AN AUDACIOUS STRIKE

Print edition : October 13, 2001

The attack on the State Assembly building in Srinagar, the worst single terrorist strike ever in Jammu and Kashmir, shows up the chinks in the armour and points to the lack of a coherent official agenda of action to counter the terror campaign.

ON October 1, Srinagar Senior Superintendent of Police B. Srinivas spent his lunch hour showing a colleague the security arrangements around the Assembly building. "Just another 10 days before the government moves to Jammu," Srinivas recalls having said. "I just hope we manage to see the summer through." Minutes later, a white four-wheel drive utility vehicle packed with an estimated 80 kilograms of plastic explosive blew up just outside the Assembly complex gate. Thirty-eight people died in the blast and the exchange of fire that followed, making it the worst single terrorist attack ever in Jammu and Kashmir. It could have been worse had the attack begun half an hour earlier - the State's political system could have largely been decimated.

Early that afternoon, telecommunications engineer Ravi Qazi had decided to visit his now-abandoned ancestral home in Habbakadal, in downtown Srinagar. Just short of his destination, three men in police uniforms stopped his vehicle and pushed Qazi out. His driver, Ali Mohammad Machloo, was told to take the vehicle to the nearby Fatehkadal area where a fourth man took over the wheel. Four milk containers packed with explosives were loaded on to the vehicle. Traffic on the main road leading to the Assembly complex is closed while Assembly proceedings are in progress, and the bombers had chosen their time well. The Assembly had adjourned at 1-30 p.m., and traffic was just being allowed on the road that passes by its main gate.

Outside the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly complex, soon after the blast on October 1.-NISSAR AHMED

Investigators believe that the three uniformed terrorists waited a few hundred metres from the Assembly gate, below Jehangir Hotel as the driver blew up himself and the vehicle at 2-03 p.m. Following the massive explosion, which killed eight policemen and over a dozen civilians unfortunate enough to be walking down the road, the troops guarding access to the Assembly took cover. During the melee that ensued, the three waiting terrorists entered the complex. Once past the gate, however, their plans began to unravel. The group ran past the low, wooden Assembly Hall and made their way into the more impressive-looking structure behind it. The building, however, houses only offices.

This one mistake saved the life of Assembly Speaker Abdul Ahad Vakil, Legislative Council chairman Abdul Rashid Dar, and four legislators who had stayed on after proceedings had been adjourned. The office staff were less fortunate. At least 10 of them were killed and dozens of others injured. Police personnel and Border Security Force (BSF) troops, however, responded rapidly. They sealed all exits blocking the terrorists' escape routes. Director-General of Police A.K. Suri, Deputy-Inspector General K. Rajendra Kumar and Srinivas personally led the subsequent evacuation, facing fire from the three terrorists still holed up in the building. Two BSF personnel were killed in the fire, while Srinivas suffered injuries when a grenade went off under the armoured vehicle he was using.

WHO carried out the Assembly bombing, and why? Both Pakistan and secessionist groups in Jammu and Kashmir have claimed that the incident was engineered by the Indian authorities, following the pattern of propaganda unleashed after the massacre of Sikh villagers at Chattisinghpora village last year (Frontline, April 14, 2000).

Union Home Minister L.K. Advani (right) with Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, Governor G.C. Saxena, Director-General of Police A.K. Suri and legislators at the Assembly complex on October 3. Speaking to legislators of both Houses of the Assembly, Advani promised solidarity but little else.-

The claim largely rests on the accounts of a section of Assembly employees, who held protests outside the building on October 3. Mohammad Ashraf, one of them, told journalists that many of his colleagues had been shot by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) while the employees tried to escape from the building. His version was backed by National Conference legislator Sadiq Ali, who was inside the complex during the attack. Ali claimed to have been told that security personnel had orders to fire "at any room where they believe terrorists are hiding".

But these claims seem to be based on weak foundations. Ashraf's account, for example, rests largely on what he claims he was told by Arifa Sheikh, a colleague. Arifa Sheikh, Ashraf said, had hidden under a sofa while the attack was in progress. From this position she claims to have seen bullets hit officials inside the room. It is mystifying how Arifa Sheikh could have determined while hiding under a sofa whether the fire came from police personnel or terrorists.

Speaking of his own experience, Ashraf claims to have begged security personnel to evacuate Abdul Gani Wagay, but says they stood by while his colleague was shot. The factors for Ashraf's survival under presumably identical circumstances is unclear. Most important, survivors such as Ali's own guard, Nazir Ahmad, say that the terrorists were shooting people in cold blood.

The remains of the vehicle that was used for the suicide attack. In the background, a victim is being moved.-NISSAR AHMED

That two of the three associations of employees of the Jammu and Kashmir government are affiliated to the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) renders such allegations more than a little specious. Facts appear to suggest that the Jaish-e-Mohammad did indeed execute the operation, and then in the face of pressure from Pakistan, backed down. The first claims of Jaish-e-Mohammad's responsibility for the attack were made by an overseas caller to staffers of the Mountain Valley and the CNS news agency, two Srinagar-based organisations. Both organisations, like many such in Srinagar, routinely receive calls from spokespersons of terrorist groups, and are unlikely to have carried such a claim if it had come from an unknown caller. The Jaish even identified the suicide squad driver as Wajahat Husain, a Pakistan national.

International pressure seems to have forced the Jaish to withdraw claims of responsibility it made early on. On October 1, United States State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher announced that his country "very strongly condemn the attack in Kashmir". Predictably, Pakistan joined the condemnation. Interestingly, however, Jaish cadre within Jammu and Kashmir have been scrambling to claim responsibility for the attack. On October 2, Tooba, the Jaish radio control station, broadcasting to cadre in the Srinagar area, announced that an operative code-named Umar Bhai had participated in the operation. Umar Bhai, the control station operator said, had reported that over 100 senior officers had been killed in the operation. The terrorist claimed to have escaped the retaliatory action, and said he was now hiding in a Srinagar neighbourhood.

FROM its very formation, the Jaish-e-Mohammad has placed suicide attacks at the core of its operational tactics. Masood Azhar, its founder, was released by the Indian government in December 1999, hostages-for-prisoners swap that followed the hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight IC 814 (Frontline, January 21, 2001). Azhar had been sent to India to bring about the unification of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and the Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami into the new Harkat-ul-Ansar. The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) handlers of the IC 814 hijackers believed that Azhar's return to Pakistan would infuse new life into the Islamic Right. But events did not go according to plan. On January 5, 2000, speaking at the famous Binori Masjid in Karachi, a key seminary of the Islamic Right, Azhar attacked the U.S. as an enemy of Islam, provoking official protests.

From the point of view of pro-U.S. elements in the Pakistan intelligence establishment, things went from bad to worse. In February, Azhar announced the formation of the Jaish-e-Mohammad. Shortly afterwards, Azhar visited Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, further alienating the U.S. The visit, intelligence sources say, was facilitated by Nazimuddin Shamzai, the head of the Binori Masjid, who led the recent delegation of Pakistani religious leaders to Afghanistan. Both Azhar and Omar were Shamzai's students. Worse, Azhar tied up with the ultra-Right Sipah-i-Sahiban Pakistan, dedicated to the sectarian battle against the country's Shia minority. Sipah-i-Sahiban chief Azam Tariq not only provided security for Azhar during his political visits, but announced that he would place 100,000 cadre at his disposal for a jehad in Jammu and Kashmir.

Shortly afterwards, the pro-U.S. faction of the ideologically-fissured ISI ensured that Azhar went to jail. However, six weeks later, the religious chauvinist faction bailed him out. Azhar was put in charge of the Jaish-e-Mohammad. The bulk of the Harkat cadre, particularly those operating in Jammu and Kashmir, defected en bloc to the new outfit. Fazl-ul-Rehman Khalil, the head of the pre-unification Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and Azhar's main intra-organisation rival, was punished by demotion and was placed under the operational command of his one-time Naib Amir (deputy chief) Farooq Kashmiri. The action was taken, sources say, because Harkat cadre in some areas refused to hand over charge of assets and office space to Jaish-e-Mohammad. Khalil is reported to have gone underground in the wake of the U.S' decision to declare the Harkat an international terrorist organisation.

Outside the legislature building, after the storm.-NISSAR AHMED

The Jaish announced its arrival in style. In April 2000, 14-year-old suicide bomber Afaaq Ahmad, a resident of Khanyar in downtown Srinagar, blew himself up outside the Army headquarters in the city. In December that year, another suicide bomber, code-named Abdullah Bhai and identified as 24-year-old Mohammad Bilal from Birmingham in the United Kingdom, carried out a near-identical attack in the same area.

On an average one suicide attack has taken place every month after the Jaish-e-Mohammad introduced the fidayeen (suicide squad) culture to the State. Security experts believe that the organisation succeeded by recruiting from amongst criminals. Srinagar's Superintendent of Police (South) says: "Some are indoctrinated to believe they will receive divine forgiveness if they participate in suicide attacks. Others from poor backgrounds are told that their families will receive large amounts of money."

IT is hard not to miss the connection between ongoing U.S. policy and the Srinagar bombing. In an effort to cement Pakistan's backing in the matter of its moves on Afghanistan, the U.S. excluded all but one terrorist organisation active in Jammu and Kashmir from the list it released for sanctions. The one organisation named, the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, was defunct, killed off ironically enough by the ISI. The message to other organisations active in the State was clear: they would not be touched. After a two-week lull following the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, terrorist groups in the State reactivated their networks. On September 28, the Lashkar-e-Toiba carried out simultaneous attacks on two Army patrols in Kupwara and Handwara. The next day an Army convoy was ambushed near Baramulla and five soldiers were killed.

Indian government officials have recently been proclaiming that they have gained U.S. support for their battle against terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir. They point, for example, to Boucher's October 2 statement saying that India "is a key partner in (the) global coalition against terrorism, and we do believe that terrorism must be ended everywhere". But this polemic is clearly at odds with the nuts and bolts of U.S. policy. The fact remains that the U.S. continues to reject India's fundamental position on Jammu and Kashmir. In July 2001, Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca stated the U.S. position succinctly. "Our position," she said, "is that the issue of Kashmir should be resolved between India and Pakistan, taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people." That makes it clear that the U.S. does not believe the wishes of the Kashmiri people are now respected by India, or represented by the State government.

Rocca's blunt re-assertion of long-standing U.S. policy renders absurd India's current claims to be building international pressure against Pakistan. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's recent letter to U.S. President George Bush warned that India was beginning to "lose patience". The fact remains, however, that officials seem to have no coherent agenda for action. Union Home Minister L.K. Advani, speaking to legislators of both Houses of the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly on October 3, promised solidarity but little else. Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, for his part, complained about New Delhi in the course of an emotional speech that preceded Advani's address. "You must learn to distinguish between friends and enemies," the Chief Minister told Advani. Like Advani, however, the Chief Minister had nothing to say about his government's dismal record in office, either in the matter of managing security or in bringing about development.

Union Minister of State for Home I.D. Swami's less-than-prudent remarks about cross-border attacks on terrorist training camps illustrate just how bankrupt his government is with regard to options. Figures show just how alarming the situation has become. September 2001 saw 496 terrorist attacks, up from 281 during the same period last year. While record numbers of terrorists have been killed this year, both the State and Central governments have failed to act against their financial networks, overground supporters, or allies in the bureaucracy and the police. There has also been renewed recruitment of cadre from within the State, particularly from among teenagers. And each of the Union government's recent political initiatives, ranging from negotiations with the APHC to the Hizbul Mujahideen, have come to naught. "The Prime Minister's Office," says Kulgam MLA Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami, "doesn't seem to understand that conducting politics is different from running a grocer's store. It's not just about buying and selling." The sad fact is that New Delhi has no Jammu and Kashmir policy: and does not seem likely to author one any time soon.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor