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Patriarch of Jammu & Kashmir jihad turned peacemaker

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Fazal Haq Qureshi
Fazal Haq Qureshi

Praveen Swami

Fazal-ul-Haq Qureshi played a key role in All Parties Hurriyat Conference’s ongoing secret dialogue with New Delhi

NEW DELHI: Forty-five years ago, Fazal-ul-Haq Qureshi helped lay the foundations of the jihadist movement in Jammu and Kashmir.

In the years before an assassin’s bullet shattered his skull minutes after the secessionist politician left his local mosque on Friday— likely fired by a member of the Hizb ul-Mujahideen, which he helped found —Qureshi had transformed himself into a leading figure in the state’s search for peace.

Born in 1944 to a Srinagar cleric, Qureshi grew up in old-city Srinagar — the central site of the fierce contestation between Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s Left-influenced, pro-peasant National Conference and the Islamist-leaning urban petty-bourgeoisie which shaped post-independence Jammu and Kashmir politics.

Followers of Sheikh Abdullah — known as shers, or lions, after his favoured honorific, the Lion of Kashmir — often engaged in pitched street battles with supporters of the cleric Mirwaiz Mohammad Farooq.

Educated at Srinagar’s prestigious Amar Singh College, Qureshi was part of a generation for whom Sheikh Abdullah’s regime opened up access to education and economic opportunity. Qureshi was hired as a clerk by the Jammu and Kashmir Government, and later secured a job at the Secretariat. But, like many of his class, Qureshi felt politically disenfranchised by the new order.

In 1964, three members of the Students and Youth League laid the foundations of the jihadist movement in Jammu and Kashmir.

Mian Ghulam Sarwar’s organisation —which came to be known to Kashmir Police counter-intelligence detectives as the Master Cell — was primary intended to assist the insurgent groups who spearheaded Pakistan’s 1965 invasion of the state. During the war, its members threw grenades at police and burned down government buildings. In an interview to the author Pradeep Thakur, Qureshi said he raised funds “to support the mujahideen who had come from Pakistan”.

The Master Cell’s operatives were soon arrested. Then, in 1966, they were quietly released, in the first of a series of peace deals intended to bring about reconciliation with separatists.

Many did indeed make their peace with India —among them, Jammu and Kashmir’s former Deputy Chief Minister and People’s Democratic Party Muzaffar Beigh, former Inspector-General of Police Javed Mukhdoomi and the late National Conference patriarch Bashir Kitchloo.

But Qureshi’s time in jail did little to still his secessionist beliefs. In 1966, he joined a circle of secessionists who called themselves Students Revolutionary Council.

Led by the colourful Ghulam Rasool Zahgir — whose interrogation notes record that he was “carrying on with three different girls” at the time of the arrest — the group first drew attention in 1967 when it published a map of Jammu and Kashmir in red, proclaiming it an independent country.

That February, Zahgir’s group, calling itself al-Fatah, carried out the first of a series of armed operations — the murder of Border Security Force constable Charan Das on the Nawakadal Bridge in Srinagar.

“I travelled to every village and town in the valley”, Qureshi said, “recruiting boys to send them across the Line of Control for arms training”. By his account, more than 300 al-Fatah cadre received training in Pakistan.

Pir Ghulam Hassan Shah, the police officer who finally broke the al-Fatah network, was charged with rehabilitating its members. In 1975, most of its members were released from jail in return for supporting the peace deal between Sheikh Abdullah and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Qureshi was part of a small group of al-Fatah operatives who rejected the deal. In 1980, though, he caved in and resigned his membership of the secessionist People’s League. Prosecutors dropped the criminal charges against him, and he was allowed to rejoin government service. “Long years of absence from employment,” he was later to explain, “had made a major detent on my financial status. With children to raise, I wanted to stay in the job”.

But in 1987, inflamed by electoral malpractices which denied the opposition Muslim United Front a share in power, Qureshi decided to form a new armed organisation. He was arrested in 1989, but his old friend Abdul Majid Dar went on to secure Pakistani support for the idea. Dar later co-founded the Tehrik-e-Jihad Islami, which in 1991 merged into the Hizb ul-Mujahideen.

Released from jail in 1992, Qureshi helped found the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, which started out as a 23-party alliance of secessionist groups.

By 1999, though, it was to clear to him —and other doves in the APHC, like Abdul Gani Lone — that the armed struggle had outlived its utility. In 2000, he played a key role in brokering a unilateral ceasefire by the Hizb ul-Mujahideen and the initiation of talks between Dar and representatives of the Government of India.

Pakistan, however, soon withdrew support from the ceasefire, fearing India would cut a deal with the Hizb ul-Mujahideen. Key APHC leaders had met with Dar, and agreed to endorse the ceasefire — but now refused to do so, fearful of reprisals from anti-ceasefire jihadists. Fifteen days after it went into force, Hizb ul-Mujahideen chief Mohammad Yusuf Shah withdrew the ceasefire.

In the years that followed, Qureshi watched as his allies in the peace effort were murdered one by one. Lone was shot dead in 2002, by a Lashkar-e-Taiba hit-squad. Dar was killed by Hizb ul-Mujahideen hardliners the following year; his wife is now confined to a wheelchair, as a consequence of a terrorist attack which left her crippled.

None the less, he played a key role in the APHC’s ongoing secret dialogue with New Delhi — for which he has now paid the price.

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