of operation, were making graded payments of Rs.11,000 or Rs.4,800 at regular intervals, to his group. Dozens of others had made large one-time payments of several hundred thousand rupees. Bhat, his diaries record, succeeded in raising an estimated Rs.595,000 between December 12, 2005, and May 17, 2006 - no small amount given that the Hizb's active cadre strength in Kulgam was estimated at under 50 men. In addition, a staggering Rs.38,61,550 was distributed to the families of 290 Hizb terrorists killed in action, although it is unclear from the documents if these funds were also raised locally.

A ceasefire, or even real progress towards a dialogue, would bring enormous pressure to bear on these extortion operations. Young Hizb cadre, who have little education and few prospects, would gain little from a peace deal - and more likely than not, continue to operate in defiance of their commanders' calls. At least part of its cadre could well defect to organisations such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has made clear its disdain for movement towards dialogue. In an August 18 press release, issued just a day after Shah's dialogue offer, the Lashkar insisted that "the day is not too far when India would have to vacate Kashmir like Israel withdrew from Lebanon". During an abortive ceasefire between Hizb elements and the Indian government in 2000-01, civilian fatalities across Jammu and Kashmir rose spectacularly, as the Lashkar demonstrated its ability to sabotage any movement towards peace.

Pakistan could, of course, compel groups like the Lashkar to back away, but its military-dominated establishment has so far demonstrated neither the capability nor inclination to do so - all the more so when the Hizb itself is a house divided.

Slain Hizbul Mujahideen operation chief commander Gulam Hassan Khan. The death of these field operatives was a major setback for Hizbul.-NISSAR AHMAD

Despite the highest levels of infiltration since 2001-2002, a bruising power struggle between the Hizb's two top commanders in Jammu and Kashmir has ensured that the organisation has been unable to capitalise on the inflow of cadre. Mohammad Yunus, who, using the twin aliases Ghazi Misbahuddin and Shahnawaz, has overall charge of the terror group's operation, has found himself in frontal confrontation with the head of its numerically strongest component, south Kashmir division commander, Mohammad Ashraf Shah. Questions of politics, power and hard cash all drive a feud, which holds out instructive insights into the processes that could emerge from a Hizb decision to talk peace.

Yunus, a one-time resident of the small south Kashmir village of Arwani, was despatched across the LoC in 2004, after the Hizb lost a series of senior chief operations commanders. His predecessor, Abdul Rashid Pir, had been shot dead in May 2004, not six months after the loss of the earlier chief operations commander, Ghulam Rasool Dar. Earlier, in March 2003, Indian forces had eliminated Dar's predecessor, Ghulam Hassan Khan, who operated under the code-name `Engineer Zamaan'.

Put together, these rapid losses had three major consequences for the Hizb. First, its Pakistan-based leadership ran out of field commanders who it could depend on to resist pressures to engage in a dialogue with India. Leaders like Khan had helped beat off the influence of pro-dialogue leaders like Abdul Majid Dar, the author of the abortive dialogue with New Delhi in 2001. By 2004, however, Shah was running out of trusted lieutenants. Second, the Hizb's efforts to build political space for itself in Jammu and Kashmir through the medium of the People's Democratic Party (PDP) came to a grinding halt. Although top PDP leaders and the Hizb's field command had held several covert meetings, it became clear that Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed simply could not protect the terror group's leadership from offensive security operations. Finally, Hizb amir-i-jihad Shah himself came under pressure from dissidents to return to India and fight, rather than sending subordinates to their death - a prospect he found less than attractive.

Shah now turned Yunus to rebuild the Hizb in Jammu and Kashmir. Both men shared a long-standing personal relationship. Yunus had chauffeured the amir-i-jihad for several years, and played a key role in the administration of the Hizb's Jungle Mangal camp near Muzaffarabad. The terrorist had, moreover, demonstrated energy and resolve in opening new infiltration routes through Rajouri and Poonch across the Pir Panjal into southern Kashmir during 1995-1996. Most important of all, though, Yunus came from a family with an impeccable record of service to the Jammu and Kashmir Jamaat-e-Islami - the political organisation which gave birth to the Hizb, and with whose support Shah had unsuccessfully contested in the 1987 Assembly Elections.

But the decision to hand over command of the terror group to Yunus incensed Mohammad Ashraf Shah - a veteran of the jehad in Jammu and Kashmir who has operated for years using the alias `Sohail Faisal'. Division commander Shah had trained Yunus in Pakistan when the new chief operations commander was a fresh recruit; much of the infrastructure used by the organisation in Rajouri and Poonch, moreover, had been built up on the division commander's watch. As Shah's supporter saw it, his sole liability was that he did not have a strong personal relationship with the amir-i-jihad - and that his parents, unlike the Jamaat-e-Islami-linked family of the new chief operations commander, had a Congress background.

Over the past two years, the feud has deepened. Shah has complained that his division is being starved of funds and cadre, even as the less-effective central and northern divisions of the Hizb receive all they ask for. As the Hizb's southern division found itself at the receiving end of an extraordinary Jammu and Kashmir Police assault over the last three months, losing over a dozen key district and battalion-level commanders in quick succession, Shah's bitterness deepened. In turn, Yunus was dismissive of the southern division commander, who he saw as an administrator rather than a hands-on operative. The two men are believed to have clashed over appointments and actions to discipline errant cadre on at least three recent occasions, and engaged in several feuds over the allocation of resources.

With its two most powerful figures in Jammu and Kashmir locked in a power struggle, other faultlines have also opened up in the Hizb. Nazir Ahmad Dar, who operates under the code-name Jehangir Khaliq and controls the northern division, is suspected by some within the Hizb of being an Intelligence Bureau mole - an allegation his cadre have angrily refuted, but continues to do the rounds amongst Islamist circles in Jammu and Kashmir.

This much is clear: should the Hizb in fact come to the table, just who will have the right to speak for it will be energetically contested from within the ranks of the organisation itself. Should powerful division and district-level figures feel the amir-i-jihad could compromise their political and material interests, a full-blown split is not inconceivable.

MILITANTS FROM POK, including Hizbul members, being presented before the media at Baramulla on July 31 when they surrendered to the Army.-NISSAR AHMAD

Mohammad Yusuf Shah's appraisals of these risks are likely to be weighed against the likely payoff of a decision to come to the table. In his August 17 interview, Shah explicitly referred to the prospect of an election under the auspices of the United Nations or an independent judicial commission - his first acknowledgment that the organisation was considering political options. As the idea evolves, the Hizb's amir-i-jihad will, most likely, turn to the lessons of the 1987 elections to see what capital could be harvested from a dialogue process - a process which will without dispute involve a democratic test of the actual influence of Islamist forces in Jammu and Kashmir.

Going into the 1987 elections, the Kashmir-based opposition to the National Conference-Congress alliance coalesced into the MUF, a broad coalition of Islamist parties, notably the Jamaat-e-Islami, Qazi Nissar's Ummat-e-Islami, and Maulvi Abbas Ansari's Shia formation, the Anjuman-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen.

Most of the organisation's constituents were linked to the Jamaat-e-Islami, which also won the right to nominate the bulk of the candidates who fought under the MUF banner. MUF's constitution specified that it would "not involve itself in any non-Muslim political activity", a position that ruled out alliances with parties of national or even cross-regional reach.

MUF, like protestors now agitating against the unfolding sex scandal in Jammu and Kashmir, represented itself as an agent of the defence of Islamic religious practices and culture. At a March 4, 1987, rally in Srinagar, MUF candidates, clad in the white robes of the Muslim pious, declared variously that Islam could not survive under the authority of a secular state and that former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah was an agent of Hindu imperialism. For the Jamaat-e-Islami leaders, this platform was not new: the organisation had long argued that faith made imperative the Nizam-e-Mustafa, the state as Prophet Mohammad had envisaged it. In a broader sense, the Jamaat-e-Islami saw its politics as emerging from the ideological belief, as the scholar Mohammad Ishaq Khan has suggested, that "Kashmiri Muslims need to be converted afresh for accommodating Islamic beliefs in the local framework."

A bitter contest followed, leading to an election marred by large-scale rigging. Denied power through the ballot box, both scholars and politicians have argued, Islamists in Jammu and Kashmir turned to the Kalashnikov. Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, the former head of the Jamaat-e-Islami, argued in November 1998, the course of events in Jammu and Kashmir would have been "very different" had the elections been fair. Yet, scholars have noted that the MUF was unlikely to have won even a fair election. Delhi University's Navnita Chadha-Behera, for example, has asserted that in "a fair election, the MUF would have won 10-20 seats at best, and it would not have been able to dislodge Farooq Abdullah." Victoria Schofield, for her part, records that MUF itself had expected to win only "ten out of the forty-four seats they had contested."

FORMER CHIEF MINISTER Mufti Mohammad Sayeed.-NISSAR AHMAD

Simple arithmetic supports these scholarly propositions. Vote-rigging relies on appropriating control of relatively small numbers of polling stations, thus denying opponents votes from key pockets of support. Even if 10 per cent of the vote is assumed to have been rigged - and can therefore be added to MUF's vote, and debited from its principal rival in each seat - the MUF would still have fallen well short of a majority of seats in the Kashmir Valley. Moreover, the MUF had no presence in the provinces of Ladakh and Jammu. As such even a victory in the Kashmir Valley would have left it short of a majority in the State Assembly. Massive election fraud might well have demonstrated to Islamists like Shah - and his young polling agent, Yasin Malik, who later headed the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) - that the system would allow them no space. Yet, it would also have taught them the limits of democratic expansion for Islamist forces in Jammu and Kashmir.

If the Hizb does decide to seek a political role for itself in Jammu and Kashmir, then, it would also have to prepare itself for the prospect of sharing power - perhaps with parties hostile to its Islamist agenda. Moreover, Jammu and Kashmir politics today is far more competitive than in 1987. PDP leaders have succeeded in eating into segments of the Islamist constituency in its south Kashmir heartlands, and part of the Jamaat-e-Islami itself has sought to distance itself from the Hizb. As important, the Mirwaiz Umar Farooq faction of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) is bracing itself for competition with the Hizb and Geelani. The Srinagar cleric's recent polemic has matched Geelani's in its hawkish character, and the rebirth of an al-Umar Mujahideen-Jaish-e-Mohammad alliance in the city suggests that his APHC grouping is seeking an armed capability to take on the Hizb should the need arise.

A wide range of politicians have called upon New Delhi to begin a dialogue with the Hizb in a third country, noting that a precedent exists in the ongoing talks with Naga secessionist organisations. Yet, there are significant differences. National Socialist Council of Nagaland factions, for one, were able to deliver an orderly ceasefire, with their combatants retreating to predetermined camps. It is far from clear if the Hizb can bring about an orderly ceasefire, and impose its will on other Islamist terror groups. Nor was the conflict in Nagaland enmeshed with the territorial ambitions of a nation state, as Jammu and Kashmir is with Pakistan. Failed peace processes, it is important to note, come with costs.

Still, the fact that such a discussion is taking place at all demonstrates that history is moving ahead in Jammu and Kashmir. Whether Shah's offer turns out to be a new dawn, or just the last lingering rays of the sunset of two decades of terror, will become apparent in the not-too-distant future.

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