The National Investigation Agency (NIA) is focussing on a hawala racket relating to the annual Haj pilgrimage and trade fraud along the Line of Control (LoC) as two funding channels being used by separatists and terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir.
As part of its probe, which recently led to the arrest of seven Kashmiri separatists, the NIA is examining what it regards as a ‘deep conspiracy’ to ‘keep the Valley burning’, and not just individual acts of terror.
According to the NIA, some travel agents who send Indians on the Haj pilgrimage are hand in glove with associates of separatists based in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. A part of the money collected from pilgrims is diverted for terror and separatist activities, while the cost of accommodation and food are borne by these associates.
Said an NIA official: “Some of these travel agents charge around ₹2 lakh per pilgrim and purchase tickets as per the subsidy scheme of the government. Around ₹1.5 lakh cash given by the pilgrims is pocketed by them and transferred to separatists. The pilgrims were taken care of during their pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia by associates of the separatists in Pakistan.”
This opened up a “ready stock of legitimate cash” for illegal activities.
As a probe looking back several years, the exact numbers involved in the diversion were not yet available. But the NIA has “statements from pilgrims as well as office-bearers [of separatist organisations] who have confirmed the money trail,” the official claimed. So far, 80 witness statements have been recorded by the NIA on funds generated to organise terror in Kashmir, he said.
Haj subsidy is given to pilgrims only in the form of subsidised air tickets; pilgrims make their own arrangements for food and stay in Saudi Arabia. Travel operators provide a package deal, which includes accommodation. Pilgrims pay agents by cash and through bank accounts.
Trade across the LoC, the second fund-raising channel, has brought some traders under the scanner for alleged fraudulent transactions worth ₹2,100 crore at the Salamabad-Uri trade point and ₹670 crore at the Chakan Da Bagh-Poonch point since this trade began in 2008.
There are 21 items cleared for trade across the LoC through a barter system, which include garments, handicrafts, carpets and almonds. The NIA has found undervaluation of products that come from Pakistan, which are then sold at as much as triple their exchange value, generating cash surpluses.
Interestingly, the NIA has recommended to the Home Ministry that the trade across the LoC be stopped, but Jammu and Kashmir Chief Mehbooba Mufti said on Saturday that this exchange would not be stopped, and more trade routes would be added.
The cross-LoC trade commenced in 2008 as a confidence-building measure between India and Pakistan and takes place four times a week through the Uri-Muzaffarabad and Poonch-Rawalakote routes.
The NIA operation to choke off funding goes in parallel with arrests in Kashmir. In a major operation last week, the agency arrested seven second-rung separatist leaders for acting in connivance with terrorist organisations like Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). Several letterheads of terrorist outfits like HM and LeT had been recovered from the premises of these separatists, the NIA said.
Asked if mere possession of letterheads amounted to support for terror activities, the official said: “Mere possession is not a crime. But the handwritten correspondence seeking funds from Pakistan-based outfits can be used as an evidence.”
Another official said 28 WhatsApp groups with over 5,000 members had been identified as linked to the continuing unrest. “These groups were being used to mobilise youth to pelt stones [in the Valley]. Most of their administrators are in Pakistan,” the official said.
A list of 103 persons, each involved in more than four incidents of stone-pelting in the Valley in the past one year, has been prepared, and the NIA claims to have established the financial trail between the separatists and these “professional stone-throwers.”
A watch is being kept on Kashmiri leaders and Imams who give incendiary speeches against the Indian State, said the official.
”There are quite a few who use mosques to provoke locals against the administration. We have made copies of their speeches and they will also be summoned for investigations,” said the official.
Swift, silent operation
The arrest of separatists was a swift operation, as there was the possibility that the accused could have been detained under the State’s Public Safety Act (PSA), thereby stalling the arrest. “We did not inform any other agency or local police about the arrest of the separatists,” said the official.
On Monday, seven second-rung separatist leaders — Farooq Ahmed Dar alias Bitta Karate, Nayeem Khan, Raja Mehrajuddin Kalwal, Peer Saifullah, Aftab Hilali Shah alias Shahid-ul-Islam and Aiyaz Akbar Khaney and Altaf Ahmed Shah alias Fantoosh Geelani, the son-in-law of separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani — were arrested from Srinagar and Delhi for their alleged role in “creating unrest” in the Valley. The NIA has summoned Geelani’s elder son Naeem Geelani to appear before it on Monday. “We also plan to make them undergo polygraph tests, we will soon move court for this. If the accused refuse the test, it will go against them,” the official added.