Jan 16, 2009

India - Hizb co-founder’s arrest could set stage for dialogue

Praveen Swami



Mohammad Ahsan Dar laid foundations for jihad in Jammu and Kashmir






NEW DELHI: For students of theatre, Mohammad Ahsan Dar’s story couldn’t have had a less fitting end.

On Wednesday, the man who co-founded the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen — and thus laid the foundations for a still-unfolding war that has claimed over 42,000 lives — emerged unarmed from a safe house in the town of Sumbal, having made no effort to resist arrest.

But many believe Dar’s arrest marks the beginning of another —and just as potentially fateful — story. Inside both the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen and the State’s major political parties, Dar’s arrest is being characterised as a disguised surrender — a gambit designed to open the way for a dialogue between elements of the jihadist leadership in Pakistan, and the new government in Srinagar.

Ever since he was spotted by Indian intelligence assets in December, 2003, Dar is known to have made visits to India almost each year, travelling from Lahore to Kathmandu or Dhaka, and onwards by road.

Dar claimed his secret visits were part of an effort to revive the ethnic-Kashmiri character of the jihad in Jammu and Kashmir. For the most part, though, the trips — which appear to have had the quiet assent of Indian authorities — were used to sound out State politicians on the prospect of securing political space for the Muzaffarabad-based leadership of Jammu and Kashmir’s major jihadist groups — generals who had seen their armies disintegrate in the face of India’s increasingly-effective counter-terrorism operations.

Many within India’s intelligence community believe Dar allowed himself to be arrested, hoping that the new National Conference-led alliance government in Jammu and Kashmir will help realise this project.

Dar had been controversially released from jail in early 2000 on the orders of the then Minister of State for Home Mushtaq Ahmad Lone. Critics had charged at the time that Lone engineered the release to win support for the ruling National Conference among Islamists, in an effort to undermine the secessionist All Parties Hurriyat Conference. Interestingly, Dar had been arrested from the home of Mr. Lone’s brother in 1993.

But soon after his release, Dar escaped to Pakistan. On June 30, 2000, journalists received a telephone call from the former jihad commander, who said he intended to revive the Ansar-ul-Islam —one of the jihadist groups which had eventually coalesced into the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. But if Dar’s intention was, as many suspected, to set up a pro-National Conference jihadist group, it came to nothing. Mr. Lone, for his part, was assassinated by the Lashkar-e-Taiba during the 2002 Assembly election campaign.

A jihadist’s journey


Even if Dar’s arrest has no impact on the contours of the jihad in Jammu and Kashmir, his story is significant in itself.

Back in 1986, a group of Islamists linked to the Jamaat-e-Islami — which had been robbed through electoral rigging of the opportunity to establish a significant presence in the J&K Assembly — set up a jihadist group called the Ansar-ul-Islam.

Dar, who had earlier worked as a schoolteacher in Pattan — thus acquiring the nickname ‘Master’— was appointed its chief. Unlike most other members of the group, Dar had acquired rudimentary military training during a clandestine 1984 visit to Pakistan.

In 1988, when the jihadist in Jammu and Kashmir began to gather momentum, the Ansar-ul-Islam was renamed the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate and the Jamaat-e-Islami threw their weight behind the group. By 1991, the Hizb succeeded in absorbing several smaller jihadist organisations, like the Tehreek-e-Jihad Islami, the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen-al-Jihad Commandos, and the Allah Tigers.

Dar presided over this process of expansion — an expansion which saw the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen increase its recruitment operations from amongst small peasants and the rural poor, who had traditionally been hostile to the Jamaat.

By 1991, Dar’s success had begun to alarm the ISI, which feared he would seek an independent political deal with India. That year, the senior-most Pakistan-based Hizb-ul-Mujahideen leader, Mohammad Yusuf Shah, alleged that Dar had embezzled Rs. 2 crore from the organisation.

Even as Dar sought to fight off the allegations, he found that the ISI had begun to choke funds and weapons flows to Hizb-ul-Mujahideen units who still acknowledged his authority.

The power-struggle dragged on until May 1992, when Dar was kidnapped near the south Kashmir town of Kokernag and forced to resign his charge.

Later, Dar crossed the Line of Control to seek support for a new organisation he set up, called the Muslim Mujahideen. He received little assistance.

In 1993, Dar was arrested. Most of the Muslim Mujahideen’s cadre now joined the pro-India militia of south Kashmir-based jihadist Ghulam Nabi Azad, and initiated the counter-terrorism campaign which eventually led to the near-annihilation of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen

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