Hazratbal shrine siege: Indian chief negotiator reveals secret manoeuvring during crisis
28 October 2006
The Daily Times
New Delhi: The siege of the Hazratbal shrine in October 1993 to flush out militants was the longest ever in Jammu and Kashmir since the armed insurgency in the state began two decades ago. Now, 13 years down the line, the Indian governments then chief negotiator and now chief information commissioner Wajahat Habibullah has recounted the behind- the-scene manoeuvring and the disconnect between various government agencies and higher ups during the crisis. Habibullah writes in the latest issue of the weekly Tehelka magazine that the militant leaders holed up inside the shrine were already in touch with the outside world through an unlisted telephone number installed inside the shrine at the behest of the Intelligence Bureau (IB). He said he was amazed the way the militants appeared always so well informed of daily events outside during his negotiations with them. One day the Telephone Department told Habibullah, who was also divisional commissioner of the Kashmir Valley, that they had discovered an unlisted number inside the Hazratbal shrine premises. When he asked the department to disconnect the line, he was told by the IB that the line should be allowed to remain as it was there at their behest. The Telephone Department had in the meantime told me that they had discovered an unlisted number inside the premises of the shrine. This answered for me the question that had persisted in my mind as to how the militants appeared always so well informed of daily events outside. I, of course asked that the line be disconnected forthwith, only to receive a call from the Intelligence Bureau that the line was there at their behest, and that it should be allowed to remain, says Habibullah. Two battalions of the Indian Army laid siege to the shrine on October 15, 1993. Despite media speculation of the presence of some 40 militants including foreigners, only seven were subsequently established to be militants belonging to the JKLF led by Idris. Habibullah says that he got a call from Lieutenant General Zaki, security advisor to the then governor, informing him that locks securing access to the Moe-e- Muqaddas sanctum had been tampered with, and that 40 militants had entered the shrine with 12 LMGs. He claims that without awaiting verification, Zaki called Governor KV Krishna Rao and Union Home Secretary NN Vohra and informed them that an attempt had been made to steal from the shrine its famous relic, a purported hair from the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)s beard. He also hurriedly summoned a meeting of the Unified Command. The governor asked Zaki to intervene. I opposed the move till such time the report was authenticated. But I was the sole voice of dissent in the meeting, says Habibullah. The news of tampering later turned out to be an exaggerated report filed by Head Constable Ghulam Mohammad Shah from Poonch, who appeared later to belong to the Jamaat-e-Islami. Also, Habibullah maintains that there was a deliberate haste on the part of the administration to take action, not to protect the relic, but to regain control of the shrine. Habibullah reveals that Union Home Minister SB Chavan had directed him not to provide food to the holed up militants, but his deputy Rajesh Pilot was in favour of lifting the siege and allowing the militants to leave. He also narrates having arranged a meeting of Hurriayt leaders Prof Abdul Gani Bhat and Maulana Abbas Ansari with Governor Rao at Raj Bhawan on October 28. Habibullah says that finally on November 2, he arrived at a settlement approved by the governor, though still opposed by the army. According to the agreement, the militants in the shrine were to be allowed to leave. They would surrender their weapons, be taken into custody, interrogated, and released quickly thereafter. On my way from Raj Bhavan to the shrine, I was asked by Lt Gen Zaki to accompany him to his residence, so that we might discuss details of the forthcoming action. On the way, a military truck rammed our car injuring Zaki and almost killing me, thus delaying the implementation of the proposed settlement arrived at, because of suspicion that the crash was no mere accident, says Habibullah. Finally, on November 16, the militants vacated the shrine, on similar terms, but the state government reneged on the promise of releasing them quickly.