Twin blasts in Srinagar in 1988 summer marked the beginning of militancy in Kashmir. R S Gull revisits the situation that triggered a change devouring 25 years, one-fourth of a century, with apparently no idea if the dark tunnel can ever have an opening.
Nothing much is known about a tailor working for the paramilitary BSF who was hanged to death in Lank Reshipora village near the Wullar lake in the first week of June 1988. At one stage, contemporary historians had seen it as the first militancy related incident in Kashmir. Some cops even believe there was firing on a police vehicle carrying a faith-healer from Batamaloo, somewhere in the city outskirts. They, some of whom are still serving the force, would still believe that it was the first visible action of militants.
But the popular histories suggest the twin blasts, one each in the Central Telegraph Office and the Srinagar Club (on the banks of Jhelum outside the DD Srinagar) marked the onset of militancy in Kashmir. It happened during the intervening night of July 31 and August 1, 1988.
The blasts were sensational. Scribes visited the two structures and photographs of damaged walls and mangled furniture became the page one news almost everywhere in India. But the seasoned reporters in Srinagar were unimpressed because they had seen a series of such bangs earlier in 1983 for some time till the police announcing the existence and arrest of a militant trio who were running al-Jehad outfit (not the al-Jahad of nineties). Even the senior politicians, cutting across ideological divide, felt surprised that “vested interests” had stooped so low just to “divert the attention” from mis-governance and a series of killings of youth. Frustration was visible at all levels even in the government when the Chief Minister, Dr Farooq Abdullah accused central agencies of “giving me one report and a contradictory one to the Prime Minister”.
That day, newspaper offices received information about a looting incident in Emm Jay Petrol Pump on the M A Road Srinagar. Two Sikh boys had approached its salesman at 9 pm and sought money after brandishing some weapons. The salesman, Ghulam Rasool handed over the keys of the vault and they decamped with cash. The matter was reported to police and after the two blasts took place during the night; these were attributed to the Sikh boys.
Then, the militancy in Punjab was at its peak. Khalistani militants were operating in J&K as well. They had shot at Inder Mohan, brother of an SSP, in Batote. Punjab police would frequently get into J&K for arrests in Jammu and in Baramulla. A senior Khalistani leader was in high security detention in J&K. Punjab Police’s arrests in Jammu would create law and order problems in the state and the government, at one point of time, decided against permitting Punjab to operate in J&K hassle-free.
The twin blasts were not taken so seriously. BSF men guarding the DD did not move out even to see that the Srinagar Club’s major corner of the outer wall was ruined. Hotel employees on Exchange Road said the police came almost an hour after the sentry box explosion damaged the CTO’s telex points frequented by the newsmen. Police worked on the Sikh theory for many days till it failed to find a plausible explanation.
Reading a major change in the twin blasts was difficult, given Kashmir’s prevailing situation. On June 9, 1988, Kashmir was on a strike against the increase in power tariff and hike in mutton rates. It stirred a major crisis as clashes between youth and police broke at many places in Srinagar leading to imposition of curfew and shoot at sight orders. By June 16, the crisis had engulfed Islamabad in south and Baramulla in north as the death toll reached five as around 300 were injured.
By the end of July, there were communal clashes in Poonch and sectarian tensions in parts of Srinagar. Youth would pick petty brawls outside cinema halls – once over high ticket rates in black – that would trigger larger disturbances.
Besides, there were three major political problems that were offering loads of tension to the society and lot of dust and heat in the newspapers. Firstly, it was the formal breakup of the alliance between Dr Farooq Abdullah and Mirwaiz Molvi Mohammad Farooq. After five years of the ‘double Farooq accord’, the two had decided to part ways. Congress backed Chief Minister, Dr Farooq Abdullah said (June 17) he was forced to part ways because the cleric is putting his nose in everything – politics, administration, governance. At one point of time, he accused the cleric of blackmail. Mirwaiz Farooq, in response, said (June 24) he has finally found Dr Abdullah as an unreliable ally. In reaction, he sent his two lawmakers – who were part of the NC-Congress coalition, to seek separate places in the state assembly so that they stay far away from the treasury benches.
Secondly, the Muslim United Front (MUF), the then main opposition in Kashmir that emerged invincible in 1987 polls till all of them, except four, were defeated by NC-Congress by rigging, was facing an existential crisis. Backed by Abdul Gani Lone, Qazi Nissar Ahmad, former Chief Minister Ghulam Mohammad Shah, the then convener of MUF Molvi Abbas Ansari expelled Jamaat-e-Islami and MUF’s all the four lawmakers from the alliance. In retaliation, Prof Abdul Gani Bhat opposed Ansari and sided with Jamaat. Eventually, MUF bifurcated – it was Ansari’s MUF versus the Jamat supported MUF led by Ghulam Mohiuddin Azim of Pulwama.
Two theories were in circulation. One, Jamaat was resisting the idea of Qazi Nissar that constituents of the MUF should dissolve their individual identity and make MUF their collective identity. The other issue was that Abdul Gani Lone and G M Shah, who were denied entry into MUF during 1987 elections, joined the alliance post-poll, and started destabilizing the conglomerate. Whatever the fact, it was filling newsprint on day to day basis.
Mirwaiz Farooq, then not comfortable with the government, also was keen to be part of this alliance. He had a major show-off with Dr Abdullah over the July 13, celebrations when the latter suggested him against leading a procession to the Khawaja Bazar cemetery.
Thirdly, it was Congress infighting that dominated the mainstream discourse. It was Ghulam Rasool Kar versus all others. The feud turned dramatic when the Congress High Command sent a top leader to manage a truce between the warring factions. As he landed in the Fairview Guest House, the rival factions fought each other and most of the leaders were stripped naked in full glare of the media. This pyjama war dominated news for a long time to the extent that when the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited Srinagar, he publicly resented the happenings in the state Congress that was no more under Mufti Sayeed’s control. Mufti had resigned in 1987 and joined V P Singh’s Jan Morcha.
Detecting a major shift in the youth mindset in such a situation was very difficult. But when the state police started looking towards the home turf, it reacted swiftly. Within a week, more than 50 boys were arrested and interrogated.
All of a sudden, Srinagar became a frightening place, especially for the people moving around after dusk. There were drop-gates, barriers and body frisking at all the places after the evening prayers. Everybody was a suspect till proved otherwise.
As police started acting, militants responded. The second major incident took place on August 30, in Islamabad when an SRTC bus went up in flames following an explosion, killing commuter Ghulam Nabi Sheikh and rendered two others seriously injured. On the evening of September 11, Magharmal Bagh trembled in fear as the entire locality heard the Kalashonkov “music”. (Police said the firing in air was carried out by Sikh youth and not Kashmiris.) The major event was the attack (September 17) on the residence of Ali M Wattali, DIG designate, in which militant Aijaz Ahmad Dar was killed as his four other colleagues managed to escape. Police man Abdul Rashid was injured in the assault. By the end of September, there were a series of incidents including the one involving attack on the police headquarters (September 24) when a meeting regarding the rising militancy was the subject matter of a debate.
The situation changed so dramatically that when Pakistani dictator General Zia ul Haq died in an air-crash on August 17, Kashmir went literally out of control to an extent that there was no option for Dr Abdullah but to impose curfew for more than three days. Six civilians died in the resultant violence.
But the change that had changed Kashmir for ever had started much earlier. April 13, 1987 assembly elections – the last watershed event that witnessed massive involvement of the people, especially youth, in the political process, had frustrated youth. The massive involvement of the people in the electoral process did not yield the expected results as all, except four, were defeated by the NC-Congress coalition. The government used the power to declare “wrong” results. While losing candidates were announced winners, those winning in the counting halls were arrested.
This frustration had encouraged the youth hunt for other options soon after. With Islamabad managing America’s war against erstwhile USSR in Afghanistan, youth saw a favourable situation, not far away. Some of them went directly to Kabul and joined Mujahideen in their war.
If the version of erstwhile militant leader Abdul Ahad Waza is taken as credible then he and Maqbool Bhat’s brother Ghulam Nabi had crossed over the LoC in May 1987 and discussed the nitty-gritty with officials on other side over launching militancy.
Waza had seen off the first five member group across the LoC in November 1987, comprising Hilal Beg, Abdul Hameed Sheikh, Nasir Bakhtyar and two others. Slain Aijaz Dar was in the third group of recruits along with Ashraf Dar, Maqbool Illahi, Abdul Waheed and Humayun Azad. It was on June 6, 1988, according to Waza when Ishfaq Majid Wani, Mohammad Yasin Malik, Javed Ahmed Mir, banker Riyaz Ahmed and a student Manzoor-ul-Islam went across.
Better late than never. Police finally got the clues and understood the entire story. Instantly, it launched a massive intelligence gathering operation and the focus was Kupwara, the epicenter of mobilization and crossover.
Earlier that year, a devastating flood had led to massive damage to crops in south Kashmir. One day (September 27), it fetched an interesting scene and a great news story when Dr Abdullah while visiting Islamabad landed his Pawan Hans chopper in the bus stand. People assembled in hundreds and surrounded the chopper in protest so that it does not take off. Police resorted to cane charging to quell the flood sufferers and pave way for the chopper rotors to move and flee.
But the floods, due to which around 100 people died across the state, became a handy reason for the police to launch a human-intelligence operation by deploying scores of men and women as “flood sufferers from Islamabad and Pulwama”. With focus on Kupwara, they would actually frisk a person while begging for alms. They would create a situation in crowds that a suspect’s suitcase would fell off his hands and they would see what it carries. While begging they would get into the house unnoticed and start fiddling with household items. And when somebody would object, they would cry and weep loudly!
Soon, the police was able to join the dots and tell the whole story. On October 12, 1988 came the first revealing response when Police Chief Ghulam Jeelani Pandit – whose Gogjibagh house was also attacked by militants and, interestingly was stone pelted by mobs during the night – addressed a crowded news conference. On basis of a series of interrogations of the detained, he said around 100 Kashmiri youth had crossed the LoC through Keran sector to PaK where JKLF imparted them a three-week crash course in handling arms before pushing them back in July.
Police made 56 arrests after the militants were exposed when a twelfth class Kupwara student Manzoor ul Islam attended a routine public protest in his hometown and brandished a pistol. Soon, he was arrested. During interrogation, he revealed almost everything. He fetched the police the first Kalashonkove and revealed the details. In fact, police recovered a diary from him that had detailed the names and addresses of the youth who had crossed-over. Manzoor is believed to be living far away from Kashmir now.
Prior to the press conference, Chief Minister Dr Farooq Abdullah specially drove to the police headquarters along with his cabinet colleagues to have a glimpse of the latest weaponry that was going to be used in Kashmir.
A lot of arms and ammunition including 17 AK rifles were displayed before the media besides lot of propaganda material. Police seized the two ambassador cars of a Lasjan contractor which were used in transporting the men and the deadly machines to Srinagar from Kupwara. Pandit identified only 10 youth who, he said, stand booked for sabotage. These included a junior engineer and many others who had technical education background or were students. Most of them were from Srinagar city. The police chief said most of the arrested were supporters of MUF and were active in the 1987 assembly elections. Besides, police identified the people who were behind the twin blasts and the one carried out in Islamabad. Successfully, police arrested the entire groups.
But, subsequent events suggested, it was just a fraction of youth who were arrested and subsequently set free through routine judicial process. Then, police had no idea about what had happened in the periphery of Kashmir. Those were amorphous years of a change which showed its true colours only in 1990.
Police records suggest they have killed 21516 militants in last 25 years. As many as 5441 members from police, paramilitary and army were killed by militants. The civilians account for 16934 deaths and 22127 injured, some of them surviving crippled. Even though the unofficial statistics puts the numbers quite higher, the larger reality is that while one generation lies buried, another is surviving traumatized. The tunnel is only getting longer.