Ceasefire brings renegade militants back into the big picture
11 March 2001
The Indian Express
GAURAV C. SAWANT
ANANTNAG: Inside the heavily barricaded Rashtriya Rifles headquarters at Khanabal, four men in firans stand out as they pore over a map, with officers in camouflage fatigues. The officers listen to these Kashmiris attentively and plan operations together. "It is ironic, in our earlier stint in Kashmir, we hunted them down and in this tenure we are hunting together," says an army officer. The army and the Ikhwanis, a group of pro-India militants, are now together hunting foreign mercenaries. Their importance has increased during the ceasefire operations in which, under the instructions of the army headquarters, forces are not undertaking regular combat operations. "These Ikhwanis (formerly of a terrorist group called J&K Ikhwan-ul-Muslmeen) are our eyes and ears. We cannot cordon villages and search houses as we routinely did earlier. With ceasefire operations, these Ikhwanis provide us specific information about terrorist movement and then we strike," adds the officer. Though the Ikhwanis have been with the army since 1996, their importance has been rediscovered after the ceasefire. They get paid and wear army uniforms during operations. "When terrorists had attacked the military cantonment, we were the first to enter the cantonment and participated in operations to kill them," says 28-year-old Sheikh Tahir, an Ikhwani from Anantnag. The Ikhwanis participate in road opening parties with the army and being local Kashmiri youth, gather intelligence for the army and even the special operations group of state police. Says Liaqat Ali Khan, the chief of Ikhwanis: "We are a part of the Indian establishment." Khan, until four years back, was a terror in Anantnag (which they at that time insisted be called Islamabad). A student of Science at the Government Degree College, Anantnag, he was among the first to take to the gun when the armed conflict started in Kashmir in 1989. "I went to Pakistan along with five other boys from here. We were trained there for four months. The others returned but I proceeded to Afghanistan forfurther intensive training," he says at his heavily guarded house. Today he is the neighbour of superintendent of police and the army establishment here.Five years ago, the security forces were trying to hunt him down. "We wanted Azadi for Kashmir. But in Pakistan we saw terrorism was an industry and everyone was making money. Back in India as we operated against the security forces, the Hizbul Mujahideen ordered us to work for Pakistan under their umbrella. When we refused, they began killing our boys. For us life became impossible. We were fighting both the army and the pro-Pakistan terrorists. We were spending more time killing Hizb terrorists. So we decided to join hands with the security forces since we realised you cannot win against the power of the state," Liaqat adds. Today, there are around 400 surrendered militants who have joined hands with the security forces. "We are locals and speak Kashmiri. Thus we have better access to information. Secondly, we are from Anantnag or Kupwara and know the villagers so they talk to us about their problems and terrorist atrocities too," says 37-year-old Jamil, the most experienced of them all. Though Ikhwanis have government ranks, salaries and in some cases even houses, they feel cheated and at times left out. "Just now there is ceasefire and the army needs us. But otherwise the government ignores us and the terrorists hate us. We are a minority of pro-India Muslims here. However, the government does not acknowledge our role or encourage us - like giving us government jobs or political patronage." Liaqat who has given up the rank of Anantnag town commander now nurses political ambitions. He has launched the J&K Awami Conference, a political party and says he hopes to make a mark politically. The Ikhwanis say that on Republic Day and Independence Day the government hands out medals to several hundred soldiers for gallantry. "We are the shield in some cases when the army launches attacks on terrorists. We go in first with our guns firing. Should the army and the nation not acknowledge our gallantry even once?" ask both Liaqat and Tahir.