Death of a general

Published : Oct 10, 2003 00:00 IST

ASK ordinary people in Hajin how Mohammad Yusuf Parrey died, and the most extraordinary stories come tumbling out. Hundreds of terrorists dressed in police uniforms, some say, surrounded the jeep he was travelling in and fired on it with rocket launchers and grenades. A group of terrorists dressed in cricket whites, others insist, hid their weapons in kit bags, and infiltrated the match Parrey was scheduled to inaugurate. There are other stories too - of women who chased the assailants with nothing but sticks and stones, of Parrey firing back at the terrorists even as blood drained from his body.

It is almost as if no one can believe that Kashmir's most feared counter-terrorist militia leader met such an ordinary end, delivered by just two Hizbul Mujahideen terrorists with Kalashnikov rifles. But then, nothing was ordinary about Parrey, a portly folk singer and poet who enjoyed spending occasional evenings in Mumbai eating spicy Konkani seafood.

In the summer of 1994, those listening in to radio-frequency conversations in Jammu and Kashmir began coming across a decidedly cryptic conversation. "This is Bulbul," the message would almost invariably go, "ask Koel what song it will sing tonight." `Bulbul', the Urdu word for the Asian song bird, was the nickname of a middle-ranking military intelligence official working with troops of the 5 Rashtriya Rifles in Sumbal, near Bandipora. `Koel', the dark-coloured Cuckoo, was Parrey, and `song' a coded reference to ongoing anti-terrorist operations in the Bandipora belt.

Parrey was part of a large group of terrorists who, marginalised by the one-track support given by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to the Islamist Hizbul Mujahideen, threw in their lot with Indian security forces. In early 1994, Parrey, then the leader of the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen, began cooperating with the Indian Army. Soon afterwards, former National Conference (N.C.) Member of the Legislative Council Javed Ahmad Shah began a parallel initiative, backed by the Jammu and Kashmir Police's Special Operations Group in Srinagar. Liaqat Khan joined the movement shortly afterwards, operating in the southern Kashmir town of Anantnag.

By late that year, all three groups had coalesced into the feared Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen. These groups, mainly ethnic Kashmiri and intensely hostile to the Islamists, were instrumental in suppressing terrorism in the run-up to the 1996 Assembly elections. Shah, for example, was the informant for perhaps the first Army encounter with the Lashkar-e-Toiba, which claimed the life of Major Ashok Gaur of the 10 Bihar Regiment. "Without these groups," says then-Special Operations Group head Farooq Khan who played a key role in running covert operations through the Ikhwan, "it would have been very difficult for the parliamentary and Assembly elections to have been held in a peaceful atmosphere."

Yet, those very elections were to prove the Ikhwan's undoing. With the N.C. undecided about its participation and other major parties in disarray, candidates were desperately needed. The Ikhwan seemed to fit the bill. Intelligence assets overnight became political leaders. But, there was a serious problem. The absence of a clear structure of control over the Ikhwan, and the fitful financial support for its operations, meant that indiscipline and corruption were rife. On top of it all, the ruthless tactics that had won the Ikhwan the fear it needed to be an effective counter-terrorist force alienated it from the public. All Ikhwan candidates lost the Lok Sabha elections of 1996 and, in the subsequent Assembly elections, not one but Parrey could win.

Worst of all, the Ikhwan's political role brought it into conflict with the ruling N.C., which sought to shore up its own eroding popularity by lashing out at groups like Parrey's political front, the Awami League. Many Ikhwan cadre were disarmed and jailed for their alleged crimes. By 1998, the feared militia groups were more a myth than actual forces on the ground.

Javed Shah made his peace and joined the N.C., but those who held out suffered. Stripped of official cover, terrorist attacks against Ikhwan cadre gathered momentum. On June 21, 1998, for example, Parrey's nephew Manzoor Parrey, code-named Wafadar Khan, was killed in a landmine blast. An estimated 150 Ikhwan members have died in fighting since.

PARREY'S own assassination was, in some senses, an outcome of the post-1996 official hostility. In letters written in March 2001 and June 2002, the slain leader pointed out that his security categorisation entitled him to four security officers, two look-out guards, static-duty guards at his home, and two escort vehicles. Instead, he received just two security officers. His requests for a new bullet-proof car to replace the road-worn model he was earlier granted were also denied. As a result, he was travelling in a non-bullet proof jeep on the day of his assassination. Although Parrey's old bullet-proof car's main problem was that its ageing engine would not negotiate mountain roads (but he was travelling on flat terrain that day), his sense of honour would not permit him to use the battered vehicle.

The assassination of Shah in August, followed by that of Parrey, has left the remnants of the Ikhwan groups with just two major leaders. Liaqat Ali Khan, who headed the south Kashmir Ikhwan, continues to work closely with the Indian Army. Usman Majid, who once had a formidable armed presence in northern Kashmir, today represents the Bandipora Assembly segment, having won the seat against Javed Shah. Several efforts to reunite the remnants of the Ikhwan leadership, torn apart by disputes over ideology, funding and tactics, have failed. Khurshid Parrey, the assassinated leader's 26-year-old son, has now taken charge of the Awami League. Speaking to Frontline, he vowed to "lead the struggle to complete my father's unfinished mission".

Meanwhile, the soldiers of India's secret army hope that a new Army scheme to recruit them will put an end to years of official neglect and discrimination. Armed Ikhwan cadre say the State routinely delays payments that are due to those killed in action. Ghulam Rasool Parrey, Manzoor Parrey's father, says the Rs.1,20,000 compensation due to his family was released only recently, five years late. "Many of the families of our martyrs," he says, "are asked for bribes of up to Rs.20,000 to have the compensation released." Bashir Ahmad Dar, the headman of Chak Ganastan village, was killed last year by terrorists because of his former Ikhwan links. He is now being denied compensation on the grounds that he was involved in the murder of four policemen. "I don't believe he killed the policemen," says his wife Shamima Dar. "But even if he did, shouldn't his surrender and subsequent work for India condone his earlier crime?"

"We had several hundred Ikhwan members just a few years ago," says key militia member Ghulam Rasool Bhat, a one-time al-Jihad terrorist, "but poor pay and the State government's policies have forced them to leave the fight against terrorism." Bhat had to evacuate his relatives from his village near Sopore after joining the Ikhwan. Until mid-2002, he survived on an Army salary of just Rs.2,000 a month. That has now been raised to Rs.4,500 but, he says, it is still well below what he earned as a terrorist.

Unless a clear policy on Ikhwan members is put in place, the message to those who fought India's war for it will be clear: this country just does not seem to care enough about Jammu and Kashmir to look after its own warriors.

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