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Pundir murder investigation exposes protection racket

By Praveen Swami

SRINAGAR, JULY 12. For the past several months, Indian taxpayers may have been subsidising the activities of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen in Jammu and Kashmir.

Investigations into last month's murder of the Indian Railways Construction Company (IRCON) engineer, Sudhir Kumar Pundir, and his brother, Sanjay Pundir, are starting to point towards the existence of a shadowy protection racket, fed by a secret slush fund run by IRCON's local subcontractors to allow work on the strategic Srinagar-Jammu line to proceed unimpeded.

Jammu and Kashmir police investigators told The Hindu that the murder of the Pundir brothers was preceded by at least a dozen protection payments, ranging from Rs. 50,000 to Rs. 5 lakhs, over the last six months.

While police authorities are reluctant to discuss the issue on record, evidence suggests that handouts from the slush funds enabled the recent resumption of work.

On July 7, for example, Intelligence Bureau personnel monitoring telephone communications in the Awantipora area intercepted a call asking for a payment of Rs. 5 lakhs from a subcontractor.

The Awantipora Superintendent of Police, Sheikh Mehmood, refused to confirm or deny that a call had been intercepted, but confirmed that the police were looking at the protection racket issue.

One of the major issues is the wide-scale cornering of IRCON contracts by one-time terrorists or family members of senior Hizb figures.

Farooq Ahmad Kucchai, a subcontractor kidnapped with the Pundir brothers and released later, served two years in jail on terrorism charges in the mid-1990s. The Jammu and Kashmir Police are currently questioning him.

Police officials said it was likely that neither of the Pundir brothers feared harm, believing that IRCON's subcontractors would bail them out.

Significantly, the brothers chose not to make the most of at least one escape opportunity.

Investigators have found that on the morning of June 24 a two-wheeler on which the brothers were travelling along with a terrorist was flagged down by a patrol of the 1 Sector Rashtriya Rifles near Litter village. The brothers did not make their plight known, and the two-wheeler was waved on.

The Pundirs' misplaced confidence might have been based on past experience.

Earlier this year, Rajinder Kumar, an IRCON heavy machine operator who hails from Hyderabad, was kidnapped near Bijbehara.

His release, police officials now believe, involved a ransom payment. The cash, the investigators said, came out of a decentralised slush fund, put together by the subcontractors by overstating the numbers of labourers working on the railway line.

For the subcontractors, the fund was the only means of making sure that work could proceed unimpeded.

What the brothers did not know was that the Lashkar-e-Taiba had tired of the tacit deal the Hizb had with IRCON's subcontractors. The terrorists believed to be responsible for the killing — a Pakistani national code-named Abu Sufiyan and his associate from the Pahalgam area, Altaf Husain Mir — were members of the Lashkar. The outfit has for long threatened attacks knowing that the railway line would ease the Army's logistical challenges in the State and allow for rapid troop movement. Although IRCON has completed work on the stretch between Jammu and Udhampur, scheduled services are yet to begin because of the risk of terrorist attacks.

Observers note that the Lashkar chief, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed's support for the murder of the Pundir brothers could indicate a Lashkar-Hizb split on the issue. Dependent on donations from fruit orchard owners and traders, who would benefit substantially from the railway line, the Hizb quietly allowed work to proceed, albeit at a price.

By contrast, the Lashkar has begun to take an aggressive position. Recent articles in a section of the Srinagar-based press have alleged that Bihari migrant labourers are selling bootleg alcohol, a charge some believe is intended to legitimise future killings.

"IRCON's experience should be a lesson to everyone," says a senior State Government official, adding: "If you leave a pot of honey out in a garden, sooner or later the bees it attracts will sting someone."

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