As an unhappy soldier feeling pushed to the wall spilled beans, it helped Kashmir understand its contemporary history better. R S Gull revisits the mess triggered by now infamous TSD that ended up shaking the Kashmir unionists as never before.
It was August 2007. Then chief of opposition Omar Abdullah had gone visiting the party cadres in Cheki Ghanstan in Sumbal. He made a sensational speech disclosing that 22 of 87 members of state legislature are Intelligence Bureau (IB) agents.
“The ongoing mess in the state is the creation of IB”, Omar was quoted saying to his audience. “The 22 MLAs are on IB payrolls and that they are being projected as leaders by providing them maximum coverage on government controlled media”. In 1996 polls, Omar said, Delhi had planned to install Kukka Parry as the Chief Minister.
With Ghulam Nabi Azad holding the throne and assembly in session, it was about to create a ruckus but Mohammad Akbar Lone, then Deputy Speaker of the assembly saved the situation by invoking the “press has misquoted” route. “The public meeting was held in my constituency”, Lone told lawmakers after the issue raised by a member from treasury benches. “Actually Omar Abdullah Sahib said that the IB is making efforts to get as many as 22 of its people into the assembly in the next elections. It was only that”.
The clarification did not dilute the sting of the statement. It offered a sort of continuity of the process. Omar talked about present (2002), Lone hinted at future (2008). And nobody knew past better than Lone. He was made to lose in 1996 because the security grid wanted Kukka Parray to represent Sonawari in assembly and his deputy Javed Shah in state’s legislative council along with an erstwhile militant commander!
Proving the payroll status of J&K politicians is impossible but the parties – especially NC and PDP – are accusing each other of being “agents”. While PDP sees NC “Delhi’s voice in Srinagar”, NC terms PDP as “creation of an intelligence operation”. This ‘hen-or-the-egg-first’ debate has been there since Mufti Sayeed came out of Congress and floated his PDP. This is despite the separatist accusations that all the unionists are Delhi’s “paid agents”.
But for the first time since accession – that Chief Minister Omar Abdullah maintains is ‘no merger’, an assertion has come from one of the most important functionaries in the government. After the Indian Express scooped the activities of General V K Singh, former army chief’s controversial Technical Support Division (TSD) in the Military Intelligence (MI) apparatus, it saw the emergence of a ‘credibility’ crisis for Kashmir’s ‘mainstream’. TSD was set up by General V K Singh in May 2010 and it shot into limelight in March 2012 with the allegations that it had tapped the phones of Defence Ministry officials.
TSD had strong Kashmir connection. It imported some eavesdropping machineries from Singapore which were initially given to Srinagar based 15 corps. For some technical reasons, these machines meant for off air tapping, was returned. But the equipment was never moved out. It functioned at various places across J&K in hired premises and was reportedly under direct control of Army headquarters.
In J&K, these machines – before being consigned to waters of Chenab, would allegedly tape the phones of all the VVIPs in Kashmir including the Chief Minister and his cabinet colleagues. The activity was detected by the state police intelligence that is a major expert in on air surveillance. One report said the TSD would record calls on select cell phone towers in Srinagar.
But General Singh said the report of army tapping Omar’s conversations was fabricated by the DIG Farooq Khan who as SSP Islamabad provided the information about Pathribal triggering an army operation. “We have been pressing for action to be taken against him for his role in the March 2000 Pathribal fake encounter. Five of our men are being prosecuted for that incident but this DIG, who as the then SSP Anantnag provided the information and participated in the operation is scot-free.”
The Indian Express report, quoting an internal investigation into the TSD functioning, revealed that it had paid Rs 1.19 crore to Omar’s Agriculture Minister Ghulam Hassan Mir for toppling his government at the peak of 2010 unrest in which security grid killed 120 youth. It also mentioned funding of two NGOs who were fundamental to the filing of a PIL implicating General Bikarm Singh in the fake Junglat Mundi encounter in Islamabad – thus making an effort to block his elevation to the Army Chief.
Soon after, the General said blaming Mir “is to blame god” because he is a true Indian. “He (Mir) would die but would never allow anyone to compromise the sovereignty of the country,” General was quoted saying. Then he said he is sure “there must be a reason for a particular transaction or number of transactions to this person” because “Mir is one of the most nationalistic politicians and unifying force in Kashmir today, whose work has been appreciated by other intelligence agencies too.”
It brought Mir in sharp focus of the debate in media, and politics circles. “It is not General (V K Singh) alone, there must be a group that is backing the entire exercise of making interventions in the democratic set up of the state,” Dr Mustafa Kamal, the lawmaker and NCs spokesman said. “I was made to lose the election by the same politician who is alleged to have taken a huge money from the army for toppling the government in which he continues to be a minister.”
Dr Kamal, one of the two surviving sons of Sheikh Abdullah, would operate from family’s Tangmarg estate and practice as a medical doctor. He represented Tangmarg twice in state assembly: 1987 and 1996. In 2002 he lost to Mir. Now Kamal represents the urban Hazratbal constituency in the state assembly. In the Mir related revelations, Kamal read Delhi’s “flawed, faulty and wrong policy” that, he believes, “is bleeding Kashmir.” In Delhi, he said, political parties use army to subvert J&K’s duly elected governments.
But Mir’s rise in politics is not so un-interesting. A Capricorn of 1950, Mir is son of a shopkeeper of Heriwathru village. After graduation he was appointed a school teacher. He proceeded on leave and studied law in AMU. He returned in 1974 and started practicing in the local Tangmarg court, where he got in touch with Ghulam Mohammad Shah, the son-in-law of Sheikh Abdullah. People who are aware of that relationship say it started with Shah’s keen interest to have a fresh grass supplier for his cow that he was raising at his M A Road residence. It clicked and eventually it fetched him a party ticket in 1983 assembly elections. He won and became a minister.
A year later when Shah conspired with Indira Gandhi and Mufti Sayeed, then Congress president in the state, to topple Farooq Abdullah, Mir was one of the 17 turncoats who crossed the floor. Mir became the law minister. The only thing that is in public memory of his rise is a vigilance case for misusing of power in which he was eventually proved guilty in 2012 summer. Interestingly, Omar Abdullah government rejected granting permission to prosecute him.
Mir also earned a police case when he waylaid Dr Farooq Abdullah near Baba Rishi. Farooq as Muslim Auqaf Trust president had gone to Baba Rishi and opened the shrine’s safe to which Mir took a strong exception and stopped him on his way to Srinagar.
The next phase of Mir’s rise was when Mufti assembled the rag-tag to have the PDP. Mir was one of its founders. In 2002, Mir won and became a minister in Mufti led coalition government. In 2005 when the Azad took over as the coalition leader for the second half of the six-year term, PDP dropped Mir. In anger, Mir resigned from PDP. He returned briefly a year later and then went out again to float his own party –Democratic Party (Nationalist). The outfit contested nearly 40 seats in 2008 and all but Mir won.
Mir’s influence continued its growth after 2002. He in increasingly being accused of nepotism and unfair governance. Times of India reported that he managed appointing of his son Afroz as assistant legal remembrancer (ALR), a post equivalent to an undersecretary, two years after his appointment as munsif in 2003. Later he was elevated as defence labour procurement director, and a year later, appointed as khadi and village industries board secretary, a position usually head by senior officials. Now, the next step is to get him IAS through technical quota. Besides, he is accused of promoting his private secretary as MD State Agro Industries Corporation in violation of norms and managing appointment of his daughter-in-law as an assistant surgeon in the civil secretariat.
Despite having his own party, Mir is an associate member of the Congress. Under clout, now people within Congress and NC are asking: why is Mir a minister even when neither Congress nor NC needs his support? NC has 28 and Congress 17 seats in the 87 berth house.
Mir’s erstwhile party, the PDP tried to stay away from the controversy involving Mir, partly because of his strong affiliations with some of its now key-members. Ms Mufti’s response was guarded.
But it did not surprise the party. “This expose is no revelation because he (Mir) used to tell us in the executive meeting (of PDP) that he is proud to be working for the intelligence agencies,” a senior lawmaker, close to the Muftis said on the condition of anonymity. “The only difference is that the revelation has come from an authentic source, this time.”
Despite Ms Mufti’s denial, the fact remains that PDP had assured him support “if he (Mir) gets the numbers (of lawmakers) to support him as Chief Minister.” That was 2010 when sections in the power elite and the kingmakers had decided to get Omar out of the Kashmir governance and offer it a consolation to Kashmir. Barring Rahul Gandhi, almost everybody – Congress, BJP and RSS, was on the same page. It was Rahul who prevailed eventually.
In 2010, Mir’s Tangmarg selectively offered two of its faces. The first was on September 13, 2010 when people, all of a sudden started reacting to a video showing desecration to the holy Koran somewhere abroad. Thousands of people marched towards the town and literally erased everything that would symbolize the government. They also set afire a school that Christian Biscoe School of Srinagar had started. Finding no option but to fire and flee, five protestors were killed in the firing as scores survived injured.
Subsequent police investigations revealed that it was a political activist Ali Mohammad Sofi who lit the fire and along with his son was at the forefront of the mass mobilization. Sofi, who resides in the same village where Mir lives, has been his old friend, confidant and comrade. But the interesting part of the story was that Sofi had switched sides and was very thick with Dr Kamal, Mir’s rival and NC leader.
Sofi was arrested and has been charge-sheeted along with 15 others in the case. By now he is bailed out as most of the infrastructure he destroyed is rebuilt.
The second face of Tangmarg was seen on September 21, 2010 when 39 member all party delegation was suggested to visit this riot ravaged town to listen to the people. The show was planned and managed by Mir. Star exhibit of the show was a young man claiming he is risking his life by asking the then Home Minister P Chidambaram: “When you kill a civilian in Maoist belt, you all apologize but what are you doing here? Your forces kill anybody and everybody but what is more painful for us is that when your personnel resort to rapes. You say Kashmir is your integral part but your forces have been butchering us in bits and pieces.”
Mir, however, has denied that he wanted to be the king in 2010. “For whole of my life, I have stood against the exploitation of the people and whenever there was crisis I contributed enormously in stabilizing the government,” Mir said. “Everybody knows what I did in 2010 to ensure the Omar Abdullah government stays stable.” And what about Rs 1.19 crore that the report claims he took from the shadowy MI arm? “Since I did not require de-stabilizing the government, the question of taking money does not arise.”
As the situation got murkier, Mir found no option but to offer himself for a ‘fair and time bound probe’. Asserting that bids at denting his “political integrity and popularity” are “politically motivated and are absolutely false.” No institution or agency can create popularity, he said, asserting he is “neither a man of agencies nor that of any institution.”
A general perception within the political elite is that Mir is one of the few politicians who are strongly rooted in the security set up. But Mir says he is by the people and for the people. But Kamal, his erstwhile rival disagrees: “Mir was brought up in Army’s lap, IB lent him its hand and Congress made him the minister.”
But the hell broke lose that very evening when General V K Singh, in order to defend his actions, said sponsoring the politics in Kashmir is no new norm as it has been happening since 1947.
“Army transfers money to all the ministers in J&K. Because there are various things to be done and ministers have to do so many things as part of the stabilizing factor in the state and for organizing various activities,” Singh told a TV channel live, shocking the anchor more than their audience. “I have served in Kashmir myself and am aware of it. I know which politicians have been paid during my tenures. It is not unusual.”
For doing a “particular thing”, General Singh said “most of the ministers” are given “a certain sum”. He asserted that it is nothing new because “this has been going on in J&K from Independence” and because army has the job to “keep the country together”, and maintain its integrity. Kashmir, he said, is a “different issue altogether” where a lot of things are done – lot of civic and youth work. “For all this, money is needed. A certain amount of money is given for these works. Where is the problem?” He did identify many goals that TSD achieved: JKPL, Panchayat elections and end to stone throwing in 2010. “It was all part of a larger game plan,” he said.
General’s attack on ruling NC was scathing. Accusing it of misleading India on 2010 unrest, General Singh asserted the party was responsible for it. “The leaders of this party are opportunists who can go to any extent to achieve their goal,” Singh said. “NC is alienating the youth there.” Asked if Omar knew of the army’s transactions to his ministers, Singh said: “If as a chief minister you do not know this, you are not running the state”! Asked by a newspaper if payoffs do not amount to interference in a democratically elected government, Singh said that it does not “if a civilian government is unable to get the people together…”
The General who has remained controversial (and anti-Kashmir throughout, according to Radha Kumar) at the fag end of his tenure tried to correct the records. “When I had said some politicians were given money, it was not meant for their personal purpose or political purpose. It was not for lining their pockets or for bribe. It was meant solely for stability, to win hearts and minds of people, to wean people away from separatist activities under the overall umbrella of Sadbhavna (harmony).” The damage was done.
All of a sudden almost everybody in the unionist camp started reacting in anger. “The Government of India needs to come clean on this (allegations of payoffs). Otherwise all mainstream political parties are today being looked at with suspicion,” Omar said. “The accusations that all ministers since 1947 have taken money from the army must be probed and the findings be shared with us.”
Omar believes majority of mainstream politicians lack any financial dealing with the army but Singh’s allegations cannot be “dismissed out of hand” and require “further investigations”. The issue, he said, he has already taken up with the central government.
Muzaffar Hussain Beig, former Deputy Chief Minister, said the statement has done to Kashmirs’ unionists what ISI could not do in 60 years. “We all have eggs on our faces,” said Baig’s President Ms Mehbooba Mufti. “While it has insulted the people who believe in the institution of democracy, the revelations have vindicated a common man who believe Kashmir is a security enterprise.”
Ms Mufti said the idea that every Kashmiri has a price tag on his head and that loyalties have been purchased throughout post-partition are disturbing revelations. “The use of money in subverting democracy is not a small revelation,” she said. “The tragic part that nobody has disapproved it or denied it because (they believe) it is in the national interest is an additional worry.” She said corruption, violations of human rights and even rapes are being condoned in the national interest. Ms Mufti said the exposé must prove an eye opener for the policy makers in Delhi, who should stop playing favorites, empower the people and not bribe and use illegal means in the national interest.
Ghulam Nabi Azad whose government crumbled under the morass of 2008 said he is shocked because “I have been myself the chief minister.” He asserted that if he did not know it, how would the present or earlier chief minister know this? But do J&K Chief Ministers know everything that happens in J&K? Azad’s one time mentor and former Chief Minister Mufti Sayeed told a gathering in Jammu: “People in Kashmir have been living under an impression that everything, including elections, are stage-managed by intelligence agencies.”
The widespread condemnations forced a silence on Singh. Home Minister asked the sulking soldier to disclose the names so that investigations start. Even PMO hinted that the allegations will be probed. The debate was adjudged to have a penalty corner: whether or not an army chief can reveal such secrets!
The entire controversy that is generally being believed to be one of the watershed admissions in recent history, however, brought 2010 uprising back in sharp focus. Did army initiate the uprising, fueled it or helped settle it? “The General is responsible for the bloodshed and he has to answer why he engineered such innocent killing at the hands of Indian agencies?” Omar’s senior minister Ali Mohammad Sagar said. “We want a probe into the killings of youth.”
Ms Mufti countered NC stand asserting that the party was then justifying the killings saying the slain youth are drug addicts and criminals and the security apparatus was acting in its defence. “They (NC) even accused us of fueling and funding it,” Ms Mufti said. “Our stand remains that 2010 was peoples’ reaction to the killings.”
It was in this euphoria that JKLF leader M Yasin Malik, who had his PIL about 2010 pending before the High Court, moved a supplementary petition seeking inclusion of TSD activities in the probe he had sought in the main case. He sees the killings of 2010 as a larger conspiracy and not a law and order problem as police maintains.
“It is submitted that having regard to the disclosure made and report of Lt. General Vinod Bhatia, excerpts of which have been reported by the press, there is reason to believe that the whole operation was orchestrated by the Indian Army in the Valley during 2010. It also appears that the massacre of the people coupled with destruction of the private properties bringing the whole State to a standstill, was outcome of deep rooted conspiracy in which State funds were used, official positions abused and many people in the civil administration/ police used including amongst journalists,” the supplementary petition reads. The High Court is yet to decide on it. The petition sees justification for AFSPA continuation as the “discernable object” of the killings.
Separatists were excited. They have accusing unionists of being puppets of Delhi but it was for the first time that they were feeling vindicated. Mirwaiz Umer Farooq sees the civilian government as the continuation of the martial law. “The revelations have exposed the facade of democratic rule which hoodwinks its (Indias) own people and the international community,” the peacenik cleric said. “The fact is the statement (of Singh) is nothing new.”
While the debate is gradually heading towards a slow burial (there is no possibility of the case being investigated by CBI given the sensitive nature of the report considered to be most credible because of the meticulous nature of probe by DGMO), Kashmir feels its age-old belief is finally vindicated.
Even the unionists say it can not be negated. A PDP lawmaker speaking on the condition of anonymity said these ‘proxies’ representing the security establishment in the government are many and have existed in all regimes. “They make interventions, sometimes very decisive,” the lawmaker who has been in governance for a long time, said. “When we were in power we had 10 lawmakers whom the then Deputy Chief Minister Mangat Ram Sharma would term as ‘the buffer state’.”
Admitting that the phenomenon exists, a Congress leader – also speaking off the record, said the relationship does exist. “It may not be taking money but yes people avail concessions,” the lawmaker said. “People do use the influence that particular security agencies might be having in particular belts.” He said after 1990 militancy literally obliterated the unionist influence, it was the security grid that helped them become relevant. “It started with help people sought in securing release of detainees and this relationship led to revival of the contacts and it bloomed.”