Q&A Mushtaq Ahmad Zargar, 46, Commander-In-Chief, Al-Umar Mujahideen
MUSHTAQ ZARGAR is the chief of pro-Pakistan Al-Umar Mujahideen, which had 700 militants when the Kashmiri insurgency was at its peak in the 1990s. Zargar, who comes from a copper polishing family, crossed the LoC in 1988, and rose to lead Al-Umar after breaking away from pro-azaadi JKLF in 1990. Al-Umar’s key men were killed in gunfights and Zargar was arrested from his hideout on 15 May 1992. He is believed to be involved in 40 murder cases and money laundering cases. Zargar’s importance to the militant cause can be gauged from the fact that four high-profile kidnappings were made in a bid to secure his release. But Zargar remained in jail until the hijackers of IC 814 in 1999 secured his release, along with Jaish-e-Muhammad leaders Maulana Masood Azhar and Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh (who was later convicted for murdering The Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan), in exchange for 150-odd hostages. Zargar had kept a low profile after his release. But emboldened by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Zargar tells Baba Umar on telephone from an undisclosed location that a fresh wave of fighting will soon singe the Kashmir Valley.
EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
After your release, nothing much was heard about you. What were you up to?
Al-Umar Mujahideen has been carrying out operations against Indian troops in a limited manner. Sometimes, we wouldn’t even claim the responsibility. India may have hanged Afzal Guru, but it’s no longer an impediment. Even if New Delhi hangs men, women and children en masse, we won’t give up what is ours. India must remember that the US has been defeated in Afghanistan. It’s a success for Al-Umar Mujahideen too. In four months’ time, India will see what we are capable of. Kashmir will be merged with Pakistan and there is nothing India can do about it.
How can Al-Umar claim credit for the US withdrawal?
Wherever Muslims face oppression, we have been going there and we will continue to go there. We are fighting in the name of Allah. After Kashmir, we will fight in Chechnya and Palestine.
The Hurriyat factions and the JKLF believe in peacefully resolving the Kashmir conflict. How will you convince them?
I don’t care what they think. The Kashmir dispute will be resolved only through an armed struggle. Our organisation doesn’t believe in talks. Moulvi Yousuf Shah (Mirwaiz Umar Farooq’s uncle) wanted to solve the dispute in a peaceful manner. In reply, he was sent into exile.
Many Kashmiri leaders say that a non-violent struggle is the only potent weapon. They have also offered conditional talks.
But that isn’t my ideology. I took up a gun in 1988 in the name of Allah. The path of jihad is laid with thorns. One faces a lot of problems. Those who are tired must say that they can’t continue with the struggle. I won’t criticise those who want to hold talks with New Delhi. If they can solve the dispute with talks, let them do it. But I know they won’t be able to succeed in their efforts.
Hurriyat leaders Maulana Abbas Ansari and Abdul Gani Bhat say that no solution can come from the barrel of a gun. Aren’t they being realistic?
It’s their misunderstanding if they think that guns aren’t a solution. It’s actually the guns that made them and their political careers. Who knew them in Kashmir before 1989? It was only after the jihad that people came to know about Bhat sahab, Ansari sahab and other sahabs.
But Pakistan too seems to be pushing for peace. It wants talks and trade with India.
We don’t have a problem. Pakistan can always hold talks on Kashmir and trade with India. However, this doesn’t mean Pakistan’s stance has changed. Look at China and the US. Both countries maintain hostilities and trade relations at the same time.
What if Pakistan stops backing militants?
Pakistan has always given us political, diplomatic and moral support. That’s enough. Regarding money, men and guns, we can get it from anywhere. We still run training centres on both sides of the LoC. Nothing has changed on the ground.
You joined militancy in 1988. It’s been almost 24 years since. What changes have you effected on the ground?
Militancy highlighted the plight of Kashmiris. Earlier, no one knew what was going on inside Kashmir. Now everybody knows that India has occupied it.
Why did the IC 814 hijackers demand only your release when other Kashmiri militant leaders were also in jail?
Whatever they deemed wise, they did it. I won’t go into the details. In mid-1990s, Al-Umar kidnapped former Bihar MLA Pankaj Kumar. My boys kept him hostage for more than a year until he was rescued by the troops. My release was demanded at that time. Sheikh Omar kidnapped four western tourists in New Delhi in 1994. My release was demanded then as well. Al-Faran, which kidnapped western tourists in Pahalgam in 1995, had also sought my release. The mujahideen had always fought for my release.
The state government says militancy has ebbed. What do you think?
There are crests and troughs in every movement. In 1994, the armed struggle was at its peak. In 1995, it faded a little, but only till 1999. It was again at its peak till 2004, when the then Indian PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee made three ceasefire offers, which we rejected.
The 2008 Assembly poll saw a big turnout. Recently, 36,000 panches and sarpanches were voted to power. New Delhi sees these as a vote against militancy.
These are sham polls. India has many puppets in the Valley. What kind of voting takes place in the shadow of guns? If India thinks these polls were votes in its favour, why is the entire state under curfew on 26 January and 15 August? Why are the police detaining children and raiding houses? The policemen must understand that their families also live in Kashmir. If they continue to oppress Kashmiris, their families will be forced to migrate.
Why don’t you support a political dialogue on Kashmir?
More than 1 lakh people have been killed and many are buried in mass graves. Thousands of women have been raped. What kind of dialogue is New Delhi talking about?
Will the militant leadership announce ceasefire?
We will never lay down guns.
Is Kashmir a religious fight? Isn’t it a political question?
Our goal is to expel India and establish Nizam-e-Mustafa (Allah’s rule) because it is a Muslim-majority region.
How about Kashmir’s minorities under Nizam-E-Mustafa?
Nizam-E-Mustafa gives enough freedom to minorities. Sikhs, Hindus and Christians will get more freedom than they have now.
The conflict saw Kashmiri Pandits migrating elsewhere. Many Muslims also migrated to Muzaffarabad? Will Al-Umar call for their return?
Pandits left the Valley on the call of Governor Jagmohan who wanted to teach the Kashmiri Muslims a lesson. Muslims left because the army oppressed them. The Pandits didn’t leave Kashmir on my call. They left on their own; they can also come back on their own.
There are allegations that you killed Kashmiri Pandits.
I deny this claim. I have never killed a Kashmiri Pandit. They were Kashmiris like me.
Al-Umar was carved out of the JKLF. Is it true that differences with pro-Azadi JKLF led to its formation?
No, it’s not true. Al-Umar was formed in 1988. It was only in 1990 that we started claiming attacks on Indian military and government installations. Before that, even Ehsan Dar, the founder of Hizbul Mujahideen, would launch attacks and give credit to the JKLF.
But isn’t it true that Yasin Malik was for independent Kashmir, something which you don’t believe in?
Yasin Malik is just like my brother, in fact more than that. There were no differences between him and me. When the armed struggle was launched JKLF was being guided by four men including Yasin Malik. Al-Umar and other organisation would operate separately but never claim responsibility. Everyone would assume that all these attacks were launched by JKLF. JKLF would also claim responsibilities of attacks which we carried out. We were never angry at it. That was a part of strategy. But in 1990 we began taking responsibilities of attacks.
Some observers say Mirwaiz Umar Farooq had offered tactic support to Al-Umar after whom the group is named.
We respect Mirwiaz because he is a religious cleric. But Al-Umar was named after second Caliph of Islam. It’s not true to say that Al-Umar had Mirwaiz’s tactic endorsement.
How strong is Al-Umar now?
I won’t reveal anything about our strength. You will soon realise how strong our group is. Just give me four months.
Many former militants returned from Muzaffarabad to lead normal lives in Kashmir. Doesn’t this reflect a weariness among the militants?
Armed struggle is like walking on a thorny path, with nothing to feel sad or excited about. Those who get tired of it, give up. Those who want to carry on, keep up the fight. Jihad is a long journey that many give up in the beginning or the middle. We aren’t angry with them. It happens.
Former militants have warned against foreigners hijacking the struggle. Even now, it’s the Lashkar-e-Toiba that is increasingly leading the fight.
Militants are often dubbed as foreigners. In reality, these are men whose parents migrated from Kashmir in 1947. Jaish-e-Mohammad and Al-Umar are pro-Pakistan, but our boys are from Kashmir.
Do you support Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) Kashmir Jihad call. Recently TTP called Pakistan to revive Jihad in Kashmir and also offered to fight in the Valley? TTP is a foreign group?
Those waging holy Jihad against oppressors of Muslims will go anywhere. They pick up guns because of Allah’s will. Be it Taliban (TTP) or any other group, they’ll come. I welcome them. When we fight in other places be it Afghanistan or Palestine, our boys are welcomed. Why won’t I welcome them? I will. Such fighters are our brothers.
Aren’t you worried that the struggle runs the risk of being branded as terrorism?
The world can say anything. It doesn’t matter. Allah shouldn’t consider us terrorists. If we are terrorists, then what about Bhagat Singh who fought against the British?