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Conflict, cash, and the search for peace

Tuesday 28 March 2006, by SWAMI*Praveen

Is the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen ready for dialogue? Or will the vested interests of its junior commanders subvert moves towards a ceasefire?

SIX YEARS ago, Mukhtar Ahmad Sulaiman made his way across the Line of Control, to train at a Muzaffarabad camp where the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen prepares cadre for its jihad in Jammu and Kashmir. Last week, he walked across the LoC again, but this time to surrender to Indian troops - surrender, that is, along with his Pakistani wife, Tazki Bibi, and their one-year-old son, Wahid.

Sulaiman’s story, and others like it, have fuelled hopes that many, perhaps most of the estimated 1,500 ethnic-Kashmiri men in jihad camps across the LoC might have begun to tire of a war without apparent end, which has brought the State little but grief. Since the earthquake in October, at least 27 terrorists have escaped from their training camps or prisons in Pakistan, and surrendered to Indian forces.

Last week, All Parties Hurriyat Conference chairperson Mirwaiz Umar Farooq called on New Delhi to declare a unilateral ceasefire in Jammu and Kashmir, saying he would persuade jihadi organisations to reciprocate. Politicians from major parties in the State, including People’s Democratic Party leader Mehbooba Mufti and the National Conference’s Omar Abdullah, have also argued that India needs to move towards withdrawing troops and paramilitary forces from Jammu and Kashmir.

Is an end to violence achievable? Both the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen’s chief, Mohammad Yusuf Shah, and its operational commander, Mohammad Shahnawaz, have said in recent weeks that they are open to dialogue, as long as the mujahideen they command are the principal interlocutors New Delhi and Islamabad engage. Although both added several caveats to their offers, notably that New Delhi formally recognise that all of Jammu and Kashmir is a disputed territory, optimists were euphoric.

Despite claims that the Hizb is tiring, though, the ground situation is profoundly ambiguous. Inside the hideout where Kulgam-area Hizb commander Mushtaq Ahmad Mir had spent the last hours of his life, the Jammu and Kashmir Police found documents that show that, unlike their counterparts in Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir, many Hizb commanders on this side of the LoC still have a powerful reason to fight on: hard cash.

Mir, who was killed in a March 10 encounter, had issued 58 receipts to the organisation’s local financiers, in the main businessmen, fruit traders, and contractors. Forty-three receipts were issued to individuals who paid Rs.18,000 each; another 15 had committed Rs.48,000 apiece. From the Kulgam area alone, then, Mir had raised a more-than-respectable Rs.1.5 million for his Hizb unit. Although the receipts do not have dates, The Hindu found that most had been issued since December.

His expenses were also significant. Between November 13 and 18, 2005, the Hizb operative’s diary records, the unit spent Rs.75,080. Of this, Rs.25,000 went to compensating a businessman-sympathiser who had stored Hizb assets, and ended up losing his shop in a firefight with troops. Another Rs.28,000 went to the families of killed Hizb operatives, to meet unanticipated expenses such as weddings, medical treatment, and businesses needs.

Most weeks, Mir’s expenses seem to have been similar. Between December 13 and 20, 2005, the terrorist spent Rs.84,086. Of this, Rs.52,700 went for purchasing something cryptically referred to as "round 1700x31," possibly 31 units of explosives-fabrication components procured from another terrorist group. During the same week, the Hizb paid out Rs.5,000 a night to local residents who sheltered its units on December 12 and 17, and bought new mobile phones for two operatives.

Vibrant underground economy

Similar diaries recovered from other terrorists killed in recent months suggest that terrorism has spawned a vibrant underground economy. South Kashmir’s apple trade, train-route construction, and flourishing businesses provide easy pickings to terror groups such as the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, which in turn pumps back the cash to its overground operatives and ideological sympathisers. Often, funds are invested in businesses or land until they are spent.

Put simply, this suggests Hizb commanders on the ground have real equities in continued violence. Wealth, in turn, continues to draw new recruits towards both the Hizb and the Lashkar. Although the flow of new cadre to terrorist organisations has diminished, police records of young men who have disappeared from their villages without apparent reason - a good index of just how many people have joined jihadi groups as foot-soldiers - make clear the flow still continues.

Consider, for example, the case of Kulgam - the area where Mir operated. Last year, four men from the village of Damal Hanjipora went missing, along with two from Yaripora, and one from Kewa, near Qazigund. None, interestingly, disappeared from the town of Kulgam itself, suggesting that much of the recruitment is taking place from the ranks of the rural poor who migrate to the plains of Punjab for six months each year, to work as manual labourers. Joining the jihad is riskier, true, but also better paying.

Despite growing support for the dialogue process, there is no sign the Hizb is slowing down its terror campaign. Just on March 21, the Jammu and Kashmir police arrested five members who had intended to carry out car bombings in downtown Srinagar. Days earlier, the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen had issued threats to students and staff at the 33 Army-run Goodwill Schools in Jammu and Kashmir. Abdul Rashid Khanday, a teacher at one such school, was executed by the Hizb last summer.

Within Kulgam, similarly, the terror group has continued to work to assert its authority. Since January alone, the Hizb has executed a local Communist Party of India (Marxist) activist, Aijaz Ahmad Malla, as well as two policemen home on vacation. Mubarak Ahmad Dar, a small-time cellphone thief, was punished by having two of his fingers amputated, while Latif Ahmad Sulfi, a mole placed by India’s covert services inside local terror groups, was first tortured and then beheaded.

Many older Hizb leaders hope a dialogue could yield what could not be won through war. Still, a new generation of field commanders feels that the wages of war are greater than any payouts that may come with peace. Although 472 Hizb cadre, 31 of them in command positions, were killed last year, not one significant operative has so far endorsed moves towards a ceasefire. Putting a workable ceasefire in place, then, will need a mechanism not just to bring the Hizb’s Pakistan-based command on board, but also its on-ground leadership.

Haste, history shows, could precede disaster: India’s last unilateral ceasefire, in 2000-01, led to a dramatic escalation in civilian fatalities and large-scale infiltration, not to mention significant costs to the then-fledgling peace process in Jammu and Kashmir.

See online : The Hindu

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