Shabir Shah’s Mandela Days

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A S Dulat managed Kashmir as IB’s top guy and later RAW boss. He has made sensational revelations about events, politics and persons in his book ‘Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years’. Devoting a chapter to Shabir Shah, Dulat says Shah’s dithering prevented him from changing the destiny of his people

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Shabir Shah

…And we spent a lot of time cultivating relationships like the one with Shabir Ahmed Shah, the headmaster of the boys who took up arms in the late 1980s – early 1990s.

Shabir had been in and out of jail since 1968, when he was only fourteen years old. The only Kashmiri who had spent more time in jail than Shabir was Sheikh Abdullah. The fact that Shabir was older than the new lot of militant boys and the fact that he kept going into and coming out of jail made him the object of respect and admiration for Kashmiri youngsters. Myths grew around him such as the one that he unfurled a Pakistani flag at an international cricket match between India and the West Indies in Srinagar in 1983. He wasn’t even at the match.

But he didn’t mind all the publicity and all the time in jail: it saved him from ever having to lay out an agenda or a roadmap to freedom.

Shabir caught my attention in late 1988…By that time he was also known as an Amnesty International ‘prisoner of conscience’: he was quite taken by such monikers. And then almost a year later he and his lieutenant Nayeem Khan were arrested at Ramban in Jammu while the two were making an attempt to cross the Line of Control to take charge of separatist activities in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The ISI guys were waiting for him and had wanted him to come across for a long time; he was a most sought-after separatist.

Years later various former comrades of his would allege that Shabir himself avoided going across because he lacked the courage to do so… And incidentally, Shabir is the only separatist leader who has never been to Pakistan.

When I started talking to Kashmiris then, the obvious choice to start with was Shabir… The fact is that anybody who is somebody or who thinks he is somebody in Kashmir has a big ego. And at that point Shabir was the headmaster to the rest of the militants.

Shabir was in jail with his lieutenant Nayeem Khan, who had left the ISL to join with Shabir in the People’s League. Nayeem was a good, practical influence on Shabir, who had dreams and visions. Nayeem helped our cause as a voice of reason at Shabir’s side because when we started talking to Shabir, the prisoner of conscience had typical Kashmiri reservations. ‘What are we going to talk about?’ he said to me.

‘Let’s talk about talking,’ I replied.

 ‘It has to be peace with honour,’ Shabir would tell me.

So from talking about talks, we began speaking about the futility of the gun, and then about peace with honour. It was a slow process.

Sometimes I met him in jail, bringing along a bottle of Rooh Afza and a box of grapes, and sometimes I met him at a Jammu nursing home. We began to talk of dialogue. I began to call him the Nelson Mandela of Kashmir, and he liked to be known that way. We spoke of a settlement with India and that he could become chief minister—or even prime minister—of Kashmir in the way that Sheikh Saheb was in the period 1947–53.

Once other separatists were released in 1993—the MUF guys who formed the All Parties Hurriyat Conference—he began to feel ready for release. We really massaged his ego, encouraging him to think that he had a monopoly on Delhi and that we wanted to see him as chief minister. ‘Shah Saheb,’ I said. ‘Now we want to see you there. I want to come and stay with you.’

Shabir would laugh about it, but he was also concerned because he was going along with the flow and once in a while he would wonder whether he had gone too far or whether he had gone too fast, and where all this would end up. ‘I will be responsible,’ he said repeatedly to us, and insisted that there had to be peace with honour. ‘Of course,’ I said. ‘If there’s a dialogue, there has to be something for the Kashmiris also.’

… Yet since he felt he was senior and superior to all the other separatists he wanted to wait till the government of India released the big-name separatists before they released him. Indeed, the last big name released before Shabir was Yasin Malik in May 1994, and in October 1994 Shabir was released.

When Shabir was out, he decided he would march to Poonch, then back to Jammu and then climb up through Bhaderwah and Kishtwar in Doda (a part of the Jammu region) on his way to Anantnag in south Kashmir. It was a good plan. By the time he reached Srinagar he was like the Pied Piper of Hamlin: everyone was following him. His each stop was thronged by excited Kashmiris. I was taken aback by the massive reception and asked a Kashmiri friend, ‘Is this guy really that big?’

The Kashmiri turned around and said: ‘Look, there is a feeling that he has done a deal with Delhi and therefore he gives us a lot of hope. That is the reason so many people are backing him or following him.’

Shabir was the right man at the right moment. Kashmiris had gone through almost five years of unrelenting violence without any of the Azaadi that the ISI had promised them. They wanted relief and they wanted peace with honour. Shabir tapped the sentiment and in Baramulla he made a speech where he said that he had come with a needle and thread, looking to sew together a peace. It seemed that in 1995 he would seize the moment and give Kashmir a new direction. He had even gotten married in 1995, something that not only ended his penchant for repeatedly going to jail but also fuelled his personal ambition. He spoke to his friends about the possibility that he could win a Nobel Prize.

And then, nothing happened. Shabir began to have second thoughts and he began backtracking.

Some of it was his own fear of stepping up to the plate, and some of it was Delhi. In March 1995, for instance, Shabir came to Delhi and he met a whole bunch of politicians, including those in the ruling Congress party, those in the Left, and even Vajpayee, who was then the leader of the opposition.

While he was in Delhi he told us that he needed to go to Kathmandu, and he asked me to facilitate the trip. ‘I’m going to meet Mehmood Sagar,’ he said, referring to his Pakistan-based senior colleague in the People’s League. Sagar used to own a shop in Maharaj Bazaar, and in 1987, boys would congregate there before they crossed the LoC. Shabir apparently wanted to consult his senior colleague, who was himself now across the LoC. ‘I can only meet him in Kathmandu,’ Shabir said. ‘So I must go to Kathmandu.’

I judged that it was no big deal. If we were to do business with him then we should let him go, even if it was obvious that Sagar would not be the only person he would meet. It would be Mehmood Sagar-plus; the ISI would want a word or two as well. ‘No big deal,’ I thought.

I was overruled by my panicky bosses in Delhi. ‘No, no, this is very risky,’ they said. In intelligence work, you have to follow the chain of command. And so Shabir, who was in Varanasi on his way to Kathmandu, was called back.

Shabir never let me forget that. ‘Aap humko trust nahin karte,’ he said. To put it in the words of George Tenet, we should have taken that chance to check him out.

As Shabir began to lose steam the people around him became increasingly disillusioned. As 1995 progressed, all that Nayeem and Firdous ever saw was Shabir having a ball, travelling around India and meeting politicians and activists, going to places like Calcutta and Trivandrum and being feted as The Next Big Thing From Kashmir. The prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, who was thinking of a breakthrough in Kashmir (he had already had a breakthrough in Punjab with the 1992 state assembly elections), encouraged the political class to pump up Shabir. Shabir even set up shop in Delhi: he established the Kashmir Awareness Bureau in south Delhi’s Malviya Nagar, and it was inaugurated by I.K. Gujral, a later prime minister. It was part of Shabir’s getting known in Delhi and becoming a part of the political firmament.

And all that Nayeem and Firdous ever heard from Shabir was how he should get the Nobel Prize. This didn’t help the militants who wanted to join him over-ground. They were in a more precarious position because the lifespan of a militant was two to two-and-a-half years before they would get bumped off by the army or the police or somebody else. They needed a dialogue to begin, and a peace initiative to work. We even suggested to Shabir that he depute a team to continue the dialogue on his behalf but to no avail.

Narasimha Rao was so keen to rope Shabir into play—he didn’t like Farooq much and wanted to see a fresh leadership in Kashmir—that I was sent by the DIB to brief him on Kashmir before he left on a foreign tour as prime minister in November 1995. It was the only time I ever met the man, who also never looked me in the eye, but asked me: ‘How necessary is Farooq for the revival of the democratic process in Kashmir?’

Narasimha Rao was obviously looking towards a state assembly election in J&K the following year and it was clear that he was placing great hope in Shabir. He had even asked me to introduce Shabir to his finance minister, Manmohan Singh, another future prime minister. And to cap it, on that trip to Africa, when the prime minister was in Burkina Faso, he announced that the government was willing to discuss any kind of political arrangement with Kashmir; any quantum of Azaadi. ‘The sky is the limit,’ were his famous words. He was signalling to Shabir that he was ready to give Kashmiris peace with honour.

Shabir, however, did not see it that way because he did not check Narasimha Rao out. For some reason he thought Narasimha Rao’s offer of the sky was for Farooq and the National Conference to draw them in and thereby legitimise elections. That was the unintended consequence of all this: Farooq and his party worried that they could get left behind in New Delhi’s attempt to woo the separatists and so they jumped into the fray in the 1996 state elections. And since Shabir dithered, the National Conference won big and formed the government.

The dithering in 1995–96 did not go unnoticed by Shabir’s lieutenants, who ultimately got disillusioned with him—Firdous before the elections, Nayeem after the elections. Firdous and several other militants we were speaking to in fact decided to no longer wait for Shabir to make up his mind and in early 1996 they came overground, laid down arms, and began peace talks with the government of India. This was also a setback to Shabir because he believed he had a monopoly with New Delhi. When Firdous and other militants began a dialogue then Shabir began to think that Delhi was double-dealing with him.

More and more Kashmiris began to come forward and the National Conference won power; so that by the time of the next election in 2002, Shabir had missed the bus. There were more players and he was no longer a big deal. Had Shabir jumped into the fray in 1996 he could have had it all and a chance to forge his people’s destiny.

I had a long chat with Shabir during the 2002 elections, when I tried to persuade him to contest, but he said, ‘What can I do single-handedly? I can at most win one seat. If I had more people I could win probably three seats. And anyway it’s decided that Farooq Abdullah or his son Omar will become the chief minister.’ I told him he was wrong, but he did not listen.

After the 2002 elections, Mufti Sayeed became the chief minister without having won the largest number of seats, and I told Shabir he had been wrong. I told Nayeem and him that they could have been ministers if they had become MLAs. Naeem agreed and said, ‘Yes, we made a mistake.’ But Shabir was bitter. ‘Big deal,’ he said. ‘Mufti is the other side of the same coin as Farooq.’

Things were never the same for Shabir after that: his career drifted aimlessly and now he’s in his sixties he has a Hurriyat Conference of his own after once joining it and splitting it. He has of late tilted more towards Pakistan, which funds him, and gets money and hangs around in Srinagar. He is cynical, like most Kashmiris, and will tell anyone who listens about how insincere Delhi is.

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