Chief Minister Ms Mehbooba Mufti is heading for election from her father’s Islamabad assembly seat later this month. The place has changed many masters in last three decades to survive at a huge cost. In 2016 summer, key catalysts that helped in earlier elections were found missing by Bilal Handoo
The bang that shook Islamabad on August 31, 1988 was strategically triggered a month after three bomb blasts rattled Srinagar on July 30, that year. Planted in a stationery KMD bus, the bomb killed a senile man Ghulam Nabi Kasab and declared the ‘war’ formally.
Next was a grenade attack in Malaknag that wounded a cop Mohammad Hussain, but killed a cow. The townspeople still remember how army amplified the bovine casualty in a bid to make “monster” out of the attackers.
The town then massively revolted on September 29, 1989, when Shabir Shah, ‘Azaadi’s poster boy’ was detained in Ramban. Four men were killed protesting: Mohammad Munaf Beigh, Ghulam Rasool Misgar, Shah Ji and another one. “A DySP Manhas ordered firing and FIR copy said a constable Arif Din fired bullets,” says Showkat Ahmad, an elder from old Islamabad.
Showkat was earlier booked with slain south Kashmir cleric Qazi Nisar for demonstrating in Islamabad against Indira Gandhi’s decision to abolish the minority status of AMU in mid-seventies. In 1990 when he was acquitted, he found his home changing.
Then Islamabad’s own Mufti Muhammad Sayeed was calling shots from Delhi as India’s first Muslim Home Minister. The residents recall it a gory phase when killings were just a routine. But by then, the town had become the rebel capital, where one prominent Jama’at-e-Islami leader had set the tune by drawing parallels between AK-47 of Kashmiri fighters with the ‘asa’ or the stick of prophet Moses, “which had extraordinary supernatural powers”.
Under this peaking rebel verve, every militant holding an AK-47 was “hero” in the town. Everything related to Mujahideen was a fashion statement, including their sports shoes, termed as ‘mujahid boots’ by youngsters.
Islamabad termed as “south Kashmir’s downtown” was a trendsetter. Earlier, when Qazi Nisar turned up in the town square protesting against Jagmohan’s dictum on mutton ban by sacrificing sheep, it became a popular trend setting event. “Islamabad had an uncanny resemblance with Srinagar,” says a senior scribe from Islamabad. “Both had Mirwaiz, Lal Chowk and vibrant student politics. Both acted as militancy’s launching pads.” There was another similarity between the two habitations living 53 km apart: sufferings.
In Chandpora village of Bijbehara, Rather family is still waiting for their son Farooq to return. Picked up on November 3, 1990, when he was on way to college, the 20-year-old son disappeared in custody. Family visited all places but was told Farooq was a Pakistan-trained militant. Shabir, his brother, is desperate to get answer to only one query: How can a polio-stricken boy, unable to walk properly, trek the tough mountains to cross LoC?
Instances of people walking into garrisons and leaving in pieces are part of folklore in Islamabad. In Hutmarah, for instance, in June 1995, Seer based RR unit arrested an irrigation department employee with two other men. Five days later, somebody dropped only his limb to his address. The ghastly killing spread a wave of discontent, fear and hate in the entire Islamabad province.
But the grotesque events never stopped there. On October 27, 1990, recalls retired firefighter Riyaz Ahmad, a major fire erupted in Islamabad’s Cheeni Chowk. His boss Bashir Abbasi got the call two hours after a guerrilla attack on soldiers in the town. “When fire tenders reached the spot, troops fired at us,” Riyaz says. “Two bullets hit my colleague fireman Ghulam Ganai, severing his finger and boring his chest. His truck crashed when he slumped at the wheel.”
He saw soldiers shuttling back and forth to flames, toting gasoline in their steel helmets, spreading flammable powder on houses. “When challenged by residents, the soldiers pointed toward the torched houses and shouted, ‘Look at your freedom!’ ” Among the challengers was Mohammad Aslam, a burly man in his mid-fifties.
That day, Aslam says, he saw militants hurling grenade on CRPF vehicle that upturned, perhaps killing some personnel. As casualties were evacuated, reinforcements came in. “CRPF first set shops aﬁre and then turned towards the residences in Khwaja Mir Ali Kocha,” says Aslam, an eyewitness. “Almost 450 families lost their shelters and two mosques – Shah Sahib Masjid and Malakhnag Masjid in an overnight inferno.”
Cheeni Chowk or China Square was a heap of bricks and rubble by the crack of next dawn.
Apparently, militants shifted their strategy after that. They spared the town where they were protected by twisting alleys and sympathetic residents and battled in the periphery.
But Islamabad’s periphery had costs for sharing the town’s activism. On October 22, 1993, when BSF killed 51 people protesting against Hazratbal siege, Bijbehara was reduced to a mortuary.
Though no more Home Minister, Mufti skipped visiting the hometown for condolences. His clan, however, was staunchly pro-tehreek. One of his close relative showed allegiance to JKLF, says Ghulam Qadir, a Baba Mohalla resident, while other two sided with HM and Lashkar. “Later when Mehbooba returned to her hometown to seek votes, she rode on the same sentiment wave,” says Qadir. (Mehbooba lacks that flexibility now, when as Chief Minister she is contesting from Islamabad, the seat that fell vacant after her father’s demise.)
Initially, JKLF controlled Islamabad. Even cleric Qazi Nisar seemed supportive of Amanullah Khan’s force. But stake-holding increased and changed, quite fast.
Khurshid Mir created Dialgam Liberation Front, apparently to counter Manzoor ul Islam led JKLF. The split forced Yasin Malik and Javaid Mir to visit Islamabad and attempt disciplining the house. The situation changed to hilarious levels when a group of seven militants tried dominating the scene: they would operate as Boba Tigers, apparently in deference to the hideout that one Boba (mother) offered.
Those days, a young and handsome man, Sajjad Kenu was head of Student Liberation Front (SLF) in Islamabad. Kenu had a reputation of hosting Tiger Memon at home. “That was in 1992,” says Kenu’s ex-comrade, “a year before Mumbai bomb blasts rocked India.” Tiger was named as the mastermind behind those blasts, forcing him to flee to Pakistan.
But in Islamanad, Kenu’s SLF was known for standardizing hostage taking as a weapon: Nahida Soz, daughter of ex-Member of Parliament Saifuddin Soz in 1991, K Doraiswamy, Chairperson of ONGC in 1991, Vice Chancellor of Kashmir University Mushir-ul-Haq, and others.
Kenu later joined Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen after he, along with SLF founder Hilal Baig, shifted his base. Kenu was Ikhwan’s Islamabad chief. Jan Mohammad Khan succeeded him when he was arrested in 1993. Two years later, Kenu escaped in a jailbreak from Srinagar prison, went across LoC to found Jammu and Kashmir Islamic Front (JKIF) with Tiger Memon’s support in 1995. Shortly Kenu’s photographs with Tiger created ripples in Delhi.
His outfit, JKIF, believed on the doctrine: bring war to enemy’s backyard. “JKIF triggered Lajpat Nagar and Rajasthan bomb blasts in 1996 and were planning a chain of explosions in Delhi before Republic Day 1997,” reveals a WikiLeaks cable. But before that could happen, Kenu was killed by Special Operations Group (SOG) on January 8, 1996.
Years before Kenu’s killing, Hizb had taken over across Kashmir. Once firmly rooted, the non-Hizb militancy reacted wherever it could. It used local societal fault-lines to undo the takeover. That was the beginning of Ikhwan cult.
But before the Ikhwan could emerge on the scene in Islamabad, a secret meeting took place inside Khanbal Army Camp in early 1994. The meeting was called at a time when militant zones had sprouted in Islamabad making it a “chhota Pakistan”. Delhi’s new tap dance in Islamabad was its new military strategy with a civilian face. The strategy was the brainchild of Rajesh Pilot. He wanted to woo the militant outfits disenchanted with Hizb. One top cop in knowhow of Pilot’s plan says, “Pilot promised support to other outfits besides arms, men and money.”
Among the men summoned for the meeting at Khanabal Camp was Showkat Ahmad, a town elder. He reached Sherbagh Police Station where he saw many prominent faces, including Qazi Nisar. Then, they were driven to Khanabal camp where General J J Singh, who later retired as army chief, presided over the meeting and delivered a “loud lecture” on knock-on effects of militancy.
Showkat says he interrupted the General’s lecture: “How could your men act like beasts and rob chastity of newly-wed bride Mubeena Gani and her pregnant aunt?” There were no responses, only assurances to discipline the men.
Then Showkat saw the General taking one of the prominent citizens away. “They chatted for about 45 minutes,” he says. “Two months later, Ikhwan emerged on the scene.”
The Ikhwan became Ikhwan-ul-Muslimoon – pro-army force that Liyaqat Ali Khan and his friends helped put together. Operating from busiest Kadipora market, it soon started running a parallel government. The government gunmen reportedly conceived by then Kashmir police chief IGP Rajinder Tickoo were the police, the complainants, the court, and the executioners. “The funding for the Ikhwan came through the GOC, XV Corps, specifically through General Kishan Pal,” Liyaqat Ikhwani told a rights body. “Initially it was Rs 3000 per Ikhwani but later it was brought down to the same level as the SPOs. Arms and ammunition were provided by the army.”
As they targeted Jama’at-e-Islami activists and pro-Azadi people, migrations started. Prominent businessman Good Luck Footwear was the first to migrate from Islamabad. But even migration couldn’t stop the selective bloodbath. A series of bone-chilling murders took place.
People still talk about the Dr Mehmood of Dialgam, whom dreaded renegade Setha Gujjur killed in cold-blood in 1995. They also talk about educationist Abdur Rehman Paddar who was made to sit atop a KMD Bus by Setha. As rings of people surrounded the bus, Paddar was asked to say that he was not a Jama’ati! But the man, a respected principal of a Jama’at run school, answered: “I was born a Jama’ati and will die as Jama’ati.” He was shot dead on spot.
Some 655 basic Jama’at members, as per the records, were killed by the Ikhwanis in Islamabad and Kulgam, including 80-year-old Moulvi Rehmatullah Khan.
Setha Ikhwani is now part of Islamabad’s folklore. Originally Mohammad Amin Wani, he was carrying 90 registered murder cases on his head—though he had boasted to Srinagar weekly Chattan that he had killed 300 persons—when militants killed him in 2001. Apparently, he was running a seminary in Islamabad’s Lal Chowk. When drunk, he would give Rs 500 to his disciples who would answer his questions. His questions, included: “Who was the first Khalifah of Islam?”
From centrally-located Islamabad, Ikhwanism spread to Kokernag, Dooru and other places. Jama’atis being HM sympathisers were the main target. They were acting on what garrisons would say.
When a prominent Jama’ati Ghulam Mohammad Shakir developed cancer during migration in Srinagar, he sought his neighbour Bashir Dada’s help to return home. Dada approached Liyaqat Ikhwani, who directed him to visit a captain rank officer. The captain agreed and Shakir was allowed to return home, where he died of cancer within days.
Those days in Islamabad, Ikhwan’s strategy had become quite intriguing. At times, the state-funded militia would behave like militants. There was a 7-member squad during Ikhwan’s early days, acting as militants and involved in many ‘actions’. “By the time we busted the gang and realized they were basically working for army,” says Lateef Misgar, an ex-HM militant from Islamabad, “the group was already involved in certain malevolent activities, like a bomb blast at Islamabad’s crowded bus stop that killed eight civilians on December 3, 1995.”
Then the cleric was assassinated. In summer 1994, Qazi Nisar was killed in Dialgam. In reaction, around 80,000 people came out on the streets, shouting: “HM, murdabad! (Down with Hizbul Mujahideen).” For Kashmir, used to only Zindabad for militants, that was a historic Murdabad.
Qazi’s sympathizers blamed a local Hizb commander Fayaz Ahmad Mir alias abu Bakr – the only militant regarded high by Mast Gul – for the assassination. Then, Gul was cooling his heels in Islamabad. The pashtun guerrilla stood guard of abu Bakr’s home when angry men marched in to torch it. They had to return back. “Only abu Bakr had earned Gul’s respect,” says abu Bakr’s neighbour in Dialgam. A week later, Gul was leading a funeral procession of Bombar Khan, a fierce fighter overshadowed by Gul, in the town. He was buried next to Qazi Nisar.
After militancy stared waning, Ikhwan outlived its utility. The militia that acted as informers, busted militant hideouts, helped state in what former SOG boss Farooq Khan asserted “conducting 1996 assembly polls” ultimately became of no use. With the result, senior renegades like Tahir “fuf” joined Territorial Army while the ‘supreme commander’ Liyaqat contested polls unsuccessfully.
Disempowered, Ikhwanis were gunned down in militant strikes, ambushes or attacks on their homes across Islamabad. This forced them to take shelter in old town’s Prem Raj Nivas. Nivas, the sprawling Pandit bungalow that housed over a dozen Ikhwan families, became a fortress.
With Ikhwan restricted, militants never gave up. Even settling personal issues helped militancy survive. Take the case of Hizb’s operational commander Ghulam Nabi Khan alias Amir Khan alias Saifullah Khalid of Livar Islamabad, who crossed over in 1990 and settled there. In 1997, his 17-year-old son Abdul Hamid Khan, a class 11th student, was picked up by army from Srigufwara Higher Secondary School and killed. In retaliation, he is accused of the November 24, 1998 action in which his recruits detonated a 30-kg RDX device under a bullet-proof jeep killing six cops at Sirigufwara. That was the major cop killing in a single day since 1989.
But somehow, a new government took-over in 1996. It used the vast influence that Ikhwan and other like-minded forces had created. The incidents of 2000 spring revolving around Chattisinghpora, Pathribal and Barakpora massacres pushed landscape to a literal level playing field. In less than 13 days, 49 civilians were killed in what came to be known as “manufactured bloodbath” in Islamabad.
By 2004, major reaction started in the town when suspected militants killed NC leader and former minister, Safdar Ali Beigh. Shot at near a shop at Sarnal on October 21 that year, he died on spot as his PSO escaped with minor injuries.
As NC veterans including Chief Minister Dr Farooq Abdullah and the heir-apparent, Omar Abdullah turned up for Beigh’s funeral, a bomb was set off just seconds before the visiting NC delegations could reach the grave. They had a providential escape.
What baffled the security agencies was the brain behind these attacks. Already 21 Ikhwanis were bumped off in the town, forcing the rest to shun renegade ties. Some of them started selling stuff on street-side carts for the living. But one question was still unanswered: Who was killing these Ikhwanis?
Close on the heels of Beigh’s assassination, one Ghulam Rasool Wagay gave slip to forces from an encounter site in Islamabad. His diary blew the cover over the “Baber Squad”.
It was all about Baber, a Pakistani militant, disguised as carpenter and making his living in Islamabad. Married locally, the normally living ‘commoner’ was the last surviving militant, controlling scores of over ground workers. His squad had killed over twenty Ikhwanis and NC’s Safdar Beigh. It wanted annihilation of NC top-line, but by pressing the button seven seconds earlier, plot aborted.
After being busted, Baber was killed, but that didn’t end militancy. Then Mateen Chahcha emerged. Disguised as beggar, he was a Pakistani who had come specifically to hit an Ikhwan target, perhaps Tahir Ikhwani. “He was known as Bulldozer Chacha as he used to drive army bulldozer in Pak,” says a trader, who says he knew him. “Before he could hit his target, Mateen was killed in a fake encounter at Janglat Mandi.”
It was after this chaos, the native Muftis returned home. Mufti chose Islamabad because of its vibrant politics, says a scribe. Before his homecoming, Mufti was never a popular leader in his hometown. He was even overshadowed by an illiterate shopkeeper, Gani Veeri during Sheikh Abdullah era.
The overwhelming situation that Ikhwan had created and NC government had failed to address offered the major opportunity for Muftis to work on. Getting situational migrants back home was a constituency in itself. After PDP’s formation in 1999, the support base was visibly ‘green’ beyond the colour of Ms Mufti’s signature Abhaiya and her party’s poll symbol.
Muftis would tell people of Islamabad that PDP would undo the 1987 poll blemish. Mehbooba focused on Jama’at pockets hounded by Ikhwanis. “Her assertions only rekindled hopes in persecuted class, who later vote PDP to power,” says Asif, a scholar. “For their repeated Ikhwan bashings, Muftis were at the heart of the renegade rage. The father-daughter duo sought to consolidate anti-NC sentiment with unconcealed overtures to Jama’at-e-Islami. They attacked militia groups for terrorising the Jama’at.” The new party was trying to fill the vacuum created by NC. “They also began visiting slain militants’ homes to express sympathies.”
In the run-up to 2002 polls, Muftis raised hoardings in the town, depicting the distance between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad, and between Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Many thought, Muftis were creating “feel good effect” to woo the voters. The “other market” was the new catch. It worked. After coming to power in 2002, PDP called militants “our boys” and started releasing separatist leaders from jails. But with PDP making Islamabad its base, it apparently fuelled ‘Srinagar v/s Islamabad’ perceptions around.
By 2007, the Hurriyat patriarch Syed Ali Geelani was in the town, addressing a gathering of around 100 people: “You people have a Narm Gosh (soft corner) for PDP. It is Munafiqana (hypocrisy).” Next summer, like other parts of Kashmir, Islamabad was on boil over Amarnath agitation. In a typical “cathartic moment”, the youth gathered outside the erstwhile Kadipora Ikhwan camp, chanting pro-Azadi slogans. It was the same camp walls of which bore the writing: Get them by their balls, hearts and minds will follow.
Towards the fag end of 2014, the vintage slogan, “Muftian kabar, Kasheeri neber” (Mufti’s grave, outside Kashmir) was replaced by “Yeli yi Mufti, Teli chali sakhti” (when Mufti will come to power, hardship will vanish). Mufti emerged victorious from the Islamabad assembly constituency.
Last year, a few months before he passed away in AIIMS, when Mufti visited Janglat Mandi district hospital, one youth carrying stone pelting charges confronted him in the crowd. “Mufti soab,” he told Mufti, “I voted for you on an assurance that my stone pelting charges would be withdrawn. How many days I am supposed to wait now?”
PDP had sought mandate in 2014 to check BJP. Eventually, it became its ally in power. This led to anger. Many disgruntled PDP voters and supporters reportedly shifted their base. Among them was the former PDP polling agent, Naseer Pandith, who joined militant ranks. Besides one Masoom, PDP’s Sarpanch is now an active militant. Police even said that the grenade throwing gang they lately exposed belonged mainly to PDP workers.
Now, people are talking loudly about growing militant influences in the belt. Recently, one anecdote suggests that part of the town jammed, when a lady shouted: “Burhan!” It took passersby and shopkeepers a while to realise that she was actually calling her own son momentarily lost in the crowd than the new face of militancy in Kashmir.
Well before the elections later this month, militants have started giving attention to the belt. There were three attacks in recent days, one in the heart of Islamabad town in which two cops were killed in perhaps the first partly filmed attack.
As Mehbooba Mufti, the Chief Minister, is contesting from the seat that vacated with her father’s demise, the challenges have changed completely. Her main rival is Congress’ Hilal Shah, who has his “good works during floods” to his credit.
But challenges to the reigning Chief Minister’s are not from rivals. They are from situations and the perceptions around.
Right now, no Muslim right-winger is expected to support PDP for its alliance with the BJP. Separatists have already called for boycott. To prevent boycott, a list of 85 ‘troublemakers’ has been drafted, says a senior cop.
Even militancy would become a major headache in the belt in coming days. There is no Ikhwan around right now, at least, not in a position to be a cushion like 1996.
Civil liberties is a perpetual issue in Kashmir. But it is not in a state where it will trigger votes, at least in Islamabad. For Kashmir’s first woman ruler, the most dramatic election is around.