A former Hurriyat insider tells Baba Umar how the separatists have embezzled money meant for rebels
IT ISN’T every day that you meet a man who has donned the hat of, a militant, an uncompromising protest-organiser for separatist groups, a goldsmith and a reform-minded sarpanch. Abdul Rashid Zargar (55) of Daraha Sangla village in Poonch district’s Surankote area is such a man.
With Kashmir riven in a spate of sarpanch killings, Zargar’s transformation from being a separatist militant to a reformist needs to be read as more than just a freak case: it is an indication of how a growing tribe of people are increasingly getting disillusioned with the Azadi-seeking Hurriyat.
“I picked up the gun to liberate Kashmir from India, under the belief that if I were to be arrested or killed, people in the Hurriyat would take care of my family or help me get through the legal tussles. But no one came to my rescue even after I spent over three-and-half-years in different jails,” Zargar says.
Trained to operate small arms in Elaqa-e-Gair (Khyber Pakutunkhwa in Pakistan), Zargar was arrested in Jammu in 1993 for possession of a pistol, soon after he crossed over the Line of Control in Poonch. He was promised monetary support for his family if he was killed or injured fighting against Indian soldiers, and legal support if he was arrested. “The help,” he says, “never reached people like me.”
Spending over three years in jail with no financial support for what he says was “his contribution for the Azadi cause,” Zargar remained a staunch Azadi supporter. After his release, he joined pro-Azadi political party JKNF run by Nayeem Khan (a key figure in Mirwaiz Umar Farooq-led Hurriyat) and was a regular crowd puller for Hurriyat’s activities in Surankote and elsewhere in the district.
When the entire valley erupted over the Baltal Land row in 2008, Zargar was instrumental in organising protests in Surankote and adjacent areas.
However, Zargar contested the 2011 Panchayat poll in the state without informing the Hurriyat leadership. “Locals respect him a lot. On his call, the market has remained closed many times,” says Riyasat Amin, a local. “But last year when he won the panchayat poll uncontested from his village, everyone was shocked.”
Since then, incidents like the burning of the 200-year-old shrine in Srinagar, the Quran desecration by US soldiers in Afghanistan, the 2011 fake encounter in border district Poonch and now the anti-Islam film that saw violent protests in Kashmir for days, haven’t witnessed any outrage in Surankote town, courtesy Zargar’s indifference towards the Hurriyat.
But he says his decision to become a sarpanch doesn’t mean ‘I’m a turncoat’.
“The call for Azadi was an organised movement but the Hurriyat leadership drowned it,” he says. Zargar — a short old man with green eyes who sports a short white beard and loves to smoke — says money from Pakistan continues to flow for ‘foot soldiers like us: “ Rs 12,000 for court cases every year, Rs 1 lakh if soldiers blast or bring down a militant’s house, Rs 6-10,000 after every three months for the militant’s family after his death.”
Zargar compares Kashmiri separatist leadership to Lebanese armed political group Hezbollah that has been fighting Israel for decades. “Hasan Nasrallah’s (Hezbollah chief ) son was martyred in the fight against Israel. But look at our leaders. They and their money couriers even duped Pakistan. They live in palatial houses and own large tracts of land in Kashmir.”
“Ask the Hurriyat why I switched sides. Ask them what they did for me when I was struggling in jails? Instead, their leaders amassed several houses and land. Where did the money come from? Wasn’t it meant for us?” he hurls a series of posers.
Zargar’s bitterness was a strong motive that saw him abandoning the Hurriyat camp but it hasn’t caused a shift in his sentiments. “I am for the solution of Kashmir dispute accepted by the majority population,” he says.
Asked if he is scared of unidentified gunmen, Zargar says, “There is no militant in my area. But if killing me leads to solution of Kashmir dispute I’m ready for it. But I know it’s not going to happen. It’s India and Pakistan who can settle Kashmir dispute not such killings,” he stresses.
Baba Umar is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.