The rage of the doves

Print edition : February 13, 2004

The Hizbul Mujahideen is going through a crisis, the latest triggered by the killing of its second-in-command Ghulam Rasool Dar by Indian security forces.

in Srinagar

The body of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Ghulam Rasool Dar, killed in a gun battle in Srinagar on January 16.-NISSAR AHMAD

"DON'T shoot," Ghulam Rasool Dar had shouted out to photographers on August 3, 2000, "my life is in danger." It is unlikely that the Hizbul Mujahideen's overall commander in Jammu and Kashmir made the same plea to the Indian soldiers who surrounded his hideout on January 16 - but his prediction was prophetic.

That August afternoon, Dar had emerged from a meeting with India's then Union Home Secretary Kamal Pande. The Hizbul Mujahideen had just initiated a unilateral ceasefire with New Delhi, and Dar had been despatched across the Line of Control (LoC) to represent his Amir, or supreme commander, Mohammad Yusuf Shah. Shah, better known by his nom de guerre Syed Salahuddin, had become increasingly suspicious of the pro-dialogue Hizbul Mujahideen commander who initiated the ceasefire, Abdul Majid Dar. When the talks began, Majid Dar was ordered not to attend the meeting with Pande, and to send his deputy, Farooq Sheikh Mirchal, instead. Rasool Dar represented the hardliners. Soon after the talks, Shah shut down the dialogue process under pressure from Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which was nervous about the prospect of the Hizbul Mujahideen disintegrating.

From the time Rasool Dar emerged from the meeting the Hizbul Mujahideen has been in a slow process of meltdown. Majid Dar held his ground, only to be expelled from the Hizbul Mujahideen. In August 2001, the Hizbul Mujahideen organised the assassination of Mirchal, who had emerged as the key organiser among the pro-dialogue Hizbul Mujahideen faction. Not so long afterwards, in March 2003, Majid Dar himself was executed by a Hizbul Mujahideen hit squad near his home in Sopore. The assassination provoked a split within the Hizbul Mujahideen's cadre in Pakistan, but with the help of the ISI, Shah remained firmly in control. Now, it appears, the Hizbul Mujahideen's doves have had their vengeance. The rage of the doves could be of profound consequence to the ongoing dialogue process between New Delhi and the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) - and for the future course of terrorist violence in Jammu and Kashmir.

Rasool Dar, operating under the aliases Ghazi Nasiruddin, Riyaz Rasool and Zubair, was second in seniority in the Hizbul Mujahideen command, reporting only to its Amir. He was killed in a brief encounter with the 2 Rashtriya Rifles battalion at Zainakot, near Srinagar. Fayyaz Ahmad, a Hizbul Mujahideen deputy divisional commander in charge of southern Kashmir, was shot dead along with him. A resident of the south Kashmir town of Tral, Ahmad also handled finance and publicity work for the Hizbul Mujahideen.

The elimination of the Hizbul Mujahideen commander marked the climax of a long-running hunt that began soon after Rasool Dar took charge of the Hizbul Mujahideen in November 2003. The key breakthrough came when Indian intelligence began intercepting calls made on his Thuraya hand-held satellite phone. India is among the few countries in Asia with a significant satellite-signal interception capability, which is enabled by a string of listening stations run by the Research and Analysis Wing's (RAW) super-secret National Technical Intelligence Communication Centre.

While RAW's technical intelligence helped security personnel gain a general idea of where Dar was operating, not a little work remained before the jaws of the trap finally closed around the Hizbul Mujahideen commander. At 5-30 p.m. on January 15, Border Security Force (BSF) personnel succeeded in eliminating the Hizbul Mujahideen deputy commander, Mohammad Abbas Malik, at a safe house in Srinagar. Malik, a resident of Gund in Doda, had earlier served as a divisional commander in the mountain district. A series of raids now began, targeting the locations of all local telephone numbers dialled from his satellite phone. Correctly believing that Indian security forces would soon locate him, and knowing that his safe houses were now known, Dar fled Srinagar to a suburban safe house used by Ahmad. Soon after they arrived there, a source working for the 2 Rashtriya Rifles informed the battalion that two unidentified terrorists were hiding in the area.

Rasool Dar's elimination will have considerable consequences for the Hizbul Mujahideen's military operations. The organisation has lost a string of top-level commanders over the last year. In April, Indian security forces succeeded in eliminating Dar's predecessor as military commander, Ghulam Rasool Khan, who operated under the code-names Saif-ul-Islam and Engineer Zamaan. Dar's deputy, Pakistani national Saif-ul-Rahman Bajwa, was killed by the Jammu and Kashmir Police and BSF in November. Rasool Khan's killing would have given considerable satisfaction to the Hizbul Mujahideen dissidents, since he had ordered the execution of Mirchal, hoping to remove pro-dialogue elements from the key border district of Kupwara. Sources say that Rasool Khan had flatly refused to make the crossing across the LoC until Mirchal was removed from the area, fearing betrayal.

As things stand, the Hizbul Mujahideen has been hard-pressed to find a credible successor for Rasool Dar, a Jamaat-e-Islami veteran who enjoyed the personal confidence of the Hizbul Mujahideen Amir. It is yet to send a commander to run its operations in Rasool Dar's place; senior commander Abdul Ahad Bhat, is believed to have been nominated to take command. Bhat, however, had pro-dialogue sympathies in the past. On May 1, 2002, the Srinagar newspaper Greater Kashmir carried an article by Bhat which proclaimed that if "today India begins a genuine process of settlement and peace, we will not wait till tomorrow". He added that if "India takes an initiative with good intentions, she will find us ten steps ahead of her one step. We will at once give up guns and observe [a] real ceasefire." Rasool Dar himself had been reluctant to serve in the Kashmir valley, having narrowly escaped several security force operations while serving earlier, and his family had left for Pakistan on the New Delhi-Lahore bus service in 2001.

SOME within the Hizb have been acidly suggesting that Shah himself take on the high-risk assignment job vacant in the Valley, noting that their Amir himself is open to the charge of having made deals with the Indian state. Shah has five sons, not one of whom has joined the jehad in Jammu and Kashmir. One of them, Wahid Yusuf Shah, studies at the Government Medical College in Srinagar, to which he was granted an almost-unprecedented transfer from a privately run institution in Jammu under a discretionary quota then available to the Chief Minister. Shah's other sons hold private and public sector jobs.

Unsurprisingly, some within the Hizbul Mujahideen fold seem to be preparing to jump ship. On January 23, Mohammad Akbar Bhat, a former Hizbul Mujahideen divisional commander, announced his decision to join the APHC centrists. Bhat, one of the Hizbul Mujahideen team who met Pande and a key pro-dialogue commander, was subsequently expelled from the Hizbul Mujahideen along with Majid Dar. "When India and Pakistan are coming together at the negotiating table," he said, in a rebuke to Islamists opposed to the ongoing dialogue, "there is no reason for us to shy away from entering a dialogue."

Unconfirmed intelligence reports also suggest that another former Hizbul Mujahideen leader, `Master' Ahsan Dar, may have recently returned to Jammu and Kashmir. Indian intelligence assets spotted Ahsan Dar in the third week of January, at two safe houses in southern Kashmir.

Dar, too, has impeccable Hizbul Mujahideen credentials. One of the founders of the organisation, Dar was controversially released from jail on the orders of the then Minister of State for Home, Mushtaq Ahmad Lone, in early 2000. The top terrorist had been arrested seven years earlier from the home of Lone's brother. The move was widely seen as part of the National Conference's efforts to recruit elements from the Islamic Right to its ranks, in an effort to undermine the APHC. On June 30, 2000, Dar announced he was reviving the organisation he set up after leaving the Hizbul Mujahideen, the Ansar-ul-Islam.

Both Ahsan Dar and the former Hizbul Mujahideen elements grouped in the Jammu and Kashmir Solidarity Forum (JKSF) are now believed to be in contact with their one-time comrades, building support for a ceasefire. Shah, fighting against time to stall the ongoing dialogue between APHC moderates and New Delhi, has been forced into rearguard action. In recent days, the Hizbul Mujahideen, as well as its sister jehadi organisations like the Jamait-ul-Mujahideen, have held out threats to the life of APHC moderates. Shah also opposed the ongoing dtente process between India and Pakistan.

Shortly before his death, Rasool Dar is also believed to have personally met the Jamaat-e-Islami chief Syed Nazir Ahmad Kashani to demand that the organisation throw its weight behind the Islamist leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Rasool Dar's efforts to swing support for Geelani had, however, met with little success.

Kashani, a moderate who believes that the armed struggle hurts the Jamaat-e-Islami's primary missionary purpose, did not attend Dar's burial ceremony. The Jamaat-e-Islami Amir has the backing of much of the Jamaat-e-Islami's rank-and-file, who have suffered a fearsome hammering from Indian security forces because of the Hizbul Mujahideen connections - but have received little political compensation in return. If the failure to corral the Jamaat-e-Islami is indicative of a larger split within the constituency from which the Hizbul Mujahideen draws its ranks, the consequences for the terrorist organisation could be calamitous. Even Majid Dar's initiative did pose as much of a challenge to the Hizbul Mujahideen as the ongoing rebellion by moderates within the Jamaat-e-Islami. This is because Majid Dar and his chosen mediator, Fazl-ul-Haq Qureshi had their political roots in the People's League, an organisation with an ideological orientation distinct from the Jamaat-e-Islami.

Shah is also confronted with discipline issues within his organisation. Local Hizbul Mujahideen units in some areas, notably Budgam and Anantnag, are believed to have entered into profitable protection-rackets involving contractors working on the Qazigund-Baramulla railroad. Such activity, obviously, does little for organisational discipline. Although disaggregated data for Hizbul Mujahideen activities is not available, 97 terrorists were killed against just 19 Indian security personnel in December 2003, an unusually adverse ratio. At least some signs exist that this haemorrhaging of cadre, and recent command-level losses, have led some in the Hizbul Mujahideen to reconsider their future. One Kashmir-based commander, Arif Khan, sent out feelers some months ago on the possibility of surrender, and both Rasool Dar and the Hizbul Mujahideen central division commander, Abdul Rashid Pir, had in recent weeks met senior political leaders from the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP), as well as the Opposition N.C.

Little is known about the content or purpose of these meetings. One engagement, with a top PDP leader, is believed to have taken place only four days before Dar was eliminated. Dar is also believed to have met a senior N.C. leader from central Kashmir with substantial support among the Gujjar community. Little is known about the possible content of this dialogue track. While the PDP has enthusiastically backed the New Delhi-APHC dialogue, it has also been calling for the Hizbul Mujahideen to be called for negotiations. Some analysts believe that the PDP has a long-term interest in actually seeing the APHC dialogue fail, since the APHC moderates and the PDP compete for essentially the same mass constituency. If this is indeed the PDP's objective, its covert negotiations with the Hizbul Mujahideen have obvious significance: the party's electoral successes in 2001 had not a little to do with its not-so-covert alliance with local Hizbul Mujahideen elements.

Come the Lok Sabha elections, will some in the Hizbul Mujahideen be seeking a larger political role? It is far too early to say - but the signs are that the Hizbul Mujahideen has been unable to contain the crisis forced upon it by history.

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