Cash underpins continuing carnage in Kashmir
23 June 2006
Kulgam: Evidence is emerging that the recent wave of violence along the fringes of the Pir Panjal range in southern Kashmir may be linked to a power struggle within the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen over the proceeds of organised crime-style extortion operations. On Tuesday night, the police eliminated Farooq Ahmad Bhat, Hizb commander for Anantnag district. Documents recovered from the terrorist show that 280 residents of Anantnag and Kulgam, his areas of operation, were making graded payments of Rs. 11,000 or Rs. 4,800 at regular intervals to the Hizb. Dozens of others made one-time payments of several hundred thousand rupees. Between December 12, 2005 and May 17, 2006, Bhat, his diaries record, raised an estimated Rs. 5,95,000, no small amount given that the Hizb's active cadre strength in Kulgam and Anantnag is put at under 50 men. In addition, a staggering Rs. 38,61,550 was distributed to the families of 290 slain Hizb terrorists, although it is unclear from the documents if these funds were also raised locally. Organised extortion Investigators believe that the June 11 massacre of nine migrant labourers from Nepal may have been linked to the Hizb's highly- organised extortion operations. Executed by its Kulgam commander Sajjad Ahmad Butt, the massacre is thought to have been intended to compel local contractors to make direct payments to the terrorist rather than to his district and division-level superiors. Extortion targeting contractors in south Kashmir dates back to 1999, when the Lashkar-e-Taiba executed 12 migrant workers from Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh at Sandu, a few minutes drive from the site of the recent massacre. Again, in August 2000, the Lashkar killed nine workers from Bilaspur at Yumo, while another 19 were massacred in Qazigund. Local contractors, dependent on migrant labour for execution of the large number of government-funded infrastructure development projects under way in south Kashmir, turned to the Hizb for help. Hizb commanders, who operate in close coordination with the Lashkar, agreed to use their influence to end the massacres — in return for regular payments. Infrastructure development in southern Kashmir gathered momentum after work began on the New Delhi- Baramulla rail line three years ago. So too, did the Hizb earnings pick up. Junior commanders now sought a direct share of the earnings from extortion, their ambitions fuelled by the fact that several of their superiors' relatives had won large contracts themselves. Two years ago, the south Kashmir Islamist leader Maqbool Akhrani started charging migrants with selling liquor laced with opium as part of a plot to 'divert our attention from real issues' — a reference to the jihad in Jammu and Kashmir. Junior Hizb commanders such as Sajjad Butt used Akhrani's campaign to build their case for a renewed series of massacres, aware that killings would bring in cash from contractors and businessmen. However, the Hizb's south Kashmir division commander Mohammad Ashraf Wani, who operates using the code- name Sohail Faisal, resisted these pressures, aware that they would damage the organisation's relationship with its principal financiers. Last month, though, the police shot dead Bhat's predecessor, Mushtaq Ahmad Wani. Sajjad Butt was now able to market his case for massacre as a revenge operation. Interestingly, the divisions between Butt and figures like Bhat and Mohammad Ashraf Wani seem generation. One of the Hizb's longest-serving operatives, Bhat joined the Hizb in 1991, at the age of 16. He served as instructor in Pakistan-based training camps till 2000, returning to south Kashmir only after the Hizb's field leadership had been severely depleted by counter-terrorism operations. By contrast, Sajjad Butt joined the Hizb just three years ago and has served in the immediate vicinity of his home in the hamlet of Hangalbuch ever since.