The special cell of the Delhi Police has earned so much bad repute—particularly in the last 10 years during which courts have acquitted people of major terror charges framed against them—that immediately after it claimed to have foiled a terror module by arresting a former Kashmiri militant in Uttar Pradesh a few days ago, it didn’t surprise many.
On 19 March, Syed Liaquat Ali Shah (40) reached the India-Nepal border with his third wife Akhtar-un-Nisa and step daughter Jabeena Geelani (18). The pattern of homecoming was similar to the one followed by 300-odd reformed militants, who crossed the Line of Control (LoC) in the 90s and never returned until the state government announced the 2010 surrender and rehabilitation policy. Shah came from Muzaffarbad, reached Karachi and took a flight to Kathmandu, aiming to reach his home in Dardpora village of north Kashmir’s Kupwara district which he had left in 1997.
But at the Sanauli check-point on the India-Nepal border, he was ‘seized’ by plain clothed men. Immediately the Delhi Police claimed to have arrested Hizbul Mujahideen’s top militant sent to launch terror attacks before Holi in Delhi. Police claimed that it raided a hotel room in old Delhi where Shah’s would-be host left an assault rifle, several grenades, maps and dry fruits before running away. And like always, the lock-up ‘confessions’ were leaked to the media.
“We entered into India through Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh and presented ourselves to the SSB (a border guarding force). But instead of handing him over to the state police, Liaquat was taken to the Delhi Police. We were allowed to travel further on the assurances that Shah too will be released after questioning,” says his wife Akhtar, who reached Kashmir after days of ordeal.
Doubts were raised about the claim of the Delhi Police as new information emerged that further questioned the allegations. Shah’s first wife Ameena Begum and his brother Inayat Shah claimed that Shah had surrendered at the Sanauli check-post and “was not arrested” as claimed by Delhi Police.
“He was coming to surrender and get rehabilitated here. Kashmir police knew it. If he had come to launch attacks, why would he surrender to the SSB and why would he come with his wife and a daughter? Look at my brother, he is frail and weak. Does he even look like a terrorist,” Inayat says.
But the government and JK police were soon backing the family’s claim. According to government officials, Shah’s first wife Ameena Begum had applied to the J&K police in Kupwara, seeking benefits under the rehabilitation policy meant for those who want to return to Kashmir. Shah was number 74 on the police register in Kupwara and the application was submitted on 5 February 2011. After completing formalities, the local police had forwarded the application to the criminal investigation department of Kashmir police. Forms of Shah’s family, along with 322 others, were submitted under letter no: P&V/12/2011/924-25 dated 24-05-2011.
Shah’s story began in the 1990s when he left home to seek arms training across the LoC. He came back in 1993, stayed for four years and re-crossed the LoC in 1997. There are no charges though, that Shah participated in any militant act. Kashmir police sources say Liaquat was wanted but had recently got in touch with the police through relatives and was willing to return, which was agreed to and the 20 March Nepal border crossing was a part of that plan. “He’s not a big man that the Delhi Police is presenting him as,” they say.
Shah had left behind his first wife Ameena and two sons Shabir (22) and Saddam (16). He didn’t cross back into Kashmir to fight and neither did Ameena travel to Pakistan to be with him. Shah labored around Muzaffarbad and other Pakistani cites and got married again to a Pakistani woman named Naseema, who was a divorcee and had a daughter from her first husband. The couple bore a son, Hassan. In 2006, Shah got married a third time to Akhtar—the widow of a Hizbul Mujahideen militant called Hasan Geelani who was killed in a 1995 gunfight with army—and owned his step daughter Jabeena Geelani too after the mother-daughter duo travelled from their native village in Kupwara to Pakistan in 2006 on legal passports. The last job before Shah left for Jammu and Kashmir was the poultry business in Muzaffarbad.
It was only until the rehabilitation policy, announced in 2010 by Chief Minister Omar Abdullah that Shah began to look homewards. The policy conditional on a ‘change of heart’ includes identification, monitoring, debriefing, rehabilitation and reintegration of former rebels into normal life. It requires their parents to file surrender applications before the Superintendents of Police concerned; the ex-rebels can also file applications on their own to the Indian High Commission in Pakistan. The applications are then scrutinized by various intelligence agencies, and if cleared, the rebels can enter the state. The four entry points identified for return include Uri-Muzaffarabad, Poonch-Rawalakote, Wagah (Punjab) and the Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi. Those surrendering will, however, be tried for cases pending against them. But recently, Omar told the state Assembly that none of these returnees who made it to Kashmir since 2010 came through these routes.
Officially the state has received 1089 applications on behalf of youth who had crossed the LoC and are willing to return under the policy. Of these, 109 cases have been recommended for return and the rest of the applications are being scrutinized and verified. During the past three years, 241 former militants have returned illegally via Nepal and other routes along with their families. In 2010, at least 29 former militants returned, of which five ex-militants brought their wives and children with them. In 2011, at least 54 former militants returned of which 16 brought their families with them. In 2012, 150 ex-militants returned out of which 90 former militants brought their families and in 2013 so far, 8 former militants have returned out of which two ex-militants have brought their families with them.
“Since no ex-militant has returned through the identified routes under the policy after fulfillment of the conditions prescribed in it, they are not eligible for any assistance or rehabilitation. Therefore no assistance can be provided for their rehabilitation,” Omar told the Assembly.
Sources say almost all of the returnees went to Muzaffarabad, but never fought in Jammu and Kashmir “and that’s why most of them are not found guilty in cases against them except for illegally crossing the LoC.”
“These people first bypass Pakistan and militant leadership by preparing fake passports and once they reach Nepal, they destroy all documents, even photographs of their marriages and school certificates of their children in order to bypass Indian intelligence,” the sources say.
Even Akhter says that during questioning “we claimed to be Kashmiri visitors to Nepal.”
Omar’s announcement had triggered the home coming of many ex-militants and according to sources, all of them returned to the Valley via Nepal and Uttar Pradesh and surrendered before the police before they actually reached home. TEHELKA has previously documented cases of some of these ex-militants whose crossed LoC in 90s but returned home to lead normal lives. (http://tehelka.com/return-to-paradise/)
“He (Shah) used to call me to say that he wanted to return. I was happy. No matter that he had married two women there. I filed the application form two years ago and just ten days ago he called me to say that he is coming home. He said he would come on 20 March. But later an anonymous phone call from Delhi said he has been arrested,” Ameena says.
According to Ameena, Shah wanted to bring his second wife Naseem too “but she refused to accompany him.” Shah’s older brother, Inayat Shah says that the family had submitted the surrender application form with the police two years ago but Shah never managed to arrange enough money to return.
“He (Shah) was working as a laborer in Pakistan. He didn’t have enough money to spend on visa and other travel expenses. That’s why he missed the chance to return when others were coming back in hordes during the first few years,” he says.
To many in Kashmir, including the family and local media, the assertion by the Delhi Police is “just a desperate attempt to pull off a sensational terrorist catch, pouncing on an unsuspecting former militant heading home as part of a government amnesty programme.”
Even Omar Abdullah, who is helplessly facing the post-Afzal hanging situation inKashmir, seems stunned over the claims of the Delhi Police.
“The Delhi Police have failed to explain how a man returning to India with his wife and child was on a terror mission. If a man comes to attack a shopping mall, will he come with his wife and child? This is the first time that I am hearing that a militant came to attack holding the hand of his wife and carrying weapons in the other hand, as if going for a picnic,” he told the legislative assembly on 25 March.
Also accompanying Shah was his friend and former militant associate, Mohammad Ashraf Mir of Chitti Bandi, Bandipore, along with his wife and five children who were also questioned at the Indo-Nepal border post, but not detained. They reached Srinagar on 23 March and surrendered before the Counter Intelligence-Kashmir personnel. The state government lobbied hard in the home ministry here and the case is now being investigated by National Investigation Agency (NIA).
But the Delhi Police remains adamant on its position.
“It has been reported that Liaquat had plans to surrender. However, theJammu and Kashmir police have not yet communicated with us in this regard,” Delhi Police Commissioner Neeraj Kumar told media on Monday, adding that “They are not denying that he is a Hizbul Mujahideen militant. It is also a fact that there were cases against him.”
Earlier DCP (Special Cell), Sanjeev Yadav had said that if Shah’s family had submitted a surrender application in February 2011, “why did Jammu and Kashmir police register a case against him hardly a month later, on 18 March 2011? The FIR in this case names Shah as accused no. 84 in a list of 97 charged with waging war against the Indian state and criminal conspiracy.”
But Kashmir police sources say that once the application is submitted, the list goes to all departments including the Investigation Bureau (IB) and the Home Ministry in New Delhi upon whose nod the returnees are allowed to travel back.
“Two of our men had gone to receive him at Nepal as well. Later both J&K police and central agencies approached Delhi Police to release Shah, but they refused,” police sources say.
About why a FIR was lodged against Shah charging him of sedition and waging war against the state, only after the family submitted his surrender form, home ministry sources in Kashmir say, “After the mass grave issue came up and Omar’s surrender policy, police began to file cases of sedition and waging war, against all who are either missing or have gone to Pakistan for arms training. According to the surrender policy, anyone found involved in killing or injury will be tried and punished, which will later follow rehabilitation. That’s why none of the youth known to have killed someone have returned. So only those who know they’ll be charged of just illegally crossing the LoC are coming back. Police have to try them in some charges, so they slap waging war against the Indian state and criminal conspiracy cases against these guys.”
The Delhi Police version too has gaping holes. For example, they told reporters in a press conference recently that Shah was instructed by the United Jihad Council in January 2013 to carry out terror attacks in retaliation to Afzal Guru’s hanging. But when probed, the Delhi Police could not explain why UJC would decide to avenge Afzal’s hanging in January when the actual hanging took place on February 9.
The Delhi Police also released a list of 18 ‘Hizbul Mujahideen terror modules’ it claimed to have been busted since 2001. Upon close inspection, one finds that out of these 18 cases, people involved in only five cases have been convicted of the charges. In two cases, the accused have been acquitted and in the rest of the 11 cases, trials continue.
Another mismatch is the Delhi Police claim that says a man, who had posed as a tourist and checked into the old Delhi guest house room where the ammunition was found, had given his driving license as address proof at the guest house, whereas the staff there had told media the suspect had given a voter identity card. The police also released his sketch on the basis of the CCTV footage and the description obtained from the hotel staff. TV channels that aired the sketch beside the footage point to another hole in the police theory. The video shows the man wearing a Nike cap while the sketch of the suspect is wearing a typical Muslim prayer cap. Earlier, the police used to cover the suspect’s faces with checkered scarves or Arabic Keffiyas. The trend seems to be replaced by typical prayer caps.
With a wife and a son stranded in Pakistan, another two wives and three children troubled in Kashmir and himself locked up on terror charges in Delhi, Shah’s return is bound to raise several questions about Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s surrender and rehabilitation policy.