IT ISN’T every day that you meet a man who has donned the hat of a militant, an uncompromising protest-organiser for separatist groups, a goldsmith and a reform-minded sarpanch. Abdul Rashid Zargar (55) of Daraha Sangla village in Poonch district’s Surankote area is such a man.
With Kashmir riven in a spate of sarpanch killings, Zargar’s transformation from being a separatist militant to a reformist needs to be read as more than just a freak case: it is an indication of how a growing tribe of people are increasingly getting disillusioned with the Azadi-seeking Hurriyat.
“I picked up the gun to liberate Kashmir from India, under the belief that if I were to be arrested or killed, people in the Hurriyat would take care of my family or help me get through the legal tussles. But no one came to my rescue even after I spent over three-and-half-years in different jails,” Zargar says.
Trained to operate small arms in Elaqa-e-Gair (Khyber Pakutunkhwa in Pakistan), Zargar was arrested in Jammu in 1993 for possession of a pistol, soon after he crossed over the Line of Control in Poonch. He was promised monetary support for his family if he was killed or injured fighting against Indian soldiers, and legal support if he was arrested. “The help,” he says, “never reached people like me.”
Spending over three years in jail with no financial support for what he says was “his contribution to the Azadi cause,” Zargar remained a staunch Azadi supporter. After his release, he joined pro-Azadi political party Jammu & Kashmir Nationalist Front (JKNF) run by Nayeem Khan (a key figure in Mirwaiz Umar Farooq-led Hurriyat) and was a regular crowd puller for Hurriyat’s activities in Surankote and elsewhere in the district.
And after he allegedly rejected an offer to work as the Army’s spy in Surankote, it pushed him head-on with an army officer Colonel Dharminder Gupta, Deputy Brigade Commander 6-Sector RR in Potha area.
“He had threatened to kill me if I didn’t stop my activities. The threat was so serious that I took up the case in court and sent letters to Chief Justice, Chief Minister and rights commission. Those were horrible days. That time around too I was a senior Hurriyat activist but I fought the case against the Army all alone. No one in Hurriyat helped me,” he says.
Zargar’s worries ended briefly after Principal District & Session Judge Poonch, A K Shan, held an inquiry as per directions of the then Chief Justice and on 5 May 2006 directed the concerned deputy superintendent of police to provide security to Zargar. While the case continued, Zargar’s key eyewitness Mushtaq Ahmad Zargar (also his nephew) and a political party activist, Muslim League, failed to appear in the court twice. Mushtaq, who was due to record his statement on 22 August 2006 in the court didn’t turn up. Zargar alleges Mushtaq later told him that he was detained by the Commanding Officer 25 RR of Draba Surankote and Liaison Agency Surankote and warned of “dire consequences if he deposed against Gupta.”
“They offered Mushtaq Rs 40,000 too. But he refused to toe their line,” Zargar says. The case was fixed on 14 October 2006 for next hearing. Meanwhile, Mushtaq in a statement to Hurriyat (G) delegation in Surankote recorded in a CD (copy of which TEHELKA possesses), expressed the threats he is facing from the Army.
But on 7 September 2006 BSF’s 82 Bn claimed to have killed two militants in Pulwama district’s Akhal village area and one of the killed was Mushtaq and Mohammad Rashid Choupan — a shepherd of Bufliaz Poonch. Both of them were buried in a local graveyard with their identities remaining unknown. Initially, officials of 82 Bn had reportedly informed their superiors in Srinagar that their troops had gunned down two militants believed to be foreigners. But two days after parents of the youth saw their pictures in a local newspaper they rushed to claim the bodies. The bodies were exhumed and now lie buried in Surankote graveyard. Later, on 7 February 2007, the then minister of CAPD Taj Moin-ud-Din stated on the floor of the J&K Assembly that the duo was militants killed in a BSF ambush.
The sarpanch, however, rubbishes the government’s claim. Zargar was soon withdrawing security after the Army officer was transferred. When the entire Valley erupted over the Baltal Land row in 2008, Zargar was instrumental in organising protests in Surankote and adjacent areas. However, Zargar contested the 2011 panchayat poll in the state without informing the Hurriyat leadership. “Locals respect him a lot. On his call, the market has remained closed many times,” says Riyasat Amin, a local. “But last year when he won the panchayat poll uncontested from his village, everyone was shocked.”
Since then, incidents like the burning of the 200-year-old shrine in Srinagar, the Quran desecration by US soldiers in Afghanistan, the 2011 fake encounter in border district Poonch and now the anti-Islam film that saw violent protests in Kashmir for days, haven’t witnessed any outrage in Surankote town, courtesy Zargar’s indifference towards the Hurriyat.
But he says his decision to become a sarpanch doesn’t mean ‘I’m a turncoat’. “The call for Azadi was an organised movement but the Hurriyat leadership drowned it,” he says. Zargar — a short old man with green eyes who sports a short white beard and loves to smoke — says money from Pakistan continues to flow for ‘foot soldiers like us: “Rs 12,000 for court cases every year, Rs 1 lakh if soldiers blast or bring down a militant’s house, Rs 6000-10,000 after every three months for the militant’s family after his death.”
Zargar compares Kashmiri separatist leadership to Lebanese armed political group Hezbollah that has been fighting Israel for decades. “Hasan Nasrallah’s (Hezbollah chief) son was martyred in the fight against Israel. But look at our leaders. They and their money couriers even duped Pakistan. They live in palatial houses and own large tracts of land in Kashmir.”
“Ask the Hurriyat why I switched sides? Ask them what they did for me when I was struggling in jails? Instead, their leaders amassed several houses and land. Where did the money come from? Wasn’t it meant for us?” he hurls a series of posers.
Zargar’s bitterness was a strong motive that saw him abandoning the Hurriyat camp but it hasn’t caused a shift in his sentiments. “I am for the solution of Kashmir dispute accepted by the majority population,” he says.
Nayeem Khan of separatist group JKNC of which Zargar was a key activist, agrees that local compulsions has forced many people to become Sarpanches whose election of 2011 is “unfortunately being sold by New Delhi as a vote in its favor.”
“That’s why sarpanches are becoming targets of unidentified gunmen. Again involvement of agencies can’t be ruled out too,” he says. “Hurriyat doesn’t believe in killing of sarpanches but those of our activists who joined panchayat polls have been expelled from Hurriyat. They should resign and join freedom movement.”
Zargar is among 33,000 sarpanches who were elected in 2011 panchayat polls on a non-party basis but the ruling government is yet to devolve powers to sarpanches even as unidentified gunmen too have often targeted them resulting in the surge in the number of resignations (unofficial estimates puts the number to 450). Zargar, however, concedes that some times sarpanches are asked by the police or army “to spy on militants for us” pitting them against militants.
“Immediately after I became sarpanch, the local Commanding Officer of 22 RR C J Anthony wanted me to see him. He sent almost 50 different people to call me. But before he was transferred I met him and he offered me Rs 5 lakh for the information leading to a militant’s killing in the area. I refused and left his office. His face was a thing to see. He was embarrassed,” Zargar says laughingly.
But the Army’s Jammu-based spokesperson Lt Col Rajesh Kalia rejects the allegations saying “Army doesn’t need sarpanches to spy on militants”.
Asked if he is scared of unidentified gunmen, Zargar says, “There is no militant in my area. But if killing me leads to solution of Kashmir dispute I’m ready for it. But I know it’s not going to happen. It’s India and Pakistan who can settle Kashmir dispute not such killings,” he stresses.
Baba Umar is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.