By Ajit Kumar Singh
Maulvi Showkat Ahmad Shah (55), president of the Jamiat-e-Ahle Hadith (JAH), was killed by ‘unidentified militants’ triggering an improvised explosive device (IED) at a mosque gate before Friday’s prayer in the Maisuma area, adjacent to Lal Chowk in Srinagar, on April 8, 2011.
Militants had earlier fired at his car in 2006 and hurled a grenade at his house in Lal Bazar on outskirts of Srinagar in 2008.
Maulvi Shah was the third prominent cleric to be killed during 22 years of terrorism in the State. Maulvi Mohammad Farooq, the Mirwaiz (chief preacher) of Central Kashmir, was killed in Srinagar on May 21, 1990, and the Mirwaiz of Anantnag, Maulvi Qazi Nisar, was killed on June 20, 1994.
Maulvi Shah, a close aide of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) chief Yasin Malik and Chairman of the moderate faction of the separatist All Party Hurriyat Conference – Mirwaiz Umar Farooq (APHC-M), was equally popular among mainstream politicians.
The JAH reflects a puritan Wahabi ideology, and receives financial support from Saudi Arabia. Headquartered in Babershah in downtown Srinagar, with about 1.5 million followers, it is the only religious organisation with a following spread across the Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). JAH has 1,200 mosques in the State (814 in Kashmir alone).
Meanwhile, on April 16, 2011, Police arrested three alleged killers – Javaid Ahmad Munshi aka Bill Papa, Nissar Ahmad Khan aka Ishaq and Abdul Gani Dar aka Abdullah Gazalli – associated with a little-known sectarian outfit, Saut-ul-Haq (Voice of the Righteous) and former militants of Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen (TuM).
TuM, formed in 1990, is part of the 15-member, Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK)-based United Jihad Council (UJC), and enjoys close links with groups such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT). Elaborating on the conspiracy, Inspector General of Police (Kashmir) S.M. Sahai noted:
It was an attempt by the radical elements to take control of JAH. When they failed to dislodge him through elections, a conspiracy was hatched to eliminate him in 2010. [He had won three straight three-year terms as the JAH head since 2004] He was perceived as one against sectarianism and helping to defuse sectarian clashes. His work in the education field, especially trying to get a university from the Government, was perceived by them as a compromise with the Government. Also, his proximity with certain separatist leaders was not liked by them.
The TuM militants, it is reported, were unhappy with Maulvi Shah as he was believed to have ‘closed down’ the terror group [TuM], alleged to have had a long association with JAH. Other reports indicate that his denouncement of the stone-pelting campaign in the summer of 2010, citing Quranic references to justify his stand, as well as his engagement with the Centre’s interlocutors, made him a target for the extremists. Maulvi Shah was also among the first to demand a fresh enquiry into the killings of separatist leaders by suspected Pakistan-backed terrorist formations.Jameel-ur-Rehman, ‘general secretary’ of UJC, was reportedly in touch with the conspirators, while a local LeT ‘commander’ is believed to have provided logistical support for the assassination.
Political assassinations are not new to Kashmir. In a written reply to the Legislative Council on March 31, 2011, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah disclosed that, out of 13,215 civilians killed since 1990 (data till February 25, 2011), 698 were politicians. The highest number, 101 political leaders and workers, was killed in 2002. The most prominent political assassinations were:
May 21, 2002: Senior APHC leader Abdul Gani Lone was shot dead by ‘unidentified gunmen’ at a rally to mark the death anniversary of Maulvi Mohammad Farooq at Idgah ground in old Srinagar city.
December 31, 1993: Professor Abdul Ahad Wani was killed by ‘unidentified gunmen’ in Srinagar.
May 21, 1990: Maulvi Mohammad Farooq was killed by ‘unidentified gunmen’ in Srinagar.
Significantly, each of these leaders was killed by ‘unidentified gunmen’, and a conspiracy of silence surrounded the assassinations, while extremists sought to pin the blame on “Indian Forces”. On January 2, 2011, however, the chief spokesman of the separatist APHC, Abdul Ghani Bhat, cut through the shroud of silence and terror that had enveloped the State for over two decades, to declare:
Lone Sahib, Mirwaiz Farooq and Professor Wani were not killed by the Army or the Police. They were targeted by our own people… The story is a long one, but we have to tell the truth. If you want to free the people of Kashmir from sentimentalism bordering on insanity, you have to speak the truth…. Here I am letting it out. The present movement against India was started by us killing our intellectuals… wherever we found an intellectual, we ended up killing him…
On March 8, 2009A, a Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) Court jailed Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM) ‘commander’ Mohammad Ayub Dar for life for Maulvi Mohammad Farooq’s murder. The conviction and life sentence were upheld by the Supreme Court on July 21, 2010.
Bhat’s declaration appears to have changed the drift of the discourse in the Valley. Soon after Maulvi Shah’s assassination, despite some sections again blaming “Indian Forces” for the killing, voices were raised accusing local terrorists. Significantly, Mohammad Maqbool Akhrani, zila amir (District President) of the JAH, Anantnag, noted on April 13, 2011, “What are we saying? Either the murder is the work of Indian agencies. Or it is Pakistan. Who works for Pakistan here? It’s the Lashkar [LeT] and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. Why can’t we just simply state this? Everyone in this room knows that… The killers are within us. They are among us. We should unmask them.”
Civilians have had to bear the brunt of terrorism in J&K. SATP data records a total of 14,612 civilian fatalities in Kashmir since 1989 (out of a total of 43,061 fatalities). Indeed, anyone who opposed, resisted, or even refused compliance to extremist diktats, was targeted. Recently, in a particularly barbaric incident, terrorists dragged two teenaged sisters, Akhtara (18) and Arifa (16), out of their home in Sopore in Baramulla District in the evening of January 31, 2011, and shot them dead. A day later, LeT posters claiming responsibility for the killing declared, “We killed the two girls because their behaviour was improper and they were involved in degraded activities like informing the security agencies.” The LeT also threatened to take action against those who had started raising questions about the murders. Minister of State for Horticulture, Javed Ahmad Dar, later noted, “There have been many such killings in Sopore town. The traumatised people are clueless. Nobody dares to speak up publicly.”
In the most recent incident, unidentified militants shot dead a woman, Hasina Begum (40), a candidate for Panchayat (village level local self-Government institution) elections at Karpora in the Pakherpora area of Charar-e-Sharief in Budgam District. Though there have been other incidents of violence targeting the elections, this is the first political killing in Kashmir related to ongoing Panchayat polls. Despite the violence, a large number of voters are turning in for the 16 phase Panchayat elections held in the entire State after a gap of 45 years. [Elections were held for only 1600 Panchayats out of 2,702 Panchayats in 2001]. According to reports, 76 per cent of voters exercised their franchise in the first round of elections; 82 per cent voted in the second phase; and 79 per cent in the third phase. The elections, which began on April 13, will continue till June 18.
In a related development, following an unexpected meeting between the Centre’s interlocutors on J&K and Ittihadul Muslimeen patron and Shia cleric Maulvi Abbas Ansari, on April 21, 2011, the APHC’s moderate faction suspended him. Ansari is the former chairman of Hurriyat (Mirwaiz) and its founding member, while his party Ittihadul Muslimeen is the founding constituent of the Hurriyat (Mirwaiz). His suspension once again confirms the reality that peace initiative, at the present juncture, lack direction and possibilities of success. Confirming the move, the Chairman of the moderate APHC faction, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq reiterated, “We’re not against seeking a resolution of the Kashmir problem through dialogue, but the Hurriyat Conference is of the view that since the interlocutors have the mandate of only making certain recommendation to the Government of India and can’t take decisions on their own, any engagement with them is tantamount to wasting of time.”
Little hope of a proximate resolution in J&K exists, particularly since the only visible initiative relies on a weak and directionless group of the Centre’s interlocutors. Maulvi Shah’s killing demonstrates beyond doubt that, despite continuously declining trends in terrorist violence in the State, the gun retains its veto, and political assassination will continue to target even the most hesitant voices of dissent and opposition to the extremist cause.
Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management