Sunday, May 25, 2008

Hazratbal Mosque Crisis: How and Why it Happened?

Arun Shourie
May I begin with a few passages from my book 'A Secular Agenda'? It was sent to the press in late September and comes out later this week. A chapter, "No time to relent", which concludes the section on Kashmir notes:

"On April 9, intelligence agencies received information that a number of militants had gathered at Hazratbal mosque. The army and the BSF surrounded the place. Eighteen high-level militants were inside. They were as good as in the bag -- it was just a question of waiting them out. But suddenly and insistently the army and the BSF were ordered... to lift the cordon. The militants escaped With great effort and at great risk -- three of them were caught subsequently one of them was the constable whose death became the occasion for the strike by police. Why in hell were they allowed to escape in the first place?

"The revolt by the J & K police showed three things -- the depth to which such nonsense had pushed the situation, the opportunity we still had if only we would let the army etc. work, and also how we were squandering every favorable turn. The policemen were all defiance and bravado. In just 10 minutes they were cowering before soldiers and pleading that the soldiers save the honour of the J & K police by not lowering the police flag! That was yet another moment to begin to re-establish authority. But like every turn it too was allowed to pass.

"The consequences were not long in coming. Since May, civilian and military intelligence had been reporting that mercenaries had begun entering Sopore. Intelligence and others urged decisive and early action. Nothing was done. By September, about 600 of them were reported not only to be there, they were reported to have entrenched themselves in bunkers dug out in some houses at various points in the town. Minimal action in May-June would have seen the end of them. By September, a Bluestar-type operation alone would have sufficed. And intelligence was warning that if that sort of action was not launched immediately, and the snow were allowed to set in, the mercenaries would get another four to five months to fortify their presence. What sort of an operation would be necessary then?

"Indeed with the governor's dithering the paralysis has crept from Sopore to Srinagar itself. Till April, the security forces used to enter and search whichever place they had reason to believe was being used by terrorists as a hide-out or a meeting place. In the following months, they were kept from entering Hazratbal, the medical and engineering colleges and other places. The result has been predictable. The terrorists and their civilian front-men have now a large presence at these sites and they have made arrangements so that, should the armed forces now attempt to storm the places, government must risk substantial civilian casualties..."

Now, this was not foresight. It is what I was being told by intelligence officers. They had been sending reports to this effect to every high quarter. It is because they were receiving absolutely no response at all to their warnings that they had reached out to others.

At the top, the persons agreed with everything, said they saw the gravity of the situation, that they would take requisite action swiftly, and did absolutely nothing.

I cannot pretend to have been shocked. I cannot even pretend that I was taken in by their "agreeing with everything": I have learnt that this is their way of avoiding the bother of going into the matter any further. I cannot even pretend that their deciding nothing, their just sitting-transfixed as possums was any surprise. But I was perturbed: The matters were so urgent, the officers were not getting a hearing. I, therefore, kept going back, and urging others to seize the matter. To no effect.

By late September-early October, communication between Srinagar and the home ministry had broken down completely. Mr Rajesh Pilot, the George Fernandes of the current round, who had wrecked so much by his bullishness, who along with Mr Farooq Abdullah had sponsored Gen (Retired) K V Krishna Rao, was by now blaming Gen Rao for the state of affairs; Gen Rao in turn was letting it be known that he had no time for junior ministers from Delhi. Mr Chavan was still in sulk. Everything, therefore, depended on Mr Rao. He saw how dear the 'personality clashes' were proving for the country. But habits ingrained deep by a life-time of lying low had left him little inclination to intervene. Mr Arjun Singh left him no time.

At about this time intelligence agencies reported that arms were being stored in the police barracks adjoining the Hazratbal mosque. And, that the barracks and the shrine were being used by the terrorists to 'interrogate' and torture those they charged with being informers. Even if the shrine is out of bounds, at least raid and clean up the barracks, the intelligence agencies urged. The proposal was vetoed. If not a raid, at least send senior officials on a surprise inspection. Even that was not done.

On October 14, the terrorists held what was virtually an exhibition of arms and ammunition they had piled up inside the shrine. This too was reported. Nothing was done. Then, it seems, came reports that the militants were going to whisk away otherwise damage the relic or the mosque. Then the army was asked to cordon off the place.

But three things were apparent at once. There was no plan about what was to be done after the cordoning, nothing had been decided about what the final objectives of the siege were going to be: To save the relic? To nab the militants? Yet the honour of the army, indeed of the country had been committed.

Second, Delhi still had no time. Don't ask me, I am completely out of it - that was Mr Pilot's refrain, Mr Chavan had not stepped forth: Mr Rao has left things to Mr Pilot -- that was his premise. Mr Rao in turn was busy - with the re-entry of Mr Asoke Sen, with scotching Mr Arjun Singh, with fobbing off the troubles in Karnataka, with fobbing off the pulling and tugging of rivals in Delhi, with bringing about a truce between Mr ND Tiwari and Mr Jitendra Prasad so that the list for UP could be put out... It was not till the fourth day of the siege that he found time to hear the officers.

The third fact was even worse. Every hour showed that the coterie of officers around Gen Rao was acting at cross purposes with the army. The moment the siege was laid it was decided, and announced, that water and electricity be cut off. In fact, they were not cut off till two-and-a-half days later by the army taking the matter in its own hands. We do not rule out force, said the corps commander. Forces shall not enter the shrine at all, said Gen Rao. On October 23, water supply was restored, and on the 24th, it was announced that food would be sent in -- the army had not been consulted about either decision.

The decisions were being taken, the 'negotiations' were being conducted by persons about whose tenacity, judgement, inclination there were gravest apprehensions among officials in Delhi. In their hands and Gen Rao's. They had many concerns, the country's interest must have been one of these. But their dominant concern was that they, and no one else was, and remained in charge. A scuttling of the decision of no less than the PM's just a few weeks earlier had been symptomatic. Mr Pilot had recommended the appointment of Mr K P S Gill as DGP, J&K. He had sent the file directly to the Prime Minister -- that he had not routed it through the home minister too had been symptomatic. Having been given the impression that his appointment was through, Mr Gill started discussions in Delhi about the state of affairs in the Valley and about what he would be doing. The Prime Minister eventually cleared the file, noting that he agreed with the proposal in principle, but adding that the home minister may also see. The file remained in transit for two days.

An authority in the highest echelons in Delhi (the person's identity seems to have been established conclusively) not only alerted the clique in Srinagar -- You will be nobodies, Mr Gill listens to no one -- he suggested the way out for them. The Governor had the 'constitutional authority' to appoint to the post an officer from within the state, he noted. The appointment of a local-cadre officer was swiftly announced, and the orders about Mr Gill scuttled.

During the tenure of Mr Jagmohan and of Mr G C Saxena, there was an inner group which decided things -- it included key persons from the army, military and civilian intelligence, the paramilitary and civil administration. That group has little authority now; and in a word, has been replaced by those officials. And it is not as if these latter are the fingers of one hand.

Yet decisions of the greatest moment -- the decisions which shall determine the fate of our country -- are in their hands. The sixth day into the siege, the standing committee of the N I C was called to meet. Some counselled 'utmost restraint' -- they did not spell out what it meant, and what else was the government doing in any case but be 'restrained'? Mr Biju Patnaik counselled either of two options impartially! Send the fellows packing to Pakistan, the world would then know, he said, or strorm the place. Mr Chandrashekhar said he was for neither course being determined in Delhi, such things ought to be left to the men on the spot.

It was not evident what precise level of devolution he had in mind. But the Prime Minister seized on what Mr Chandrashekhar had said. And Mr Rao wanted to assure all present that he had himself spoken to the governor that morning, and had assured him that the Governor was in charge. There would be no interference.

Several participants in the meeting were greatly troubled. It is not just that people on the spot working to cross purposes. It is that people on the spot can decide the logistics, the timing etc., of a specified option. How can they decide the option itself? The consequences of storming the structure, and of letting the terrorists go, will be very different -- they will range from effects on the morale of the forces and our surviving as one country to our foreign relations. The corps commnder on the spot, the governor cannot decide among such vastly different options. That was obvious. Yet the way Mr Rao seized upon Mr Chandrashekhar's observations, and 'summed up' the meeting, left participants feeling that once again devolution had dissolved into abdication.

There were a dozen things to convey -- that negotiations ought to be entrusted to officials who have been specifically trained to conduct them; that the Prime Minister must himself hear the assessment of the corps commander, of the officer in charge of state intelligence, of the governor, that he must hear them one-to-one. But no one could effectively convey these to him. "He will agree with everything..." said one. "He will misuse any meeting in private", said the other. "Who can push a string?" exclaimed the third.

Even though the situation has been allowed to deteriorate to this terrible extent, the country had sufficient competence to handle it -- human, technical, material. But whether that competence will at all be allowed to act depends on people whose competence, inclinations, priorities are attuned to anything but the peril our country is in.

The principal leaders taken together are from Mrs Gandhi's court. Taking orders, passing on decisions, obedience, in fact feigning obedience -- these are the skills that their years in those quarters honed, not that of taking decisions themselves. And their overwhelming concern too is not the peril of the country, but the other courtier -- their dread is not that the country might be broken but that this other fellow may trip them; their aspiration is not that our country be strong and vibrant, it is to plant the tale about that rival in the quarters. That is one factor which accounts for the blundering.

And there are the stratagems they picked up from Mrs Gandhi: Never have the sturdy and independent as colleagues; and never disturb them when they are quarreling and plotting to pull each other down. The consequence is before us: Squabbles of Mr Pilot and Mr Chavan, of Mr Pilot and Gen Rao... -- all have been allowed to fester. And suddenly that is the 'team' which must handle Hazratbal.

Notice too the doggedness with which that other stratagem has been applied -- of having only innocuous men in positions of authority: To the point that today we have a President who cannot give much advice, to say nothing of direction; a Vice-President so decent that he can be depended on never to be stern; an external affairs minister who is so totally dependent; a home minister who is a man of integrity but, how shall we put it?, so self-effacing and reticent; a defence minister who isn't there at all... But the end will be the same as it was in Mrs Gandhi's case: Everyone is too weak to hurt the Prime Minister, but no one is strong enough to help him either. Yet this is the 'team' that must suddenly handle Hazaratbal.

And, as if such hands were not unsteady enough, there are our intellectuals. Mr Pilot, himself an intellectual of note, recently set up a think-tank of intellectuals on Kashmir. Just a few days ago they declared, 'New hope in Kashmir.' And they named a group which, in their view, was promising focal point for commencing a dialogue. That group is today in the forefront of calling for processions to break the siege and liberate the shrine -- in the forefront of urging action that will help the terrorists. But, perhaps I judge too hastily -- the intellectuals haven't quite spoken since the terrorists took over the shrine.

For many of our papers too the siege is but a spectator sport. One paper finds the siege of the terrorists symbolic of the siege of the people of Kashmir Another focuses on cruelties of our forces -- not a word about what the jawans have to go through. Suddenly everyone is repeating the phrases of the Jamaat propagandists -- 'the holiest of shrines in Kashmir.' But till just last year the shrine was the special target of the venom of the Jamaat -- partly because worshipping relics is entirely impermissible in orthodox Islam, it being condemned as a species of idolatory; partly because of Shia-Sunni animosities; partly because the shrine had come to be associated so much with Sheikh Abdullah's cult. But 'the holiest' it suddenly is. 'But it isn't just the rulers , and the intellectuals, and the press. We contribute our mite no less: See the people throng to bazars, see them vie for tickets to Michael Jackson's concert -- is this a people concerned that the crown of their country is close to being sawn away?

The nemesis thus -- not just of the politics of our rulers, not just of the discourse and perceptions of our intellectuals and pressmen, the nemesis of our own ways.

If the country comes out of this episode with honor it will be in spite of us, and only because of the very forces our intellectuals and pressmen deride.

The Observer
October 27, 1993

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