Kalashnikovs, Politics And The Fate Of Candidates
14 April 2004
Srinagar: It will not be about India and Pakistan or ethnicity and identity or development and corruption. The fate of candidates in the Kashmir Valley's three seats will instead depend on a dangerous liaison between the Kalashnikov and the politicians. It is a romance that must be hidden behind veils but one that is shaping the course of this Lok Sabha election. On Monday last, residents of the south Kashmir town of Kulgam discovered the walls of their town covered with posters warning against participation in the elections. In the evening, troops of an Anantnag-based Special Forces Regiment raided the People's Democratic Party (PDP) office in the town, seeking to arrest party functionary, Manzoor Ahmad. Police assigned to protect Mr. Ahmad stepped in and promised to produce him for questioning if needed. The troops left without Mr. Ahmad but detained another PDP functionary for questioning. Sources said that the troops were acting on the basis of wireless signal intercepts indicating a relationship between the local PDP cadre and terrorist groups. Since a low voter turnout in Kulgam would hurt the formidable challenge put up by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) candidate, Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami, against his PDP counterpart, Mehbooba Mufti, it does not take much perspicacity to understand just what might be going on. Similar anti-election posters have appeared in Wachi, Shopian, Pulwama and Damal Hanzpora - areas where the CPI (M) has a support base. Coming just days after a murderous attack on Ms. Sayeed at Uri, which left 11 dead and 53 injured, it is hard to understand the relationship between major politicians and terrorist groups. The simple truth, however, is that such backing is central to ensuring where voters may vote and where they may not. The PDP has the backing of several key Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commanders, including its new southern division commander, Mohammad Amin Baba, code-named Abid, the central division commander, Abdul Ahad Pir, the Nagbal commander, Ashiq Shah, and the Kokernag commander, Shabbir Bahduri. The Hizb's northern Kashmir commanders, including the Bandipora area commander, Bashir Ahmad Pir, are considerably more hostile to the PDP. The absence of the Hizb's support here, many believe, could tip the scales in the Baramulla seat the National Conference (NC) way. Regional affiliations and ties of kinship may have more than a little to do with the division. Mohammad Amin Baba, for example, hails from Bijbehara, Ms. Mufti's hometown. The lines, however, are not neatly drawn, and vary from area to area. Hizb cadre in southern Kashmir are believed to have executed an earlier, abortive ambush on Ms. Mehbooba at Seer. Within the Hizb, according to sources, the debate over political involvement is cast along tactical lines. South Kashmir commanders argue that notwithstanding the fact that the organisation had lost many leaders under the PDP's rule, the party had helped end police pressure on its network of over-the- ground workers and sympathisers. Thus, the argument goes, although the PDP rule had seen the elimination of top commanders such as Ghulam Rasool Khan, Ghulam Rasool Dar, Saif-ur-Rahman Bajwa and Arif Khan in less than a year, the party had done what it could. The pro- PDP faction within the Hizb believes that its covert role as a political player offers it leverage in shaping the terms of the discourse. Both the NC and the PDP, which agree on little else, have been demanding that the organisation be included in the ongoing India-Pakistan dialogue. Their leaders have also been vociferous in their criticism of the security establishment. Indeed, after the Uri attack, Ms. Mufti variously blamed the police, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress for obstructing peace in Kashmir but not the terrorists who almost killed her. Sceptics such as Bashir Ahmad Pir, however, are believed to have argued that this position was just a cover for self-interest. Families of several prominent Hizb terrorists in southern Kashmir have gained large stakes in contracts for laying the Qazigund-Baramulla railway line. All this points to the existence to a web of interests that cuts across public ideological positions. Organisations such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad, which largely sit outside the freewheeling quid pro quo between politicians and terrorists, have thus been the most energetic in their anti-election campaign. The Save Kashmir Movement (SKM), which claimed responsibility for the April 8 attack on Ms. Mufti, is a case in point. A loose federation of elements of the Lashkar, the Jaish and al-Umar, the SKM has carried out at least six major attacks since it assassinated the pro-dialogue Hizb dissident, Abdul Majid Dar, last year. Three attacks - including the December 20 assassination of the MLA, Abdul Aziz Mir, and the February killings of block-level political workers Ghulam Mohammad Dar and Ali Mohammad Bhat - were directed at the PDP.