A campaign with guns

Print edition : May 07, 2004

Terror will be the real winner of the coming Lok Sabha elections in Jammu and Kashmir, irrespective of who gets elected to Parliament.

in Srinagar

The body of a civilian who was killed in an attack on an election rally in the frontier town of Uri on April 8 lying on the road, as the security forces fight the assailants.-NISSAR AHMAD

IT is not particularly threatening to look at, just an untidy hand-written scrawl running across a sheet of crumpled paper that someone pasted on to the walls of the village mosque. But in the small southern Kashmir village of Mitari, near Shopian, most people know well enough to take the note seriously: it is, after all, an election-time guide to staying alive.

The Jaish-e-Mohammad leaflet left in Mitari, typical of terrorist threats now widely visible in southern Kashmir, lays out a seven-point code of conduct for local residents. People's Democratic Party (PDF) workers are asked "not to participate in the elections, or else face the consequences". Political workers are not the only people to be governed by the Jaish-e-Mohammad's code. Truck and bus operators must respect calls for strikes, while public works contractors have been given a "last chance" to stop executing projects for Indian forces. Local residents who had applied for recruitment in the Indian Army will have to abandon their new jobs "and thus save their lives". Finally, villagers will have to switch off their lights at night if they "want to keep your transformer intact", and remove fences from around their orchards, "which create problems for the Mujahideen".

On April 8, terrorists targeted an election rally led by PDF leader Mehbooba Mufti, the daughter of Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. The attack, the first ever executed by terrorists in the frontier town of Uri, claimed 11 lives. Fifty-three people were injured, including Jammu and Kashmir Ministers Muzaffar Beigh and Ghulam Hassan Mir. The Save Kashmir Movement (SKM), a loose label used by elements of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad and al-Umar, claimed responsibility for the attack. Since the assassination of pro-dialogue Hizbul Mujahideen dissident Abdul Majid Dar last year, the SKM has claimed responsibility for at least six major attacks. Three, including the December 20 assassination of Abdul Aziz Mir, who was a Member of the Legislative Assembly, and the February killings of block-level political workers Ghulam Mohammad Dar and Ali Mohammad Bhat, have been directed at the PDP.

Since the killing of Mukhtar Ahmad Bhat of the Janata Dal(United) last month, a wave of terrorist attacks have been executed on mainstream politicians and their families. Two days before Bhat's killing, terrorists executed a grenade attack on the home of the daughter of Communist Party of India(Marxist) leader Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami, who represents Kulgam in the Assembly. A PDP activist, Ghulam Hassan, and a former MLA, also named Ghulam Hassan, were targeted on the same day. Soon after, terrorists ambushed former Jammu and Kashmir Minister and National Conference (N.C.) leader Abdul Rahim Rather and executed Ghulam Mohiuddin Dar, a Shopian contractor affiliated to the N.C. A campaign convoy led by Mehbooba Mufti was ambushed in southern Kashmir, followed, most recently, by the execution of one of her party workers, Assadullah Bhat, in Bund Numbal, a village near Mattan. No organisation claimed responsibility for most of these killings.

For politicians in Jammu and Kashmir, this is the stuff of business as usual - something factored into everyday political life. The 2002 Assembly elections, hailed across India as free and fair, cost the lives of 41 political workers in the month of September alone. In all, 99 political workers died in 2002. The last Lok Sabha elections in 1999 saw the deaths of 49 political workers; The toll during the Lok Sabha elections in 1998 was 41 and during the Assembly elections in 1996 it was 69. The numbers indicate just how violent the 2002 elections were, notwithstanding widespread claims about their fairness. Election Commission officials have been promising that people with anti-election views will not be compelled to exercise their franchise, but no one seems to have a blueprint for ensuring that those who do wish to do so can live to see the outcome. During the 2002 Assembly elections, some 250 companies of the police and paramilitaries had been pressed into service to hold the ground. Now, Jammu and Kashmir authorities will have to make do with just 6,000 additional men.

Terrorist groups have made no secret that they are sensing opportunity. On March 30, for example, the Lashkar-e-Taiba called on voters to support the election boycott campaign led by Islamist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, saying that he was "the only true leader of the Kashmiri people". The same day, an al-Umar commander code-named Khalid Javed warned people not to participate in the election process. "We have made sacrifices of one lakh people for the movement and we take it to its logical end," he noted, adding that al-Umar would escalate attacks in the coming days. Wireless control stations operating from other terrorist groups' headquarters in Pakistan have been sending out much the same message to their cadre for weeks. On February 29, for example, a Hizbul Mujahideen control station told a field unit that "the enemy is preparing for the elections, and you have to do something". Other transmissions have spoken of the need to pressure political workers, and to target campaign processions and political rallies.

PDF leader Mehbooba Mufti at an election rally at Sursyar in Badgam district of central Kashmir on April 9.-

On the ground, most mainstream political parties have responded by cutting local-level deals with terrorists. The PDP, for example, has the backing of several key Hizbul Mujahideen commanders, particularly in southern Kashmir. PDP cadre are believed to have secured the support of Mohammad Abid, the Hizbul Mujahideen's new southern division commander, its central division commander Abdul Ahad Pir, as well as the Nagbal area commander, Ashiq Shah, and Kokernag area commander, Shabbir Bahduri. Abid hails from Bijbehara, Mehbooba Mufti's political home turf. Others within the organisation's northern Kashmir hierarchy, however, are less sympathetic to the PDP, notably Bandipora area commander Bashir Ahmad Pir. The lines are not neatly drawn - the Hizbul Mujahideen is believed to have executed the ambush on Mehbooba Mufti in Seer, in alliance with the Lashkar - but they do point to the existence of a web of interests that cut across public ideological positions.

PDP leaders, of course, are not the only ones putting together deals with the more malleable elements of the Hizbul Mujahideen. A top N.C. leader from northern Kashmir is also known to have met Abdul Ahad Pir, and there is hard evidence of deals having been stitched together on the ground. After a recent assassination attempt on former Jammu and Kashmir Minister Abdul Rahim Rather, for example, Indian signals intelligence intercepted communications between a Hizbul Mujahideen operative code-named `Ghaznavi', and a field operative code-named `Muslim'. `Ghaznavi' complained bitterly that the attack was executed without his authorisation, and asserted that `Muslim' had "created a big problem". "Why did you target him when we ourselves wanted him to contest the election," `Ghaznavi' asked, according to transcripts of the conversation made available to Frontline.

No evidence exists to suggest that Rather, a well-respected politician, either asked for such support or knew of his selection as the Hizbul Mujahideen's candidate of choice. As the case of the recently-killed south Kashmir Hizbul Mujahideen commander Arif Khan illustrates, such political deals are part of a freewheeling quid pro quo. Terrorists use election time favours to pressure party workers for the grant of lucrative government contracts to their immediate family and close relatives. Several of Khan's relatives - and a number of family members of active Hizbul Mujahideen cadre - have won railway construction contracts in southern Kashmir. Although the Hizbul Mujahideen has haemorrhaged leadership over the last year, losing top commanders Ghulam Rasool Khan, Ghulam Rasool Dar, Saif-ur-Rahman Bajwa and Arif Khan, it has benefited from political patronage. Police operations against its overground apparatus of sympathisers have come to a grinding halt, as politicians often step in to demand the release of detained suspects.

All of this is part of a time-hallowed, if dishonourable, practice. Several N.C. leaders backed elements in the Hizbul Mujahideen when they were in power from 1996 to 2002, notably one-time Minister of State for Home Mushtaq Lone, who was himself eventually assassinated. In the last Assembly elections, however, the screw turned, and posters were put in several parts of southern Kashmir asking voters to oppose the N.C.

It does not take a great deal of perspicacity to understand just how profoundly this competition for favour skews politics. Both the N.C. and the PDP, who agree on little, are today building their campaign on criticism of the security forces and on demands for dialogue with terrorists. After the attack on her in Uri, Mehboob Mufti blamed almost everyone for the outrage - her coalition ally, the Congress; the Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and the Jammu and Kashmir Police - except the terrorists who actually carried it out.

Indian forces are doing what they can - six top Jaish-e-Mohammad commanders have died in April, including their overall chief for military operations, Qari Mohammad Asif, the latest in a series of high-value hits against major terrorist groups. Such military action is not, however, a substitute for a clear political voice against terror.

Grandstanding by politicians has not helped matters, either. Part of the reason for the Uri attack was the refusal of the PDP to allow thorough searches and screening of its cadre, who travelled there by bus from Srinagar and Baramulla. Beigh, for his part, has rejected official security after the Uri attack to protest the failure of the police to provide him with an bomb jamming device - equipment which cannot be provided because the Jammu and Kashmir government owns only two such pieces. Unless politicians find the courage to stand up for the process which vests them with power, terror will be the real winner of the coming Lok Sabha elections, irrespective of who gets elected to Parliament.

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