Masood Azhar and Hafiz Saeed are heroes because they highlighted the Kashmir cause, says the driver who takes me from Islamabad to Muzaffarabad during a recent reporting trip.
I went to the capital of Azad Jammu & Kashmir shortly after one of the deadliest attacks in decades on the Indian side. Across the Line of Control, a suicide bomber killed 46 Indian troops in Pulwama on February 14, swiftly unspooling talk of war for the two neighbouring countries that have disagreed on Kashmir over their entire existence.
The Pulwama attack was the work of Masood Azhar’s banned Jaish-e-Mohammad, came the accusation from India. And indeed, the Jaish-e-Mohammad claimed responsibility for it. Thus, the international and regional media’s spotlight was switched back on again to focus on two names associated with fighting Indian control of Kashmir: Jaish’s founder Masood Azhar and Hafiz Saeed who formed the Jamaat ud Dawa. Theirs are two of the many entities that have been taking positions on Kashmir—from independence from India to its merger with Pakistan—and using a range of ways to express them.
I went to Muzaffarabad to try to get a better sense of the mood on the ground. One of the first people I spoke to was the driver who took me there. He was from a generation whose life and outlook had unfolded against the backdrop of the Kashmir dispute. His ancestors were from Indian-Administered Kashmir but his family had moved to Pakistan’s side after the situation in its summer capital Srinagar went from bad to worse. “We moved to the Neelum Valley in 1989 when I was only four to six months old,” he said. The year he referenced had been a particularly violent one. Kashmiri Pandits had been targeted, leading to an exodus from the valley. In response, Indian forces launched a crackdown, forcing many Muslim families to flee their homes to escape the operation.
Thirty years and much bloodshed later, the driver who took me to Muzaffarabad expressed the opinion that: “The Indians are afraid of Masood Azhar.”
I found that his words were endorsed by a college professor I met in Hattian Bala, a border district with the LoC. The professor said that many people felt that Masood Azhar and Hafiz Saeed had brought the world’s attention to oppression by Indian forces in Kashmir. Shortly after Pulwama, their anger received a fresh shot in the arm when thousands from the border villages were forced to flee to safer locations when Pakistani and Indian forces started to exchange fire on February 27.
“Kashmiris are dying on both sides of the border,” said Iftekhar Rafi Mir, who lives in a village in Chakothi right next to the line. “We have seen nothing but war since 1947.”
A Kashmir-based journalist, Syed Taqi-ul-Hassan, said that these people have lived their entire lives in fear which is why they are not afraid of war. Pakistan and India have fought two wars over Kashmir.
And it certainly seemed as if a third merited speculation after Pulwama given the ensuing reactions on both sides of the border.
The Indian authorities accuse Pakistan of supporting anti-India groups—a charge that Pakistan categorically denies. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said that the Pulwama suicide bomber Adil Ahmed Dar was a local and Pakistan had nothing to do with the attack. India sent Pakistan a dossier on Pulwama and for its part Pakistan has shared its findings. Officials say that there was nothing in the dossier that could link any Pakistani group or individual to Pulwama.
Both civilian and military leaders in Pakistan appeared serious about taking action against banned outfits (who target young men like Dar), said an opposition lawmaker who attended an in-camera session over Pakistan-India tensions in parliament last month. Pakistan has declared Hafiz Saeed’s Jamaat ud Dawa and its charity wing Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation proscribed organisations and has taken control of seminaries linked to both the JuD and Jaish-e-Mohammad. It has arrested hundreds of the members of banned outfits, including the brother and other relatives of Masood Azhar, since the crackdown began on March 5.
Additionally, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry has confirmed that the government is devising a strategy to deal with proscribed organizations beyond banning them. They would be disarmed and those associated with them will be given loans and employment after they disassociated from the banned outfits, he said, adding that they would undergo political and national mainstreaming.
Independent analyst Amir Rana, who has long covered jihadism in the region, agrees that simply detaining these men is not a solution. “The problem is what to do with them,” he said. But given the official statements being made, he felt that Pakistan is taking steps to de-escalate tensions with India. “They appear serious in confronting the militancy problem.”
Amir Rana’s Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies had hosted the leaders of religious groups in a closed-door meeting in the past. He said that the authorities in Islamabad are exploring ways to de-radicalize members of outlawed organizations. “The option to recruit them to paramilitary forces is also under consideration,” he said. “Rehabilitation centres will be established in Karachi, Lahore, Multan and other cities.”
These measures are, however, just a part of a larger picture. Radicalisation, as suicide bomber Dar’s case would suggest, is a problem that respects no geography. “It’s quite clear that India’s heavy-handed security policies in Kashmir are a direct trigger for radicalization within local communities there,” said Michael Kugelman, the Asia Program deputy director at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. He is a leading specialist on Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan.
In fact, suicide bomber Adil Ahmed Dar’s parents say he was radicalized and prompted to join Jaish-e-Mohammad after the Indian police roughed him up, Kugelman added.
Amir Rana agreed: “India’s response to militancy in Kashmir is itself a big problem.” There is much nuance in the degrees of public sentiment which is inextricably tied to history and location. Rana added, for example, that Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar are popular among those people who had migrated to AJ&K from the Indian side.
History, it would seem, lingers especially poignantly for the families whose lives were upended between 1989 and 1999, necessitating relocation. There is a refugee camp in Muzaffarabad where over 5,000 people from Indian-Administered Kashmir had lived. Some of them want to go back to their original homes. “We have our own land in Occupied Kashmir and we don’t want to live here for the rest of our lives,” said a former fighter of a Kashmiri group.
This man, who described himself as a mujahid or freedom fighter, moved to AJ&K along with his family in 1993 from Kupwara. He said he made several visits to the Indian side after that but according to him cross-border infiltration became difficult after India fenced its side of the LoC in 2004.
Background conversations with Kashmiri people suggested that Masood Azhar’s JeM doesn’t have an organised network in AJ&K anymore. It used to train people in the forests but they disappeared years ago, local sources told SAMAA Digital. (Authorities in AJ&K did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
Much has changed in the last decade or so, but talking about the politics of the border still rouses sentiments in people like the former fighter. We don’t recognise the LoC as a border but see it as a “bloodline,” he added.
People like him and those who live in these zones have been closely watching the developments since Pulwama. “Jaish did it,” he said, hastening to add, “But it was Kashmir’s Jaish and Adil Ahmed Dar was a local boy.”
This man was not happy with the Pakistan government’s crackdown on JeM and JuD. He is a fan of what he said were Hafiz Saeed’s charitable activities and said he believed that Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar speak for the freedom of Kashmir. “You can’t call those people who highlight the Kashmir cause terrorists,” he argued. “If Jaish says that Kashmir should be freed, then it is called a terrorist organisation?”
With art by Shaikh Faisal Rasheed/SAMAA Digital