It had been another day of violence, rumours and barricades for me and everyone else in Srinagar. Most of the city had already turned in for the night when the old phone in my room began clanging. Throwing off the blanket, I rushed to pick up the call.
‘Is that Joseph?’
‘Yes, it is,’ I said.
This was followed by a long silence, and the call was disconnected. As I turned back to the bed, the phone rang again. It was another person, with the same question, and then silence again and disconnection. This was repeated a couple of times, until the last caller instructed me: ‘Come to the North Gate of Kashmir University at 7.30 a.m. tomorrow morning. Just you.’
The year 2001 was possibly the deadliest in Kashmir since the flare-up after the rigged 1987 state assembly elections. The violence claimed close to ten lives in the Valley every single day. One early morning, for instance, while riding the empty highway to Baramulla, my car was held up by an unruly crowd that burst onto the road, protesting the excesses of the security forces. Even as I watched, the forces opened fire on them. By the time we had managed to reverse our vehicle in an effort to get away, some protestors were dead and the agitation had turned more violent. Another evening, as I sauntered across the wooden Zero Bridge from Sonwar to Rajbagh, I heard the sound of something whizzing past. I fell to the ground in a panic. When I looked up, a few hundred metres ahead, a hotel that had been occupied by paramilitary forces was in flames. A rocket had flown overhead. Most of the time, the city was under a shutdown; when it opened, only the security forces and fear appeared to walk the streets.
Ever since I landed in Srinagar in early 2001, I had been awaiting that fateful phone call, which finally came in April. Meanwhile, I was living in a rented house near the headquarters of the All Party Hurriyat Conference in Rajbagh, and was equipped with an emergency telephone line and an old Kashmiri cook. All of this was inherited from a colleague at Rediff.com, whose term preceded mine in the Valley. One of my key agendas was to try and meet Abdul Majid Dar, the charismatic operations commander of Hizbul Mujahideen, the largest militant group in Kashmir. Dar had quite unexpectedly announced a ceasefire with the Indian forces in July 2000. The collapse of the ceasefire, less than two weeks later, was just as dramatic: from across the border in Pakistan, Hizbul leader Syed Salahuddin called it off. Dar vanished immediately after.
I wanted to understand what had driven Dar to announce the historic ceasefire, and what his plans were for the future of Kashmir. But it was not easy to meet a militant commander at the time. By the mid-1990s, the dynamics of the Kashmir militancy had completely changed, with foreign fighters from the Afghan war entering the theatre and Pakistan co-opting it. Kidnapping for ransom was rampant, and journalists no longer had easy access to militants.
In my attempt to establish contact with Dar, who was from Sopore, I had met with his old friends and associates. I frequently met Fazal-ul Haq Qureshi, whom the Hizb nominated as its negotiator with New Delhi during the July 2000 ceasefire. Qureshi was almost a decade older than Dar, and, in many ways, one of the progenitors of militancy in the state. A soft-spoken man, he freely discussed his role in fomenting local militancy as far back as the 1960s. But times had changed, and he was now fiercely committed to negotiating a peaceful future instead.
The lives and politics of these two friends, Dar and Qureshi, provide an unusual framework for understanding the complexity of the Kashmir issue. Qureshi was born in 1945, and commanded respect not just from other militants but also a broad section of locals and outsiders. A man of ordinary build, with a long, flowing white beard, Qureshi’s appearance offered a contrast to the strapping Majid Dar’s. While most of the Valley, including Dar, was initially drawn to the democratic protests of the ‘Lion of Kashmir’, Sheikh Abdullah, against the Union government, Qureshi was among a group of youngsters who took up arms.
The armed movement of the 1960s is a mere footnote in the modern narrative of the Kashmir conflict, but is critical to understanding its chaotic history. The sporadic and desperate violent efforts of the past allow us to fathom how the New Delhi leadership has repeatedly squandered opportunities for lasting peace in J&K, and failed ordinary Kashmiris, both Hindus and Muslims.
In the resultant tumult, there is another casualty: the erosion of the professional ethos of Indian security institutions, a decline that spreads beyond the borders of J&K and also to the non-military security establishment. …
From Bazroo, Qureshi was taken to a location not very far from the UNMOGIP office—Red-16 in Talia Manzil of Sonawar, Srinagar, possibly the police’s first interrogation centre in Kashmir. A two-storey, red-brick building with arched windows and a chimney, it was once the house of the second wife of a powerful bureaucrat. Over the next few decades, as militancy flared up, a number of interrogation centres would come up—in a palace, in a house by a busy city road, in an anonymous plantation, on a hilltop bungalow, in buildings by the river. These interrogation centres would become a symbol of horror for ordinary Kashmiris, and come to be a blot on the reputation of the Indian security establishment.
Behind the soundproof walls of these buildings, a new narrative was created for Kashmir. Within their confines, the security forces tortured both militants and ordinary protestors. The torture, in turn, fed the anger and fury of the local narratives against India. Regardless of the explanations supplied by security agencies, the secret compounds of the interrogation centres tarnished the credentials of Indian democracy, while feeding the ranks of militancy. And as violence rose, security deployment went up further, and so did the number of interrogation centres. Meanwhile, Pakistan had, over the years, established an efficient network of informants, couriers, gossipmongers and overground workers with extensive funding channels. As it pumped in more money and militants into Kashmir, India increased its own deployment of security forces and created even more interrogation centres. The business of militancy was flourishing.
The modern history of Kashmir can, in fact, be narrated through the interrogation centres. Hari Niwas, the grand palace of Maharaja Hari Singh, overlooking the Dal Lake, became one such centre. Another building, with an equally captivating view of the valley, was notoriously named Papa II. Numerous people have died in its torture chambers. After it was shut down, Papa II became the official residence of former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti. Amidst the spectacular landscape of Kashmir, one person’s home becomes another person’s graveyard; someone’s torture cell could be someone else’s bedchamber. In the Valley, grief and happiness are intimate lovers.
The day after that phone call in April 2001, I was up very early in the morning and quite restless. Would I be interviewing a famous militant or foolishly walking into a trap laid by a terrorist group? I could not rule out the possibility of kidnapping, given that it might prove to be a bargaining chip for the militants. Alternatively, Majid Dar, who was in the mood to pursue peace, might want to send out a fresh appeal through me. In conflict zones, there are no certainties, nor too many choices.
It was too early to call anyone, so I wrote an email to my brilliant and compassionate editor at Rediff.com, Nikhil Lakshman, telling him about the interview, giving him the numbers of my local contacts who had helped me get in touch with Dar, and promising to alert him after the interview. My driver and guide, Mohammed Shafi, who had worked with many visiting journalists, drove me to the spot. At the North Gate, I stood with a shoulder bag, while the city lay asleep around me. I felt like I had walked into a picture postcard: snow-capped peaks in the distance, tulips in full bloom, spring still in the air. A few minutes later, a bearded man on a rickety scooter stopped beside me and asked for proof of my identity. Once he had verified it, he asked me to sit pillion on his vehicle. He began riding slowly, looking around to check whether we were being tailed. A few metres ahead, the man asked: ‘What is in your bag?’ My notebook, camera and recorder, I said. He stopped, turned the scooter around, drove me back and asked me to hand over the camera to Shafi.
We rode down winding alleys, to ensure both that we were not being followed and that I was sufficiently confused about the route. We halted outside a house. Three people were tending a small garden here. The gardening activity was actually covert protection for Kashmir’s most important militant commander. In the morning light, I could clearly see the cold Kalashnikov muzzles tucked inside their long pherans. A few minutes later, I was seated in a drawing room and a middle-aged lady was serving me tea in silence. Then, in walked Majid Dar, a tall, strapping man with a neatly trimmed beard. Greeting me with a warm hug, Dar said he had agreed to meet me because of my articles, which he often read when he was in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), and considered mostly fair and balanced.
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Excerpted from The Silent Coup: A History of India's Deep State by Josy Joseph, with permission Context, Westland Books.