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Thursday, Jun 20, 2002

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The big bucks of terrorism — Strange colour of Kashmir's money

Rasheeda Bhagat

Currency seized from arrested militants in Kashmir... The seemingly limitless supply of such money is fuelling terrorism in the State.

THE arrest of the Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani in Srinagar in the second week of June, on the charge of channelling money from foreign countries, particularly Pakistan and its ISI, to terrorists operating in Jammu and Kashmir, has raised serious questions about militancy per se being a thriving business.

A few years ago, a group of journalists from all over India, who were invited to Kohima, the capital of Nagaland, in an attempt to make them understand why the Nagas felt so alienated from the rest of the country, were shocked to find a full-fledged parallel tax system operating there. So well organised was the underground militant network in the State that almost anybody who had a job of any kind was in its tax net. The journalists were told by government employees that, on pay-day, the "collection agents" were invariably present in their offices to collect about 10-20 per cent of their salaries. "They say this is the only way they can keep their movement going, and even IAS officers dare not question them," said a highly-placed government officer, on the condition of anonymity.

Moving to Srinagar, a visitor to the city and its outskirts is bound to be struck by the scale of construction activity going on in the Valley. You cannot help wondering how and why recession does not seem to have affected the boom in real-estate-related activity. Ask the locals this question and the wry reply you will get is, "Terrorism is good business".

Mr Geelani was the second senior Kashmiri politician to be arrested in the past few months on charges of funding militant groups in Kashmir. Three months ago, another Hurriyat leader, Yasin Malik, was arrested. Interestingly, these two high-profile leaders are behind bars under POTA, but both are also charged with financial offences.

The Valley is agog with talk on how the Pakistan-backed and other Islamic jehadis can fall back on a well-entrenched network that keeps money supplied to them. Recently, a local journalist told this correspondent that security forces and the State police are finding it extremely difficult to take on the terrorist groups because the fidayeen, or suicide bombers, and their helpers sent ahead of them to do the groundwork for well-planned attacks, have local support.

Not all of it is voluntary or because the local host believes in the cause of an independent or Pakistan-affiliated Kashmir. Much of this support stems from fear. "But the amazing thing is that none of these militants expects free boarding or lodging facilities from the locals. At the end of the week or month they will ask the local host in whose house they are holed up, what the bill is. Now the local man will name a modest amount, more out of fear than any love of the Kashmir cause, but the militant invariably turns around and says that with the living costs being so high, this is not a realistic figure, and often doubles it," the journalist said.

All this money has to come from somewhere. It is surprising that our neighbour, itself in an economic quagmire, seems to find enough money to keep militancy in Kashmir going.

Those who find fault with the arrests of Mr Geelani and Mr Malik, ought to take a look at the kind of rights Kashmiris enjoy in PoK. Abdul Ghani Lone, the moderate voice of the Hurriyat, brutally killed recently, had admitted to this correspondent in an interview that the major difference between Indian Kashmir and PoK was "that here, at least, we are able to give such interviews blasting the government and saying we do not accept the Indian Constitution as our own. There (PoK), our brothers cannot dare to say such things to the media or anybody else."

So much for honesty, but it was for being honest about the Indian Kashmiri being much better off than counterparts in PoK, and refusing to raise cheers for Pakistan and its jehad brand of politics in Kashmir, that he had to pay the ultimate price.

But if the law enforcement agencies finally cracked down on the two Hurriyat leaders on charges of financing the terrorists in Kashmir, the step was long overdue. It is an open secret in Jammu and Kashmir that the fidayeen chosen for suicide bombings embraces death with a grand vision of jannat (heaven), fully assured by his mentors that his entire family will be taken care of for years on end. Where does this money come from? Illegal funds, of course.

And despite September 11 resulting in international scrutiny on the flow of funds across Islamic groups all over the world, there is enough money available to take care of the fidayeens' families, arm the terrorists and pay for their upkeep in a foreign land.

An NDTV report quotes Indian intelligence sources as saying that the All-Party Hurriyat Conference offices in Srinagar and Delhi run up a monthly bill of Rs 2 crore. "Their expenses include salaries and expenses for over 30 employees, office maintenance, telephone bills, transport and travel to and from Delhi, expenses at the homes of executive members, and media events and minimal relief work."

The report also quotes the Hurriyat Chairman, Mr Abdul Ghani Bhat, denying this estimate and saying: "There is no big political business going around with reference to APHC. It has a modest office, where people collect data on human rights violations, one or two telephones and one or two vehicles. All this does not entail such a big amount of money that we should maintain records. But I did stop relief work. I do not like the idea of Kashmiris coming begging."

But there are charges that the Hurriyat gets a chunk of money, apart from Pakistan and its ISI, from Kashmiris living overseas and Pakistani political parties bearing the label of either `Islam' or `Jamaat'. Those who oppose the two leaders' arrests and see their timing linked to the Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir, slated for early October, say this is the Government of India's way of eliminating the hawks in the Hurriyat who oppose the umbrella organisation taking part in any electoral exercise in the State. Because that would signal that the largely separatist Hurriyat was veering around to the inevitability of Kashmir remaining with India. Coming to the larger issue of the election in Jammu and Kashmir, this time around, for certain, the entire world will be watching the exercise. India and Pakistan gave the world the terrible scare of a nuclear war over Kashmir. The developed world is breathing down the Pakistan President, Gen Pervez Musharraf's neck to stop militancy in Kashmir. But this does not mean that New Delhi has got the clean chit from them when it comes to the most grievous charge Pakistan has been making — of human rights violations in the Valley.

Unfortunately, after the Gujarat pogrom, this charge has become easier to believe. So, all eyes will be on Kashmir, and the Election Commission faces a huge challenge in ensuring that, at least this time around, the election in the State is much more credible and not the farce it has so often been in the past. How it is going to achieve this almost impossible task is the moot question. Even BJP leaders from the State have been voicing their doubts over the ruling National Conference's sincerity in ensuring a free and fair poll. Though the NC is a part of the BJP-led NDA Government in New Delhi, the two parties will be opponents in the J&K Assembly election.

For now, the Chief Election Commissioner, Mr J. M. Lyngdoh, has said that the election will indeed be free and fair, no citizen would be forced to cast his vote, and the role of the security forces would be limited to ensuring safety of the candidates and the voters; they will not be allowed to interfere in any way in the poll process. He has, of course, ruled out the possibility of inviting foreign observers to oversee the elections.

But, and more important, he has added: "Anyone from anywhere in the world would be given access to polling stations, but cannot be part of the official observer team." But the CEC's assurances on the fairness of the poll will have to hang in the balance till the actual conduct of the polls. Let us not forget that many became militants when the poll process was hijacked and NC contestants "won".

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