Hundreds of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen cadre in Pakistan are seeking a new life in their old homes in Jammu and Kashmir.

For 14 days and nights in September 1994, Abdul Rasheed marched across the 5,000-metre passes of the inner Himalayas to train for war at the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen camp in Pakistan.

The journey took Rasheed, part of a group of 116 volunteers from across Kashmir, across the Kaobal pass near Dras, on to the Hizb’s forward base at Gilgit, by jeep over the dirt road to Skardu and then by bus to Muzaffarabad. Eight men returned home; 12 died of cold and high-altitude sickness, and were buried where they fell.

Early this summer, Rasheed walked into a police station in Srinagar to report his return: a journey that began with a Pakistan International Airlines flight from Karachi to Kathmandu, by bus to Gorakhpur, train to Gurdaspur and, finally, two more bus rides home. His Pakistani wife, Nyla Zamaan Abbasi and their children, four-year-old Haroun Rashid and two-year-old Amna Rashid, were with him.

More than one hundred former Hizb operatives and their families have returned home from Pakistan since 2005; nine this summer alone. Many have returned knowing full well they could face time in prison — or worse. Kulgam resident Mohammad Jalil Amin, for example, served 10 months in jail when he was arrested on returning home through Kathmandu in June 2006. Naseer Ahmad Pathan, who crossed the minefields along the Line of Control with his Pakistani wife Naseema Akhtar and four children in 2005, is still uncertain if his family will be allowed to stay on in India. Rasheed faces his prosecution; his wife, possible deportation. In June 2007, Hizb operatives Irfan Ahmad Ganai, Fayyaz Ahmad Bhat, and Javed Ahmad Khan were shot dead trying to return through the LoC.

For much of this summer, New Delhi has been working quietly to begin a dialogue with the secessionist All Parties Hurriyat Conference — a dialogue that fell apart during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s first term in office. Even as the effort to resume the dialogue proceeds ahead, Jammu and Kashmir’s major political parties have been seeking to draw the Hizb into negotiations. Like the People’s Democratic Party, which engaged Hizb elements in talks through its three-year term in office, senior National Conference figures have sent out feelers to senior figures in the Islamist terror group.

Little remains of the Hizb ul-Mujahideen’s once-feared forces which, in the early 1990s, were believed to have numbered several thousands. The police say the code-name ‘Ghazi Misbahuddin,’ traditionally assigned to the Hizb’s overall commander for military operations in Jammu and Kashmir, is now used by the Gandoh-based commander Ghulam Abbas. But beyond funnelling funds, India’s intelligence services and the police believe, Abbas has little work: there is no longer an army to command.

The Hizb has fractured into small and largely-ineffective cells. Mohammad Shafi, who uses the code-names ‘Dawood’ and ‘Doctor,’ presides over the small group of operatives still active in northern Kashmir. Born in the village of Papchan near Bandipora, Shafi is among the Hizb’s seniormost field operatives. He joined the organisation in 1992, soon after finishing school. But there have been signs in recent years that Shafi’s commitment to the jihad is waning. Police sources say he initiated communication with the authorities in 2007-2008, to explore an exit route.

Both Qayoom Najar and Majid Bisati, Shafi’s key lieutenants, are believed to have sought to survive by integrating their operations with those of the Lashkar-e-Taiba. However, the effort fell through because the Lashkar itself had haemorrhaged commanders in counter-terrorism operations targeting the group.

In the central Kashmir area, the Hizb has only one significantly active unit. Mushataq Ahmad, a one-time resident of Vorpach village near Ganderbal, leads a group of just three ethnic-Kashmiris and two Pakistani nationals. Nor are things much better for the Hizb in southern Kashmir. The organisation’s top bomb-making expert Pervez Ahmad Dar — known by the code-name ‘Pervez Musharraf’— executed a number of attacks on military convoys while serving as the Awantipora area commander. He has, however, been unable to stage a major operation in over a year. Shabbir Ahmad, named in police records as the perpetrator of the killings of at least three civilians before the recent Lok Sabha elections in Jammu and Kashmir, has done nothing since.

Mudassir Ahmad Shah, third major Hizb operative still active in the Awantipora area, too has had little success. Born at Gadikhal village near Awantipora, Shah came from a family with an Islamist tradition; his father, Abdul Ahad Shah was a Jamaat-e-Islami activist of long standing. Having joined the organisation while studying to become a dentist, police sources say, Shah trained as an improvised explosive device fabricator — an enterprise which cost him an eye. He is alleged to have been responsible for a string of bombings in Srinagar and Banihal in 2006-2007. Shah, police say, left for Pakistan in 2007 before returning home in May 2008, but has done little since. Like his north Kashmir counterparts, his unit has been attempting to tap the operational resources of the Lashkar, but to no avail.

Perhaps the only significant-sized Hizb unit in southern Kashmir is the Kellar-based group of Fayyaz Pir, which is thought to have recruited at least 12 Shopian residents in recent weeks. Sangarwani-born Pir is thought to have joined the Hizb seven years ago, and stuck with the organisation even as its south Kashmir leadership was annihilated in a successful police-led campaign that began in 2006. Pir’s new recruits, though, have received only rudimentary training in the Pir Panjal mountains, rather than formal military instruction at the Hizb camps in Pakistan. Like other groups, Pir’s cell has been unable to stage a single significant attack.

Early in February, at a rally held by jihadist groups in Muzaffarabad, Hizb chief Mohammad Yusuf Shah — widely known by the pseudonym Syed Salahuddin — appeared to rule out an end to war.

“Jihad will continue,” the Urdu-language newspaper Roznamcha Jasarat reported him as saying, “until the independence of Kashmir [from India].” He lashed out at the Pakistan government for proscribing the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad — both of which were represented at the rally. “If there is a setback to the war [in Jammu and Kashmir] due to the cowardice of the [Pakistan] government,” Shah said, “then this war will need to be fought in Islamabad and Lahore.”

Language like this, though, is at some distance from reality as is being experienced by the Hizb’s several hundred-strong reserve in Muzaffarabad. Few have demonstrated any willingness to return home to swell the ranks of their depleted units within Jammu and Kashmir — a reluctance also shared by Shah’s key commanders.

Rashid’s story is instructive. Put to work as an apprentice shawl weaver after he dropped out of school in the eighth grade, Rashid found in the Hizb’s jihad a romance and agency missing in his life. In 1998, suffering poor conditions at the Hizb’s Jangal Mangal camp in Muzaffarabad and his religious nationalism stilled by years of watching comrades sent to death in an apparently-unwinnable campaign against Indian forces, he left the organisation. Living off a subsidy made available by the Pakistani authorities, he apprenticed with Muzaffarabad tailor Shakeel Ahmad Abbasi. Later, he married Abbasi’s sister. Having watched others make their way home to India, Rashid’s thoughts turned to returning to his land-owning family. Early this summer, Rashid paid a local travel agent Pakistani Rs. 4 lakh to arrange for passports, visas and tickets to Nepal.

Last year, responding to pressure from his war-weary rank and file, Shah ordered a ceasefire in October, the month of Ramzan. Later, he called for a solution in Jammu and Kashmir modelled on Northern Ireland — a formulation that suggested that the organisation would be willing to disarm. Earlier, in August 2006, he offered to initiate a dialogue with New Delhi and a conditional ceasefire.

In recent weeks, though, Shah’s language has been less conciliatory. Perhaps fearful that the APHC’s political secessionists would exclude his organisation in a future dialogue, he lashed out at “separatist leaders who were begging for talks with India.” He also argued that “Pakistan’s disinterest to highlight [the] Kashmir [issue] has disappointed and angered Kashmiris.”

Shah’s family embodies traditional middle-class aspirations — not radical Islamism. His oldest son, Shahid Yusuf, works as teacher, and Javed Yusuf is an agricultural technologist. Shakeel Yusuf works as medical assistant in a government-run hospital. Wahid Yusuf, 24, graduated from the Government Medical College in Srinagar, where the family’s contacts helped him obtain a seat under a quota controlled by the Jammu and Kashmir Governor. Momin Yusuf, the youngest of Shah’s sons, is an engineer.

Even if Shah isn’t willing to give his defeated army a chance to build the kind of lives he gave his sons, the Jammu and Kashmir government needs to find ways to give people like Rasheed a future.

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