Book excerpt: Paradise at War – A Political History of Kashmir by Dr Radha Kumar

Paradise at War

The Siege of Hazratbal

In April 1993, the same month Prime Minister Sharif promised Prime Minister Rao that Yakub Memon would be extradited to India, the valley was rocked by a JKLF occupation of Hazratbal, a delicately beautiful Shia shrine built in white marble, rising from the banks that separate the majestic Dal and dreamy Nigeen Lakes. Hazratbal was the most popular shrine in Kashmir, a place that Sunnis also worshipped at and that Sheikh Abdullah had made a centre of his political mobilization. The JKLF controlled the streets and outlying areas of the Hazratbal area and had gradually moved to occupy the shrine and adjoining buildings in the Hazratbal complex. The Indian Army cordoned off the mosque and, after negotiations led by Rajesh Pilot, then minister of state for Home Affairs, the guerrillas accepted safe passage in return for vacating Hazratbal.

The Indian Army protested the offer of safe passage. A siege of the mosque, they argued, would force the guerrillas to surrender and be arrested. But the Rao administration, through Pilot, was committed to restart backchannel talks with the JKLF that started under Governor Saxena and continued under his successor. Rao had just taken office when the April occupation took place. On the JKLF side, Hamid Sheikh, who was imprisoned with Yasin Malik, was principal messenger in the backchannel. Released in 1992 in the hope that he would persuade the JKLF to enter a peace process, he ended up rejoining one of its militias and was shot by the BSF in November, along with a group of guerrillas who were trying to cross the Jhelum to flee across the Line of Control. The Hizbul Mujahideen, security sources added, set up death squads after Sheikh’s release to ensure peace negotiations would fail. In April 1993, the Hizbul guerrilla Zulqarnain murdered Abdul Ahad Guru, a doctor and JKLF mentor, who negotiated the releases of Congress leader Saifuddin Soz’s daughter, Naheed, and Indian Oil executive director, K. Doraiswamy, in 1991. Though it was a Hizbul guerrilla who killed Guru, the police colluded in his killing, according to Habibullah. Guru presented ‘a reasonable face of separatism’ and was widely respected, so he was a counter-insurgency target. Zulqarnain was killed in a security operation soon after. Frustration in the security forces grew in the months to follow. In Sopore, the aftermath of the market firing saw growing support for insurgency. Reports of guerrillas massing in the town began to flow from May 1993, but the state and union governments did not react. ‘Intelligence and others urged decisive and early action’, wrote Arun Shourie, editor of the Indian Express. ‘Nothing was done. By September, about 600 [of the guerrillas] were reported not only to be there, they were reported to have entrenched themselves in bunkers dug out in some houses at various points in the town. Minimal action in May–June would have seen the end of them. By September, a Blue Star-type operation alone would have sufficed. And intelligence was warning that if that sort of action was not launched immediately, and the snow were allowed to set in, the mercenaries would get another four to five months to fortify their presence. What sort of an operation would be necessary then?’

The challenge came in October 1993. A month earlier, intelligence agencies began to report that guerrillas, both Kashmiri and Pakistani, were using the Hazratbal mosque and its adjoining buildings to stockpile arms and interrogate informers whom they took prisoner. The JKLF, they said, planned a show of power against their arch-rival, the Hizbul. Though security agencies repeatedly requested permission for an operation to rid the mosque of armed militias, they were told not to enter Hazratbal or the university and college campuses in Srinagar. As a result, guerrillas were able to entrench themselves. According to Shourie, the intelligence agencies urged, ‘Even if the shrine is out of bounds, at least raid and clean up the barracks’, but the proposal was vetoed. Still committed to negotiation with the JKLF, though Sheikh was dead, the Rao administration feared to take any steps that might prejudice talks even if those were in limbo. The union government finally took action when rumours floated that guerrillas planned to steal the Mo-i-Muqaddas, whose theft once before had almost led the state administration to fall in 1963. The army and BSF were asked to surround the Hazratbal complex as they had done in April, but not to shoot or even train guns on the shrine. The area was cordoned off on 15 October, the day after guerrillas ‘held what was virtually an exhibition of arms and ammunition they had piled up inside the shrine’, commented Shourie. Along with the JKLF, the Al-Umar Mujahideen had staged armed parades inside the shrine for some weeks already. The guerrillas held 170 civilian hostages, who had been in the shrine to worship when the security cordon was laid. Within days of the siege, the newly formed Hurriyat Conference called for an end to it, and there were civilian protests in Srinagar, Sopore and Bijbehara that ended in violence, with around forty civilians shot by the BSF in Bijbehara. Eyewitness accounts recount how the demonstration of around 300 youth passed peacefully on the streets of Bijbehara, the ancient town of Vijeshwari held in myth to have been built by the god Shiva. The violence started when they went on to the highway, where demonstrations were banned since guerrillas regularly attacked military convoys using the highways. A government enquiry indicted the BSF and recommended thirteen troops be charged with murder, but a subsequent security review in 1996 exonerated them.

The siege dragged on. Habibullah, who had returned to Kashmir as divisional commissioner just a few weeks ago, was appointed chief negotiator with the guerrillas inside the mosque, along with the Additional Chief Secretary (Home), Mehmood-ur-Rahman. The two held round after round of talks with the JKLF’s Idris. The talks centred on safe passage for the guerrillas to exit Hazratbal, but stalemated on the details of exit. On 17 October, guerrillas threatened to blow up the shrine if any attempt was made to storm it. The union government, with the looming spectre of the Golden Temple, whose storming in 1984 led to the expansion of insurgency in Punjab, was loath to use force. Both Prime Minister and Governor Rao stated publicly that there would be no military action. The next sticking point was the release of hostages and surrender of arms. The government agreed to safe passage provided these two conditions were met, but the guerrillas refused. In the meantime, there was the problem of providing food for the hostages. The guerrillas initially refused to accept food packages and the army was in favour of cutting off water and electric supplies. After hectic parley, the guerrillas allowed food to be sent in for the hostages. Governor Rao had already given orders to cut off water and electricity, only to rescind them after being urged to do so by the negotiators. Negotiations were further complicated by dissonance amongst various government actors and the entry of additional actors. The army held to its argument that the guerrillas should be forced to surrender, whereas civilian negotiators pushed for a government–guerrilla agreement. Their publicly aired disagreements were exploited by guerrilla negotiators to wrest concessions. Surprised by how well-informed the guerrillas were, indicating they ‘were in touch with the outside world’, Habibullah found that the Intelligence Bureau had secretly installed a phone with an unlisted number in the mosque so that they could eavesdrop on guerrilla conversations. The line was not cut when the siege started, and though Habibullah requested it be disconnected, the Bureau ensured it remained open. It continued to be used by the guerrillas to broadcast statements to the international media, who were all agog.


About the book

 ‘A political scientist on Kashmir once said to me: “You cannot discuss Kashmir, or the Kashmir conflict, without starting with history.”’ In this way begins Radha Kumar’s political history of Kashmir, a book that attempts to give the reader a definitive yet accessible study of perhaps the most troubled part of India. Beginning with references to Kashmir as ‘a sacred geography’ in the Puranas, Kumar’s account moves forward in time through every major development in the region’s history. It grapples with the seemingly intractable issues that have turned the state into a battleground and tries to come up with solutions that are realistic and lasting.

Situating the conflict in the troubled geopolitics of Kashmir’s neighbourhood, Kumar unpicks the gnarled tangle of causes that have led to the present troubles in the region, from wars and conquest to Empire and the growth of nationalism; the troubled accession of the state to India by Maharaja Hari Singh amidst partition; Pakistani attacks and the rise of the Cold War; the politics of the various parts of the former princely state including Jammu and Kashmir, and the areas administered by Pakistan; the wars that followed and the attempts that Indian, Pakistani and Kashmiri leaders, starting with Sheikh Abdullah and Jawaharlal Nehru, made to find peaceful solutions, including taking the Kashmir issue to the UN, which had unintended consequences for India; the demand for plebiscite; the Simla Agreement, turning the ceasefire line into the Line of Control; communal riots in the 1980s and the growth of insurgency; increase in security forces in the state in the 1990s leading to public resentment; and the guerrilla occupation of Hazratbal, the fifteenth-century mosque. Showing that a changed Post-Cold War milieu offered new opportunities for peacemaking that were restricted by domestic stresses in Pakistan, Kumar analyses the Lahore Declaration and its undoing with the Kargil operation; the morphing of insurgency into an Islamist jihad against India; India’s attempts to parley with separatist groups; and the progress made towards a Kashmir solution via peace talks by various Indian and Pakistani governments between 2002 and 2007.

Kumar’s descriptions of the contemporary situation—the impact of 9/11 and the war on terrorism; the Afghan war and the Mumbai attacks which created pressure on Pakistan to take action against radical Islamists; the blowback in Pakistan resulting in the growing radicalization of Pakistani institutions such as the judiciary and its spillover in Kashmir; the Indian government’s failure to move Kashmir into a peace building phase; the trouble with AFSPA; the anti-India feelings that were triggered by counter-insurgency responses in 2010, the contentious coalition of 2014 and the killing of suspected terrorist Burhan Wani in 2016—underline the tragedies which ensue when conditions, timing and strategy are mismatched.

Drawing on her experience as a government interlocutor, Kumar chastises the Indian government for never failing ‘to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory when it comes to the state’s political grievances’. Equally, she shows how Pakistan’s Kashmir policy has been ‘an unmitigated disaster’. While arguing that India can do a great deal to reduce violence and encourage reconciliation within the former princely state, she concludes that if Kashmir is ever to move towards lasting peace and stability, the major stakeholders as well as regional and international actors will need to work together on the few feasible options that remain.

Timely and authoritative, the book cuts through the rhetoric that cloaks Kashmir to give the reader a balanced, lucid and deeply empathetic view of the state, its politics and its people.

About the author

Dr Radha Kumar is a historian and policy analyst who has authored several well-regarded books on ethnic conflict and feminism, including Making Peace with Partition, Divide and Rule?: Bosnia in the Annals of Partition and The History of Doing: Movements for Women’s Rights and Feminism in India, 1800–1990. She was one of the interlocutors appointed for Jammu and Kashmir by the Manmohan Singh administration in 2010.

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