Public funds for terrorism

Print edition : July 30, 2004

AS ironies go, this one is hard to top: for the past several months, Indian taxpayers may have been subsidising the activities of the Hizbul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Toiba. Ongoing police investigations into last month's murder of Indian Railways Construction Company (IRCON) engineer Sudhir Kumar Pundir and his brother Sanjay Pundir have blown the lid off a shadowy protection racket run by terrorist groups in southern Kashmir. IRCON's subcontractors are believed to have been inflating costs to meet extortion demands, with a wink and a nod from the top bosses of the Rs.6,000-crore Jammu-Srinagar railway line project.

Police personnel carrying the body of Sudhir Kumar Pundir at Sugam on June 25.-NISSAR AHMAD

It is still unclear who murdered the Pundir brothers, but investigators now believe that they knew their kidnappers, and did not fear harm. The brothers were kidnapped on June 23, along with an IRCON subcontractor, Farooq Ahmad Kucchai, and the driver of a leased vehicle, Shabbir Ahmad. Kucchai and Ahmad were let off some hours after the kidnappers called IRCON's offices with an Rs.50,00,000 ransom demand. On the morning of June 24, it now transpires, both brothers had a good chance to escape, after a two-wheeler on which they were travelling along with a terrorist was flagged down by a patrol of the 1 Sector Rashtriya Rifles near the village of Litter. Neither brother made his plight known and the two-wheeler, according to troops present there, was waved on.

Until early in the evening, IRCON officials were still confident of stitching together a ransom deal. Cash, sources told Frontline, had been mobilised in anticipation of a final figure of around Rs.5,00,000. Then, for reasons which are still unclear, the kidnappers changed their mind. That night, the Pundir brothers were killed in the most gruesome manner possible, by having their throats slit in ritual halal fashion. The bodies were found the next afternoon, buried in a shallow trench. One possible explanation is that the two terrorists believed to be responsible for the kidnapping panicked, since the operation was not authorised by their commanders. Another is that they never intended to let the hostages live, hoping to derail a project which will make the Indian Army's logistical lines into Jammu and Kashmir more secure than they have been this past half century.

What is becoming clear, though, is that IRCON's subcontractors - who handle the enormous amount of earth-and-stone work that precedes the actual laying of track - have been buying peace for some time. On July 7, a highly placed source told Frontline, intelligence personnel monitoring telephone communications in Awantipora intercepted a call, in which the caller asked a subcontractor to pay Rs.5,00,000. When the subcontractor protested that the sum was too high, his attention was drawn in a none-too-subtle fashion to the Pundir murder. The Superintendent of Police of Awantipora, Sheikh Mehmood, refused to discuss the call, but admitted that investigations had confirmed dozens of such payments having been made over the last six months, with the cash handed over ranging from Rs.50,000 to Rs.5,00,000. In essence, IRCON permitted subcontractors to overstate the number of labourers working on their sites, and funnel the extra cash to terrorists in order to ensure the work went on as scheduled.

If such payments were common, it would help explain why the Pundir brothers thought they had no reason to fear for their lives: they would have thought a simple deal would soon be clinched. Earlier this year, Rajinder Kumar, an IRCON heavy machine operator, was kidnapped near Bijbehara. His release, police officials now believe, involved a ransom payment. Interestingly, Jammu and Kashmir Police officials have identified at least a dozen subcontractors who are close family members of important terrorists, almost all from the Hizbul Mujahideen, or had links with the organisation in the past. Kucchai, who has now been detained for further questioning on his possible links with the terrorists who murdered the Pundir brothers, himself served two years in jail on terrorism-related charges. "We think IRCON knew about these linkages", says a senior Jammu and Kashmir government official, "but thought it a useful asset to avoid trouble. Of course, when you leave a pot of honey out in a garden, sooner or later the bees will sting someone."

SUPPORTING evidence of the massive funds flow from IRCON to terrorists in recent months is also available in official data on terrorist activity - not a single instance of looting from banks, government institutions or individuals since the end of March this year. The three-month break in cash-seeking crime is the longest such gap in the history of violence in Jammu and Kashmir. By contrast, Rs.1,35,408 was looted from April to end-June last year, out of a total of Rs.26,57,440 for all of 2003. In 2002, Rs.3,55,965 was looted in the April-June period, out of a total of Rs.53,73,865. Experts believe that the declining trend in looting is the outcome of large-scale diversions from the welter of large-scale public works projects that have been coming on-line in rural Jammu and Kashmir in recent years, notably in the irrigation and power sectors. Tourism operators in several areas are also believed to be making protection money payments, as apple-orchard owners have done for at least the last decade.

Work has now resumed on the Baramulla-Qazigund railway line after a brief crisis provoked by the murders. But local staff as well as thousands of migrant workers, who have been shipped in from Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand, remain apprehensive. Recent articles in the local press, charging migrant workers with selling bootleg alcohol, have been seen as part of a campaign to legitimise further killings, and thus end work on the railway line. One key sector of the track that has already been constructed, from Jammu to Udhampur, is yet to be used for regular operations because of security concerns. Police investigators are optimistic of an early breakthrough in the case, and have identified two key Lashkar-affiliated suspects - a Pakistani national code-named Abu Sufiyan, and his ethnic-Kashmiri associate, Altaf Husain Mir. Vigilance authorities are separately investigating IRCON's dealing with a state-owned contractor, again for possible payoffs. Many officials are sympathetic to IRCON's very real concerns in the affair, but the tragic killings point to the peril posed by buying peace: that it only ends up subsidising war.

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