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From terror to politics

Print edition : Feb 16, 2002 T+T-

Usman Majid, once a key member of the Jammu and Kashmir Students' Liberation Front, talks of his experiences with the ISI and his relationship with Tiger Memon.

This coming autumn, Usman Majid plans to stand for election as part of a coalition of political figures that have emerged from the powerful pro-India militia groups that almost crushed terrorism in the Kashmir Valley in 1995-1996. The principal focus of his campaign will be on the terrible damage that the terrorist groups have caused to the ordinary people of the State over the last decade. A decade ago he was a top member of one of those terrorist groups.

In his extraordinary story, told to Praveen Swami, Majid recounts his life as a key member of the Jammu and Kashmir Students' Liberation Front (also known as the Students' Liberation Front, SLF), which went on to forge alliances with Ibrahim Abdul Razzak Memon, one of the main suspects in the Mumbai serial bombing in March 1993. Majid describes his personal relationship with Memon, and the Inter Services Intelligence's (ISI) use of the underworld figure to expand the theatre of terrorist activity outside Jammu and Kashmir to the rest of the country.

NO one was more upset than I was when I heard of the serial bombing in Mumbai. Months before I left for Pakistan, I had told senior officials in Srinagar that something terrible was about to happen. There were plans to bomb eight cities. Men had been trained, and explosives brought in. No one believed me. I didn't have the details they needed, and most officers, some of them still in service, thought I was making up stories. But, you see, I knew it was going to happen. My best friends were going to do it.

My story begins in the winter of 1989. Like hundreds of young people in Kashmir that December, I crossed the Line of Control to train in Pakistan as a member of the SLF. My reasons were much the same as those of everyone else. When you are young, the world seems very simple. You see everything in black and white terms. I felt that India had denied us our legitimate rights and that Pakistan would help us in our struggle for independence. Our victory, then, seemed just around the corner. My father had been a well-known Congress(I) politician. He had died in 1984. Had he been alive, he would have never allowed me to go to Pakistan. My brother also begged me not to leave, but I was just not willing to listen.

IN April 1990, I returned to India, and was appointed the district commander of the SLF for the Baramulla area. I led the organisation in north Kashmir until I was arrested in February 1992. I spent 26 days in jail until I was released in exchange for four civilian hostages that my organisation had taken. But by this time my feelings about our struggle had begun to change. India, it was clear, was not about to pack its bags and leave Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan was not going to go to war, as it had promised us. All that was happening was that Kashmiri was killing Kashmiri. Brother was against sister, mother against son, each against all.

But the fact was, there was nowhere to turn to. I built up a quiet relationship with some people in the security forces, hoping that someday we could find peaceful means to resolve our differences and stop the bloodshed. It was, however, impossible for me to act on the thoughts I had. However, a lot of people within the organisation were beginning to feel the same way. Many of the cadre used to complain that while they were getting killed, our leaders, Hilal Ahmad Baig and Sajjad Keno, were safely sitting at the headquarters in Pakistan. That is when Hilal started sending me faxes, and messages through couriers, saying something very big was being planned.

I came to know what that 'very big thing' was soon enough. About a month or so after the serial bombing in Mumbai, in April 1993, I received orders to meet Hilal in Dhaka, and then proceed to base headquarters. There were several issues that had to be sorted out, not the least of which being the running of our new organisation, the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen, which we had set up following disputes with the Jammu and Kashmir Students' Liberation Front. I reached Bangladesh, having travelled through Calcutta and the Jessore border, and stayed with Hilal at the Zakaria Hotel in Dhaka. We had tickets to travel to Karachi, through Kathmandu and Bangkok.

Our luck was bad, and we ended up in trouble - or, more precisely, a jail in Dhaka. My passport, made through a sympathiser in Hyderabad, attracted too much attention, as did the documents carried by Hilal and three Pakistani associates who were supposed to travel with us. To make things worse, Hilal was carrying some $40,000 in cash. But Pakistan intelligence came to our aid, through a friend they had in the local police's Special Branch. In return for Rs.2 lakhs, he agreed to ensure our release, and also gave us fresh Bangladesh passports. The officer told us to leave as soon as possible, in case Indian authorities came to know of the affair and pressured the Bangladesh government to repatriate us.

In the end, we left straight for Karachi, flying business class on Emirates, I think it was! It was during the days before this flight that Hilal told me what he had been up to. Ibrahim Abdul Razzak Memon, the man they call "Tiger", had been put in contact with him by the ISI in early 1993. Our infrastructure had been used to train his men for a series of eight bombings, all of which were to have been carried out that Ramzan. But things went wrong, for one reason or the other, and only the Mumbai hit could be carried out. Now, it seemed, Tiger had big plans for joint actions throughout India. The idea was that with such actions they would hit India where it really hurt, rather than just continue the pointless war in Jammu and Kashmir.

My main job was to raise funds for the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen, and to liaise with senior politicians and bureaucrats in Pakistan who could help our cause. As the representative of the organisation on the Jihad Council, I used to receive Rs.7 lakhs to 8 lakhs from the ISI on the basis of our performance in executing bombings and attacks on the security forces. These funds were routed through what was called the Refugee Management Cell, which was in fact headed by a 'retired' Colonel-rank ISI officer. Within a few months we had added covert facilities in Singapore, Bangkok, Dhaka and Kathmandu to our two offices at Rawalpindi and Muzaffarabad. With the funds, we also managed to expand our Muzaffarabad office, buy a couple of new vehicles for it and add a small home gymnasium so the members of the office staff could keep themselves fit. The flow of funds to our units within Jammu and Kashmir also increased.

TIGER first came to our office in August or September 1993. Hilal had phoned ahead to tell me to expect a special guest, and we had laid out a lavish lunch for him. I had seen photographs of Tiger, but he had slimmed down considerably - the result, he said, of working out regularly. He was delighted to see the home gym, and spent some time jogging on the treadmill. When he heard I had trained as a boxer, at Amar Singh College in Srinagar in 1983-1984, he insisted on a short sparring bout. I'm afraid it didn't last very long - I hit him a bit harder than I ought to have - but our bonding survived the match!

At the end of that year, Tiger returned to Muzaffarabad, this time to play out what in my view was a ridiculous scam. There was some world pressure on Pakistan to extradite Tiger, and someone in the ISI had thought up a scheme to show he was still in India. We videotaped a mock press conference in the Muzaffarabad safehouse, and sent it to Srinagar where our cadre distributed the tape and let it be known that the meeting was held at Hazratbal. We also took some still photographs. We had enough sympathisers to sell the story in Jammu and Kashmir, and it created a minor furore. The truth, however, soon becomes known, and no one was fooled for very long.

Because of our regular interaction, Tiger and I became fairly close. He was living in style at the time, and told me he had been given a fantastic house in Karachi, along with some Rs.1.5 crore in cash to start a business. He had three cars, one of them a very nice Toyota that all of us used to eye at the office! But bad times were soon upon him. His brother, Yakub, returned to India in July 1994, fed up with his life in Pakistan. Yakub had nothing to do with the serial bombings, and his biggest mistake was leaving his businesses and assets in Mumbai. I suppose his family felt the same way, too.

The ISI thought, probably correctly, that Tiger had a hand in getting Yakub to leave for India and in arranging his escape. Things became pretty bad for Tiger, at least for a while. His cars were withdrawn, and his cash inflow stopped. At one point he disappeared to Peshawar, and then hid out in Dubai. He knew, however, that there was nowhere safe for him to go. He soon returned to Pakistan. He was a slave of the ISI, and that was that. It was a terrible blow to the man. His decision to carry the serial bombings was impulsive, an act of revenge against the communal riots of 1992-1993. I do not think that he ever believed that he would spend the rest of his life as a hunted man.

I met Tiger for dinner one last time before I returned to India, through Kathmandu, in January 1995. It was a quiet evening, barring my delight on seeing Wasim Akram sitting a few tables away. Tiger was back in business by then, but I could not help but sense he was unhappy with the way things had gone. I knew he was in the midst of negotiations with my superiors, Hilal and Sajjad Keno, to set up the Jammu and Kashmir Islamic Front (JKIF). Tiger was to provide the JKIF with safehouses and guides in Nepal and Gujarat through his network, enabling them to operate securely in northern and western India.

Things never really worked for the group. Sajjad and Hilal were forced to return to India, to pacify their cadre, who demanded to know why they were not risking their own lives. Sajjad was arrested in early 1995. He escaped from jail that June and was killed by the Jammu and Kashmir Police Special Operations Group (SOG) in January 8, 1996. Hilal died not much later at the SOG's hands, in July 1996. Bilal Baig, our overall boss, is still in Pakistan, but is too incompetent to run the organisation in an effective way. I tried to persuade Hilal to take the same path I had by then taken, but he just wouldn't listen. He had travelled too far down one road, and was too tired to make the journey back.

I had told Tiger my own reasons for returning to India at that last dinner we had together in January. One big reason was Sardar Abdul Qayoom, the senior politician who is now on General Pervez Musharraf's Kashmir Committee. He had just come back from a conference in Casablanca on the conflict, where he had crossed swords with Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah. In private, Qayoom was blunt with us. "I thought you Kashmiris are supposed to be clever," he said, "but I've never seen a bigger bunch of idiots. You've set your house on fire to help your neighbour. Save yourself, and your people if we can." Another person who told me more or less the same thing was a senior ISI officer Colonel Asad Durrani, who, ironically, had helped start the Jammu and Kashmir campaign in General Zia-ul-Haq's time.

Just before I left for India, there was a ferocious showdown over the course of events, with an ISI officer whom we knew as General Liaqat Ali. I was then the vice-chairman of the council of 15 groups active in Jammu and Kashmir. At a meeting in Rawalpindi, I asked him point- blank what Pakistan wanted to do about this aimless war of attrition. He replied that our job was to prick India just enough to make it bleed, but not enough to make it bite back. I became very angry, since we were the ones who were doing the bleeding, not India. Nine of us walked out, and came back only after a great deal of persuasion. I now knew that we were fighting a war for Pakistan, not for Jammu and Kashmir. I just wish that more of the nine people who were with me that day had the courage to take the course I have taken.

But of the future, who knows? Abdul Majid Dar is making some efforts to bring about some change in the Hizbul Mujahideen. The Hurriyat's Abdul Ghani Lone, I know, is committed to peace. I worked with him for many years, and I know where his heart lies.

As for me, I have other things on my mind. While I was in Dhaka, a student asked me where my village, Groora, was. "Don't you know," I joked, "it's the greatest tourist country of the world!''

It's heading that way. We've planted trees over 30,000 kanals of land, for which each person in the village pays Rs.10 a month. We have ducks and even bear in the area now. I've spent Rs.20 lakhs on a school for the area's children. In the next election, I'm going to tell the people I can't solve the Kashmir dispute, but I can make a difference to their lives. After these years of pain and bloodshed, I think that is more important than anything else.