- Syed Liaqat Shah was arrested from the Sanauli checkpost on the India-Nepal border on March 20 by the Delhi police
- They say he was a Hizbul Mujahideen man, on his way to Delhi as part of a ‘Holi terror plot’
- The Jammu and Kashmir police refutes this. They say Liaqat was a former militant on his way to his Kashmir home from PoK. According to them, he was a beneficiary of the state’s rehabilitaion policy for former militants.
- The Centre has asked the National Investigation Agency to probe and resolve the dispute
- It has now been decided to deploy J&K police, along with the Sashastra Seema Bal, on the Indo-Nepal border to streamline the surrender of ex-militants
Withering words. “I won’t think twice if the government allows us to return to Pakistan,” says Akhtar-un-Nisa, the second wife of Syed Liaqat Shah who was arrested by the Delhi police as a “conspirator of a terror plot” to launch fidayeen attacks in the capital on Holi.
Akhtar, 47, is the best person to hear the story from: “We were among the 10 people returning from Pakistan to India via Nepal. Seven people were received by their relatives, no one came to receive us. They (special cell of the Delhi police) arrested us near the Indo-Nepal border and took us to Gorakhpur. They didn’t recover any objectionable item from us. We pleaded that we were going to Kashmir under the rehabilitation policy announced by the Jammu and Kashmir government for militants who want to surrender, but they didn’t listen to us. I was later released in New Delhi.”
It’s become a full-blown controversy that refuses to die down. Even in the face of criticism, the Delhi police is sticking to its claim that Liaqat is a Hizbul Mujahideen operative. The Jammu and Kashmir police is firm in its position that he was a PoK-based ex-militant on his way to Kashmir for state-sponsored rehabilitation. At the very least, the affair exposes the lack of communication between the police of the two states, especially on the issue of surrender and rehabilitation.
The J&K government has reason to be upset. It says its rehabilitation policy—which has the overt backing of the Union home ministry—has attracted over 1,000 applications, and has enabled 241 former militants to return to J&K from Pakistan in the past two years. One source of this row is the route of return. Ex-militants are officially allowed to return through four entry points—Poonch-Rawalakote, Uri-Muzaffarabad, Wagah (Punjab) and the igi airport, Delhi. However, none of the former militants, including Liaqat, chose to travel through these designated routes. They preferred the Nepal route—ostensibly because Pakistan (for obvious reasons) created hurdles in the policy’s implementation. The J&K government reluctantly allowed this for the sake of its pet policy. Of the men who have returned to start on a clean slate, including 113 who have brought their families along, several arrived in India via Kathmandu, after flying there on Pakistani passports.
Akhtar says she had travelled to Pakistan on a valid passport in 2001 after her first husband died in an encounter with the army in 1995. Her physically challenged teenage daughter, Jabeena, who accompanied her to Pakistan and back, was from her first marriage. “In 2006, I married Liaqat, who ran a grocery shop at Muzaffarabad (capital of PoK)…he had abandoned militancy long back. We wanted to return to our roots to lead a happy life, but the Delhi police has played spoilsport. Now I won’t think again if they allow us to return,” a visibly shaken and disappointed Akhtar says.
The J&K government and the state police have confirmed that Liaqat was slated for the rehabilitation policy meant for ex-militants in Pakistan who had renounced violence and wanted to return home. Liaquat’s first wife, Ameena Bano, submitted the required documents on February 5, 2011, in the deputy commissioner’s office in Kupwara, the town nearest to Liaqat’s village, Dardpora, in north Kashmir. As the Kupwara police had no criminal case against Liaqat, it approved the application and forwarded it to the CID and other departments. Liaqat’s family duly informed the police about his probable date of return after he left Pakistan with his family.
“When the state government announced that militants who had crossed the LoC will be allowed to return, we urged him to return along with his second wife and step-daughter,” says Ameena, who lives with her two sons. “My brother never participated in any militant activity in Kashmir,” says Liaqat’s brother, Syed Karamat Shah. “He was coming here to surrender, and we were jubilant that he was returning after 18 years.”
The J&K government fears that Liaqat’s arrest might be a “big setback” to its showpiece rehabilitation policy. “Other Kashmiris who want to come back to their homes under it will be discouraged,” says chief minister Omar Abdullah. Already there are reports that 15 former militants, all of them from Dardpora, have second thoughts about returning to the Valley after seeing what Liaqat is going through. “This includes two of Liaqat’s relatives. They have decided to reconsider their decision,” says local MLA Abdul Haq Khan.
Meanwhile, the Delhi police has become a figure of ridicule in the militancy-hardened Kashmir valley—its credibility barely there after taking Liaqat (who is in his early 50s) for a ‘dreaded fidayeen’. Among those who picked holes in the Delhi police story is CM Omar Abdullah himself. “I have yet to see a fidayeen who returned holding the hands of his wife and daughter. Had he been a fidayeen, he would have grenades and guns in his hands,” Omar told the assembly in one of his rare broadsides against New Delhi.
Expectedly, the media in the Valley too has been rather scathing in its censure. A Kashmir Times editorial titled Fiction of Holi-terror plot had this to say, “The incident again highlights the misuse of authority and abuse of power by men in uniform, an obvious bid to win promotions and gallantry awards or for someone’s political convenience.” A journalist wrote on Facebook: “My 12-year-old cousin on Liaqat’s arrest: ‘This old man can’t handle a pistol, how would he have carried out a fidayeen attack?’” Alluding to the Delhi police linking Liaqat to the recovery of arms and ammunition from a city guest house, he added: “Certainly, when India wants to implicate Kashmiris, guns grow even on trees”.
Mehbooba Mufti, president of the PDP, agrees. “Liaqat Shah’s arrest in Delhi indicates that the old industry of falsely implicating Kashmiri youth for sake of rewards and medals is thriving. Kashmiri youth have become a fodder for Congress-BJP electoral politics.”
In the past, around twelve Kashmiris, all arrested by the Delhi police on terror charges, had been declared innocent by the courts. Tragically, for the accused the clean chit came late; they had had to spend the prime of their life in prison.
No wonder everyone’s hoping for caution, maturity and restraint from New Delhi. A storm of protests in Kashmir—on the street and in the assembly—has forced the Union home ministry to ask the National Investigation Agency to get to the bottom of the Liaqat affair, and check the circumstances of his arrest and the veracity of the Delhi and J&K police’s opposing claims. Greater crises have blown over Kashmir. But they often have their origins in smaller bunglings.