17 August 2001
Srinagar: EIGHT days before Hizbul Mujahideen leader Hamid Tantrey was killed, his childhood friend and one-time comrade-in-arms Nazir Ahmad Rather was shot dead. After his arrest in 1996 Rather had left the organisation and opened a shop in the village of Sanguspora, near Kulgam, where both had grown up. Tantrey died at the hands of the Jammu and Kashmir Police. His friend was executed by the South Kashmir Hizbul Mujahideen. Both Tantrey and Rather joined the ranks of scores of people - terrorists, soldiers, and civilians - who have been killed in the carnage that has followed the breakdown of the Agra dialogue between Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf.
Inevitably, many more people will figure in this grim roll call before this summer ends.
Indian television audiences know Tantrey as Commander Masood, the masked figure who accompanied Hizbul Mujahideen deputy chief Abdul Majid Dar to talks with Indian officials in Srinagar on August 3 last year. Tantrey's July 25 killing could prove a central event in the shaping of events in Jammu and Kashmir after the end of the talks in Agra. The circumstances of the Hizbul Mujahideen leader's death are contested, and reports claiming that he was shot in custody have provoked more than a little public outrage. Informed sources told Frontline that the Special Operations Group in Pulwama launched the operation leading to the killing of Tantrey after an informant told its Superintendent of Police, Vijay Kumar, that a Hizb operative code-named Bashir Engineer was scheduled to meet the head of the South Kashmir Hizbul Mujahideen, Ghulam Nabi Khan. At the time he had no idea that Bashir Engineer was in fact Tantrey. Just how Tantrey died, however, is less important than the political significance of the event.
Ghulam Nabi Khan was among the senior Hizb figures who opposed the ceasefire announced by Dar last summer. One possibility is that the meeting was called to persuade Khan to join the pro-ceasefire faction within the Hizbul Mujahideen. In that event it would be possible that the informant who met Kumar was in fact planted by Nabi Khan to secure his rival's elimination. Nabi Khan had long been pressing for the replacement of Dar with Hizbul Mujahideen deputy chief Ghulam Hassan Khan, who uses the code names Engineer Zamaan and Khalid Saifullah. On July 26, one day after Dar announced the ceasefire in Srinagar, Ghulam Nabi Khan issued a call to field units for an escalation of the jehad. By removing Dar's most trusted aide, Hassan Khan could have sought to ease Nabi Khan's arrival. Srinagar's vibrant gossip circuit has it that the police informant was working for the Lashkar-e-Toiba.
Whatever the truth, Tantrey's killing will work to strengthen the Hizb's hardliners. That in turn will help the right wing of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), led by the Jamaat-e-Islami's Syed Ali Shah. The Research and Analysis Wing, (RAW) which has had sustained covert contact with top Hizb leaders, including Dar and Tantrey for the past two years, makes no secret of its displeasure at the events. "The police were under pressure after all the recent killings of civilians and just picked on an easy target," says one senior official. That is a charge Director-General of Police A.K. Suri dismisses. "The fact is," he says, "that it is ridiculous to pretend Tantrey was part of the pro-peace faction. Even the Hizbul Mujahideen's press release says Tantrey was involved in several recent offensive operations. Is going around killing people called a peace initiative now?"
RECENT events provide some insight into the kind of tactics that might be used to ensure peace does not come about. Communal killings have, as in past years, been a key component in Pakistan's efforts to secure an escalation of violence in Jammu and Kashmir. The worst carnage in the post-Agra Summit phase has come in the district of Doda, where 16 village residents were executed by the Lashkar-e-Toiba on the night of July 21. That morning, two separate units of the Lashkar kidnapped 12 Hindu residents of Chirji village from their high-altitude summer pastures at the Bhatta Dhar and Jatbandu Dhar meadows, near Padder in Kishtwar. All five of those taken from Bhatta Dhar were shot dead late that night, but one of the seven villagers from Jatbandu Dhar managed to escape with injuries. A three-and-a-half-year-old child was left unharmed by the Lashkar unit at Bhatta Dhar, although his parents were killed.
A day before the Chirji killings, seven residents of Tagood village, in Kishtwar's Chhatru area, were again kidnapped from their pasture at Lachana Dhar. Three of the seven, including an armed member of the local Village Defence Committee, managed to escape. The other four were, however, killed at about the same time that the execution of the Chirji village residents took place. While media accounts have seemed to suggest that these sets of massacres were carried out by the same Lashkar unit, evidence suggests these were independent operations. The Padder and Chhatru areas are at least 30 hour's walk from each other, evidence that it is impossible for the same group to have executed both operations. Investigators, however, believe that both Lashkar units had moved in just before the killings from the Marwah and Wadwan forests, a three-day walk from the Kishtwar area.
Why would the Lashkar units have made such an effort to execute killings outside their normal area of operation? There is some evidence that the massacres were motivated, at least in part, by local factors. Some reports have suggested that the killings were in retaliation for the elimination of 14 Lashkar terrorists in Marwah in two separate engagements in May. The time that had passed since then makes this improbable. Chirji residents say they had been engaged in disputes over grazing rights with Gujjar herdsmen from the Jammu plains and believe the killings may have been an outcome of this feud. "It is quite possible," says Doda District Collector Shailendra Kumar, "there are bitter fights over grazing rights each summer, which often turn violent." The Lachna Dhar killings, again, may have been provoked by the murder of a local religious leader a week earlier. The Imam of the Tagood mosque had been arrested in the past for allegedly aiding the Lashkar, and his death was locally believed to be the result of a covert Army operation.
But there is little doubt that a larger ideological agenda underpins the welter of recent killings, a point illustrated by the Lashkar-e-Toiba attack on pilgrims at Amarnath on July 21. At 1-15 a.m. that day, a single Lashkar terrorist threw a grenade at a camp at Seshnag, on the route from Pahalgam to the shrine. When police personnel arrived at the site, the terrorist opened fire from his assault rifle in single-shot mode, injuring Deputy Superintendent of Police Praveen Kumar and Assistant Sub-Inspector Sakhi Akbar. Both bled to death in an hour, since none of the forces in the area attempted to evacuate the injured officers. Army personnel at Seshnag then exchanged fire with the Lashkar terrorist, who was holed up inside a shed used by local workers to house their ponies. By the time the exchange of fire ended at 7 a.m. with the killing of the terrorist, seven pilgrims and five workers had joined the list of those killed.
It is not difficult to see that the Amarnath attack was intended to provoke Hindu communal reaction in Jammu and other parts of India. Although several Hindu communal organisations, like the Shiv Sena, had attempted to appropriate the Amarnath Yatra and use it as a political platform, the annual event had in fact passed off in a climate of goodwill. Children on the second route to Amarnath, through Baltal, routinely gathered on the road, greeting passing pilgrims with playful shouting of the Hindu religious slogan Bum Bhole. The fact that neither their parents nor local religious leaders protested illustrates the secular cultural ambience that still permeates rural Jammu and Kashmir. Few local residents support the Lashkar-e-Toiba's actions in Amarnath, since the pilgrimage is a major source of revenue for the peasant communities along the route.
Events at Amarnath have, however, raised serious questions about security management for the pilgrimage. Early claims that the terrorist had come dressed as a Hindu sadhu have been shot down by witnesses. The fact that the terrorist was engaged by an Army company has also raised eyebrows. Security management protocols for the pilgrimage mandate that the Army is responsible for protecting the perimeter, leaving the Border Security Force in charge of a 500-metre area on either side of the route. The fact that there were large numbers of Army troops in Seshnag, rather than on the mountains around it, shows just how casual the implementation of protocols has been. 15 Corps Commander J.R. Mukherjee, who had authored a report that was severely critical of the Central Reserve Police Force's role in a similar massacre last August, might now do well to engage in some critical appraisal of his own organisation's working.
Where might events lead this summer? As the recent shelling in Kargil and other areas along the Line of Control (LoC) illustrates, Pakistan believes that an escalation of violence will give it a better bargaining position when Vajpayee and Musharraf meet next. But the task might prove harder than it appears. Terrorist organisations, ranging from the Lashkar to the Hizbul Mujahideen, have suffered unprecedented losses since the Ramzan ceasefire ended in June. The Kashmir Division has, from July 1 to July 27 alone, seen the killing of 138 terrorists, which is a record figure. The number of terrorists killed in Jammu has been even higher. Intercepts of Lashkar radio communications by Indian signals intelligence suggest that the organisation has even had serious difficulty moving cadre across the LoC. Although the Lashkar responded to the breakdown of the Agra talks with a series of attacks on military convoys in the Banihal area, it proved unable to mount major offensive operations elsewhere.
Communal killings and high-profile bomb blasts, then, are likely to be the main instruments used to raise the level of conflict in Jammu and Kashmir. These offer a genuine opportunity to build a wide political consensus against violence. But the Union government seems determined not to act on opportunity. Union Home Minister L.K. Advani did his bit to alienate public opinion when he ruled out the prospect of the State receiving the federal autonomy that Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah's government has called for. Advani asked for a closure of discussion on the State Autonomy Report approved by the State Assembly, saying that the State could have no greater powers than those granted to others. "The Union government," says Communist Party of India (Marxist) State secretary Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami, "needs to understand that Jammu and Kashmir has a unique constitutional position. When its people ask for autonomy, they are demanding a right, not begging for a concession."
Allowing space for democratic politics, the Union government seems unable to understand, is more likely to produce meaningful outcomes than its covert dialogue with terrorist groups. The fact is that each move towards such dialogue has led to an escalation in violence. There is no real paradox. When terrorist groups believe that India is prepared to engage in final status negotiations on Jammu and Kashmir either with them or with Pakistan, they have an interest in heightening the level of violence to secure a better bargaining position. In addition, these processes offer such groups legitimacy as credible negotiators of the State's future. Analysts believe that Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah could well call elections early next year. In that event, New Delhi might do well to let it be known that it will engage in a dialogue with the State's democratic representatives, whoever they might be. Such a dialogue would also help build public confidence, eroded through years of sadly inevitable confrontation with the counter-terrorism apparatus.
But such an initiative seems unlikely. No one seems entirely certain just what U.S. President George Bush meant when he promised to "pursue a world of tolerance and freedom from Kosovo to Kashmir, from the Middle East to Northern Ireland." Given his polemical record, it is possible he meant nothing at all. But there is little doubt that the U.S. is shaping the terms of India-Pakistan engagement, pushing both to address issues it believes are important. Nuclear conflict and the possibility of a war over Jammu and Kashmir figure on its list: the suffering of ordinary people in the State does not. India's Jammu and Kashmir policy, sadly, is being authored not in New Delhi or in Srinagar, but in Washington.