Hijack drama has ominous portents for the Valley
3 January 2000
SIRNAGAR: For the hostages, it was a happy ending. But the drama at Kandhar was fraught with ominous messages for the bleeding Valley, where the decade-long militancy is now bound to intensify.
The release of three militant leaders - Maulana Azhar Masood and Umer Shaikh of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and Mushtaq Ahmad Zargar of Al Ummer Mujahideen in exchange for the hostages is being viewed here as New Delhi's "abject surrender" before the militants. The general impression is that the unfortunate development will boost the morale of the militants fighting in Kashmir almost in the same manner as the Rubiya Sayeed kidnapping case had done a decade ago.
The abduction Rubiya Sayeed, daughter of the then Home Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, and the subsequent release of five top commanders of the JKLF in December 1989 is still seen as a watershed development in Kashmir militancy. It not only exposed the chinks in the Government's administrative skills but also encouraged mass participation in the separatist movement.
The militancy till then had been a limited phenomenon; at the most, a passion for a section of Kashmiri youth animated by the concept of freedom. But once the militants hot into the limelight by the kidnapping Rubiya and managed to free their five jailed colleagues, they were able to impress the general Kashmiri mind and involve common people in their movement. "Sarhad par jayenge Kalashankov layenge", became a common slogan and the ensuing months saw the growth of more than 100 militant groups in the Valley.
Now 10 years later, when militants again managed the release of their three top leaders, their morale is likely to reach a new high. Even as the release of militants in exchange for the hostages did not evoke public jubilation to the degree what was witnessed at the time of Rubiya, the individual reaction, however, was all the more same.
The initial reticence expressed by the people in general in the beginning of the hijacking immediately turned into jubilation, when, in the thick of the crisis, American President Bill Clinton caused sensation by calling Kashmir as the most dangerous issue in the world". The militants and their supporters read a clear and loud message in Mr. Clinton's words. "The more they (militants) take risks, the more the issue is getting internationalised", one of them said.
What made them serious about Clinton's words was that he sounded least satisfied with the Indian Government's assertions that Pakistan was involved in the hijacking episode. Without any reference to the hijacking and to the identity of hijackers, Mr. Clinton made a direct comment on Kashmir.
Buoyed up perhaps by this feeling, the militants undertook another risky, rather suicidal mission, by storming the headquarters of Jammu and Kashmir police's Special Operation Group (SOG) when the hijacking crisis were at its peak. Militants lost two of their cadres in this mission but not before killing more than a dozen members of the dreaded force. In the battle, which lasted for almost 24 hours, SOG, also lost its operational-cum-office complex besides arms and ammunition depot.
Observers believe that it was Kargil that prompted the militants to undertake these suicidal missions. They maintain that militants not only inflicted heavy casualties on the Indian forces in the Kargil war but go their case internationalised so much so that President Clinton had to intervene to ensure the withdrawal of militants and Pakistani forces from the mountains.
The post-Kargil Kashmir witnessed militants going for very dangerous, almost suicidal, missions. They killed a DIG of the BSF along with three other personnel when they stormed Bandipora headquarters. This was followed by another attack on an Army camp at Natnusa in the border district of Kupwara in which five soldiers including the camp commander were killed.
After that followed a chain of attacks on the camps of security forces, including the big one at corps headquarters of Badami Bagh. This new phase of belligerence not only cause severe losses to the Army, but also gave a fillip to militancy in the post-Kargil phase.
Local youth who had distanced themselves from militancy over the past three of four years began to rethink. There are reports that more than 1500 Kashmir youth have joined militant ranks in the past five months in the state. Some of them are reported to have crossed over to the other side of the border for training. Foreign militants are reported to be training youth at local camps too.
Political analysts feel that militants again scored a point over the Government, both psychologically and militarily, by getting three of their top leaders released. The most dangerous fallout of this trade-off is that the militants might again be able to influence the people's minds in the state and local boys' participation in militant activities might increase.
The release of Mushtaq Zargar is particularly significant in this regard. Zargar is the chief of Al Ummer Mujahideen. In the early days of militancy, Al Ummer had a significant presence in Srinagar's interior parts. Its main strength came from the followers of Mirwaiz Ummer Farooq. Zargar was neither an ideologue nor an inspiring leader. He did not even fit among pan-Islamic militant groups. It is perhaps why that Al Ummer soon vanished from Kashmir scene once Zargar was arrested.
Reports suggest that Zargar became a changed person in jail, particularly after he came in contact with Azhar Masood and Ummer Shaikh in Delhi's Tihar Jail. Azhar is reported to have taught Mushtaq Quran, bringing him in the fold of "ideologically committed group of militant leaders".
His inclusion in the list of militants whose release was sought by the hijackers is seen in this backdrop. It is being widely guessed that Mushtaq would be entrusted with the new mission of reviving his cadres in the old city. If he succeeds, it would be a replay of the post-Rubiya phase in the state.