From heaven to hell

The inside story of Kashmir's militancy revealed through 5 former militant commanders

APH2002022182488 Burning resistance: Protesters braving tear-gas shells fired by security agencies in curfew-bound Srinagar in October 1993 | Getty Images

Last year was the bloodiest in a decade in Jammu and Kashmir. As many as 520 people—234 militants, 144 civilians and 142 security personnel—were killed from January to November last year, according to the NGO Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society.

After the 1987 polls, An MLA told deputy inspector-general of police A.M. Watali that he had proof that Kashmiri youth were smuggling weapons from Pakistan into Kashmir.
My generation invested their blood and tears in the [separatist] movement. Now I pray for a peaceful and just solution to the issue. - Javid Mir, former JKLF chief
Colonel Assad [of Pakistan’s ISI] asked us to recruit young men from Kashmir for arms training. - Abdul Ahad Waza, former JKLF militant, who dissociated himself from the armed struggle in 1992
Aijaz Dar was asked to target [DIG] Watali on the road somewhere. But he went to Watali’s house and was martyred. - Bilal Siddiqui, former chief commander of Muslim Mujahideen

Dilbagh Singh, director-general of police in the state, said on December 31 last year: “We (the security forces) have killed 257 terrorists this year—the highest in the past 10 years. The dead include top commanders of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad. We lost 91 security personnel, including 45 policemen.” He did not reveal the number of civilians killed.

Once known as heaven on earth, Kashmir is now one of the deadliest killing fields in south Asia. The body count has gone up drastically in the past few years, especially after the BJP came to power at the Centre in 2014, and the coalition of the BJP and the Peoples Democratic Party came to power in the state in 2015. The strained partnership collapsed last June, sparking a political crisis that has left the state under president’s rule.

The ongoing conflict in Kashmir has roots in the 1980s. THE WEEK spoke to five commanders of militant organisations who were part of the early years of the insurgency in Kashmir. Their stories make for an illuminating and unheard narrative of the conflict.

It all began when Kashmir was still a tourist paradise. In 1984, when Indira Gandhi was in power, the founder of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), Muhammad Maqbool Bhat of Trehgam in Kupwara, was hanged to death. He had been convicted of killing an officer of the police’s intelligence wing in 1966, and his sentence was carried out after JKLF kidnapped and killed an Indian diplomat in London, in an attempt to secure Bhat’s release.

Anger in the air: A discussion among moderate and militant separatists at a mosque in Anantnag in October 1989, following allegations of rigging of the 1987 assembly polls | Getty Images Anger in the air: A discussion among moderate and militant separatists at a mosque in Anantnag in October 1989, following allegations of rigging of the 1987 assembly polls | Getty Images

Pakistan had, till then, viewed JKLF with suspicion. India’s Border Security Force had penetrated JKLF, and one of its moles, Hashim Quraishi, had hijacked an Indian plane to Pakistan months before the 1971 India-Pakistan war began.

As Bhat’s hanging put the spotlight on JKLF, the Pak army saw an opportunity. It had long been looking for a partner to start an armed struggle against India in Kashmir, and JKLF seemed to fit the bill. Its pro-freedom stance gave the Pak army a cover of deniability.

Since JKLF had little influence on ground, it first tried to build a support base. Among the people it contacted were two Trehgam residents, Abdul Ahad Waza and Ghulam Nabi, Bhat’s younger brother. Waza, who idolised Bhat, had been arrested earlier for mobilising protests when Farooq Abdullah of the National Conference was chief minister.

Up against a brick wall: A JKLF march from Muzaffarabad to Srinagar, which was violently halted by the police in February 1992 | Getty Images Up against a brick wall: A JKLF march from Muzaffarabad to Srinagar, which was violently halted by the police in February 1992 | Getty Images

JKLF first contacted Waza through one of its moles in the police in 1986. “He asked me to accompany him to Muzaffarabad (capital of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir),” Waza told THE WEEK. “‘JKLF leaders want to meet you,’ he said. I did not go, fearing that he was trying to trap me.”

In 1987, separatist groups in Kashmir came together to float the Muslim Muttahida Mahaz (United Front) to take on the NC in the assembly polls. Fearing defeat, the NC rigged the elections with help from the Congress-led Union government. The Mahaz’s candidates and supporters were arrested. Among those jailed were Ashfaq Majeed Wani, Yasin Malik, Javid Mir, Hamid Sheikh, brothers Hilal and Jameel War and Bilal Siddiqui. The group met Waza in jail. Waza, who grew close to Wani, promised to take him to Pakistan after they were released.

After his release, Waza met a JKLF operative known as Babar, who told him that the outfit wanted to start an armed struggle in Kashmir with Pakistan’s help. Fearful of the possibility of him being arrested again, Waza told Babar that he needed time to think it over. “I had a discussion with [Ghulam] Nabi,” Waza told THE WEEK. “He said, ‘Let’s go.’”

A.M. Watali | Umer Asif A.M. Watali | Umer Asif

Under the cover of fog, Waza, Nabi and Babar trekked through forests and climbed mountains, crossed the LoC, and reached Athmuqam, a town around 70km from Muzaffarabad. They met a Pakistani soldier called Rizwan, who told them that a vehicle would take them to Muzaffarabad in the morning. He said the Pak army was aware of their crossing, and that even Sardar Qayoom, president of PoK, was unaware of Pakistan’s secret deal with JKLF.

“It struck me then that something big was brewing,” said Waza. “As the vehicle did not arrive in the morning, we went to Muzaffarabad by bus. In Muzaffarabad, Colonel Assad of ISI [Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence] took us to the residence of JKLF general secretary Raja Muzaffar. Assad said [Pak army chief] General Zia-ul-Haq wanted to help Kashmiris fight for their cause.”

Assad also took Waza and Nabi to Rawalpindi, where they met another JKLF leader, Farooq Haider. “There, the plan to start an armed struggle in Kashmir unfolded,” said Waza. “Assad asked us to recruit young men from Kashmir for arms training [in PoK].”

Javid Mir | Umer Asif Javid Mir | Umer Asif

He said JKLF signed a formal agreement with the Pak army at Haider’s residence. “Haider assured us that General Zia himself would inspect the training,” said Waza.

Two weeks later, he and Nabi returned to Kashmir and began courting separatist groups to launch an armed struggle. On February 11, 1988, the first group from Kashmir crossed the LoC for training. The group included Hamid Sheikh and Hilal Beigh, who later became feared militants. The second, third and fourth groups, which crossed the LoC the same year, included prominent names like Ashfaq Wani, Yasin Malik, Javid Mir, Bilal Siddiqui and Aijaz Dar.

Waza and Nabi sent young men for training without revealing their identities to each other. Waza said the recruits began to call him topiwalla, as he often covered his face and wore caps and goggles.

Abdul Ahad Waza Abdul Ahad Waza

They chose Kupwara as the dropping point for smuggled weapons. Once, while Waza and Wani were smuggling arms from Kupwara into Srinagar in a cab, the barrel of an AK-47 popped out from one of the bags they were carrying. Panicked, the driver stopped the vehicle and refused to proceed further. He budged only after Waza told Wani that they should kill him to ensure his silence. Waza returned to Kupwara in the same cab after delivering the weapons, and gave the driver Rs 1,000, which was more than double the fare.

Around 100 boys from Kashmir had completed training in PoK by the time Waza and Nabi were given their first mission in 1988. The JKLF leadership wanted to carry out blasts in Srinagar on June 13, observed as martyrs’ day in remembrance of the people killed in the 1931 agitation against the Dogra rule.

Waza, Nabi, Babar and three others planted explosives at the post and telegraph office, Amar Singh Club and Akhara Building in Srinagar. Two bombs exploded; one did not. The police arrested one militant, and went after the others.

Bilal Siddiqui Bilal Siddiqui

Sheikh, Beigh, Wani, Mir and Malik fled to PoK, along with veteran separatist Muhammad Altaf Khan, aka Azam Inqilabi. “That was the second time we crossed the LoC,” Mir told THE WEEK. “JKLF had asked us to bring along a senior leader for guidance. Only Azam sahab agreed to accompany us.”

On August 17, five days after they had reached Muzaffarabad, General Zia was killed in an air crash. “We went to Rawalpindi and participated in Zia’s funeral,” said Mir.

Back in Kashmir, the police were turning up the heat on JKLF. As the hunt to nab those involved in the Srinagar blasts intensified, JKLF tried to kill A.M. Watali, deputy inspector-general of police, at his home in Rajbagh on September 12, 1988.

Watali, who was close to the ruling NC, had been monitoring separatists since the 1960s. He was targeted after the families of PoK-trained militants came under the police scanner. “Aijaz Dar, who was lying low in Ladakh, said we needed to act against Watali,” recalled Siddiqui. “He was asked to target Watali on the road somewhere. But he went to Watali’s house instead and was martyred.”

Dar was shot dead during the attack. “I was caught when I was going back [to PoK] on September 29,” said Siddiqui.

Watali said he was first informed about the influx of PoK-trained militants after the 1987 elections. An MLA told him that he had proof that Kashmiri youth were smuggling weapons from Pakistan into Kashmir. “I asked him, ‘Have you informed Farooq Abdullah?’ He said yes,” Watali told THE WEEK.

He asked an officer of the police’s counterintelligence wing whether there was any intelligence input on it. “The officer told me a few days later that we were in big trouble, and that the boys were bringing in weapons from Pakistan,” said Watali.

After the attack on him, said Watali, the police arrested 72 PoK-trained militants, including Waza and Nabi. “We recovered rifles, bombs, mines and other ammunition,” he said.

After Benazir Bhutto became prime minister of Pakistan in December 1988, the training camps in PoK were shut down. Many Kashmiris in PoK were detained as she invited prime minister Rajiv Gandhi to Pakistan. “I escaped and met Sardar Qayoom and asked him what was going on,” said Mir. “Ten days later, the training resumed.”

On July 13, 1989, JKLF struck again. A group under Wani, who had become the outfit’s chief commander, ambushed a Central Reserve Police Force vehicle in downtown Srinagar, killing three personnel.

The JKLF quartet of Sheikh, Wani, Mir and Malik came to be known as the HAJY group (named after the initials of their first names—Hamid, Ashfaq, Javid and Yasin). The group began targeting politicians, which triggered mass resignations from political parties.

On September 15, Ahsan Dar launched the Hizbul Mujahideen. Dar was among the first 100 JKLF recruits to undergo training in PoK. Pakistan, however, refused to back his new outfit.

On November 4, JKLF shot dead Neel Kanth Ganjoo, the judge who had sentenced Bhat to death. But it soon suffered a setback when the police arrested Sheikh after injuring him in a shootout. JKLF retaliated by kidnapping Rubaiya Sayeed, daughter of Union home minister Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, on December 8. She was released only after Sheikh and four other JKLF militants were set free by the government.

By January 1990, Kashmir was going downhill. Abdullah resigned as chief minister on January 20, sparking a political crisis. The government’s clampdown on separatist rallies worsened the law-and-order situation, even as Kashmiri Pandits began fleeing the state.

On March 30, 1990, JKLF suffered its first major setback. Wani, its chief commander, was killed while trying to ambush a CRPF vehicle at Khanyar in Srinagar. It was dealt another blow on August 6, when the security forces arrested Malik, who had taken over as JKLF’s chief commander. Malik and his deputy Sheikh, along with 10 JKLF militants, were arrested from the house of Watali’s brother in Srinagar, where they were reportedly hiding.

The responsibility of leading JKLF fell on Mir. But, by then, JKLF’s writ in Kashmir had begun to wane because of the rise of Hizbul and other pro-Pakistan groups. Sheikh, who was set free in 1992 to woo JKLF into signing a peace deal, took up arms again. He was shot dead on November 19 at Alikadal in Srinagar.

The same year, Waza, too, was released after having spent four years in jail. Angry with the JKLF leadership for omitting his and Nabi’s name from the list of militants who were to be set free for securing Rubaiya’s release, Waza dissociated himself from the armed struggle.

In 1993, Mir crossed into PoK for the third time, to discuss with the Pak army the crisis JKLF was facing. “I met Pakistan army chief General Mirza Aslam Beigh in Rawalpindi,” Mir told THE WEEK. He said he also met Bhutto in Karachi. “She stressed on unity among all Kashmiri groups fighting for freedom,” he said. “I also met Nawaz Sharif and Asghar Khan, the first air chief of Pakistan, whose family had migrated from Srinagar.”

Pakistan’s ties with JKLF, however, had considerably cooled. Dejected, Mir returned to Kashmir. In 1994, Malik announced a ceasefire after he was released from jail. The move was in line with the political weather in the state. Separatist leaders had by then established the Hurriyat Conference to promote their cause peacefully.

“When JKLF announced the ceasefire, an article titled Gadhaar (traitor) appeared against the group in Jang, the leading Urdu daily in Pakistan,” Inqilabi told THE WEEK. “I and [former JKLF leader] Ghulam Qadir staged a sit-in outside Jang’s office in Rawalpindi, with a banner that read ‘Jang-e-Azadi main aapke shirkat chahtain hain, shararat nahe (We solicit Pakistan’s participation, not mischief, in our war for independence).’”

Today, Inqilabi has withdrawn to the fringes of separatist politics, and so have Dar and Siddiqui. “Now I live for my family and kin,” said Siddiqui. He said he had no regrets for what he did. “My father was a member of the Khaksar movement against the British. That is how I developed this line of thinking,” he said.

Before giving up guns, Siddiqui was chief commander of Muslim Mujahideen, an outfit floated in 1992 by Dar after he quit Hizbul. Dar was replaced by Muhammad Yousuf Shah, alias Syed Salahuddin, who had contested the 1987 elections as a Mahaz candidate.

Dar was arrested in 1993 when he was returning to Kashmir from Pakistan, and released in 1999. He was arrested again in 2008 and freed four years later. “My health has deteriorated, which has kept me away from militant and political activities,” he told a local newspaper a few years ago.

Malik, who publicly gave up arms in 1994, is now part of the Joint Resistance Leadership, an alliance of separatist leaders that include Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. With the Union government cracking down on separatists, leaders like Malik are wary of talking to the media. “I have written a piece on why my generation took to arms,” he told THE WEEK. “See if that is of any help.”

Last year, Malik published a piece titled ‘Why these young men picked the gun’. “My generation lost faith in the effectiveness of nonviolent struggle, and felt compelled to pick up the gun in 1988, for the same convictions that our parents held,” he wrote. “My generation got almost entirely wiped out. Kashmiri funerals became [events] where the old buried the young.”

Mir said he picked up the gun hoping that India and Pakistan will pay heed to the cries of Kashmiris. “My father was tortured to death in jail,” he said. “My generation invested their blood and tears in the [separatist] movement. Now I pray for a peaceful and just solution to the issue.”

Post insurgency, Jammu and Kashmir returned to political rule in 1996, when the NC won 52 of 87 seats in the assembly. In 1999, Mufti Sayeed quit the Congress and formed the Peoples Democratic Party. The PDP, which won 16 assembly seats in its electoral debut in 2002, joined hands with the Congress. Sayeed became chief minister of the first non-NC government in the state in three decades.

The rise of the PDP created a middle ground between the Hurriyat Conference and the NC. But the resentment on the ground ebbed and flowed through the years.

India’s efforts to end Pakistan’s involvement in Kashmir by holding reconciliatory talks with militants failed, as the Hizbul leadership split up and several of its leaders were killed. The 2003 ceasefire on the LoC improved the situation, but things again took a turn for the worse in 2008, when violent protests broke out over the state government’s decision to allot forest land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board. It had the PDP pulling out of the ruling coalition barely three months before the assembly polls.

There were huge protests in 2009 and 2010 over the murder, and alleged rape, of two women in Shopian, and the killing of three civilians in a fake encounter at Machil in Kupwara. But what fundamentally changed the nature of the insurgency in Kashmir was the killing of Hizbul commander Burhan Wani in 2016.

Wani, who became a militant in 2010 when he was just 16, had glamourised insurgency by regularly posting photos and videos on Facebook. His charm offensive lured scores of youth into militancy, and his killing in an encounter at Kokernag triggered an uprising that left 110 dead and thousands injured.

Wani’s generation, which the Pulwama bomber Adil Ahmad Dar also belonged to, was born and raised in the bloody 1990s, when the first batch of PoK-trained militants were wreaking havoc in the valley. Wani’s death transformed the insurgency from being arms-driven to masses-driven.

And that change is likely to keep Kashmir on the edge in the near future.