For two months through the winter of 1995, the army waited outside the Charar-e-Sharif shrine where Hizbul Mujahideen commander Haroon Khan alias Mast Gul was holed up with around 30 militants. The army didn’t want to storm the 14th-century Sufi shrine, lest the firefight destroy the magnificent two-storey structure made entirely of Deodar wood. When the siege came to an end on 11 May 1995, gutting the shrine and many houses in the process, 20 militants, five civilians and two soldiers were found dead. But Mast Gul and many of his men were not there.
Three months later, Mast Gul emerged in Muzaffarabad amid the clatter of Kalashnikovs before an admiring crowd, which hailed him as a hero. The then Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan chief Qazi Hussain Ahmad accompanied Gul from Chakothi town on the Line of Control (LoC). Later, on 4 August 1995, flanked by Qazi and Hizbul Mujahideen supremo Syed Salahuddin, Gul addressed a rally at Liaqat Bagh in Rawalpindi calling for the strengthening of jihad to liberate Kashmir. He later addressed victory rallies in Pakistan’s Punjab province, which included a reception at Punjab University.
Eighteen years later, and along the way acquiring a heroic myth around his persona and also many a yarn about his mysterious escape through the cordon of hundreds of soldiers, Gul has resurfaced. This time at a press conference in Peshawar alongside the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan district chief Mufti Hasaan Swati, owning the responsibility for a suicide attack at a Peshawar hotel on 4 February, which left nine people dead. Gul was introduced as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s Peshawar commander and has since claimed another attack in Kohat district in which 12 people were killed and 16 were injured.
This horrified the Hizbul Mujahideen. Soon after, the outfit issued a statement claiming that Gul was not its member. “Attempts to affiliate someone claiming responsibility for bomb blasts in Pakistan is upsetting and painful,” the outfit said in a statement, adding that militant activity within Pakistan was nefarious and against the tenets of Islam. “Hizbul Mujahideen is an indigenous freedom fighter group of India-held Jammu & Kashmir and it is also a historical fact that the Kashmiris hold Pakistan dearer than their lives.”
Gul is the latest of the prominent jihadis who fought in Kashmir to switch sides and take on the Pakistani State. Earlier, it was Ilyas Kashmiri who was killed in a US drone attack in North Waziristan in June 2011. This has been viewed with concern among Kashmir’s separatist quarters chary of any link-up of the Kashmiri movement with the al Qaeda or the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan.
Hizbul Mujahideen was quick to set the record straight. “Let it be clear that the leadership and cadres of Hizbul Mujahideen are fighting Indian occupation forces and their resistance movement is restricted to occupied Kashmir,” the outfit said in a statement.
Nevertheless, this has generated a curious paradox: Why is it that the Pakistani militants who once fought in Kashmir are moving on to the anti-US bandwagon and turning on the Pakistani State, a choice that pits them against their earlier allegiance to the Kashmir cause. Or are they governed by a different logic that doesn’t necessarily see a conflict between their choices?
“It is a typical pan-Islamist approach. Its proponents don’t look at Muslim issues through the prism of nation-states or relative interests but as a seamless fight for the Ummah,” says a former militant on the condition of anonymity. “So, Mast Gul’s crossing to the other side doesn’t necessarily conflict with his commitment to the Kashmir cause. It could also mean more say to Kashmir sympathisers in the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan.”
Little is known of Gul’s underground life in Kashmir in the mid-1990s. Originally hailing from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and now, according to Pakistani media, a resident of Khwaja town area on Pajaggi Road in Peshawar, Gul is believed to have landed in Kashmir in 1994 as part of a group of foreign militants — then called “guest mujahideen” in Kashmir — before taking shelter in the Charar-e-Sharif shrine and trapped by the army.
There is a photograph showing him flanked by assassinated Hurriyat leader Abdul Gani Lone and Shabir Shah inside the Charar-e-Sharif shrine. The separatist leaders had managed to sneak into the shrine when they went to “express solidarity” with the people of Charar following the continuing siege of the town.
“We met Mast Gul at the shrine. We also met the large group of militants he was commanding at the time,” recalls Shah. However, Shah denied that they had urged Gul to vacate the shrine. “They were our guest mujahideen. We appreciated their assistance. We didn’t tell them to leave the shrine. That was not why we had gone there.”
In 2012, BJP leader and former foreign minister Jaswant Singh had surprised everybody when he claimed that Mast Gul was escorted to the LoC after he vacated the shrine.
“I remind you of a wonderful dargah in the Valley that was burnt. PV Narasimha Rao was the prime minister. I know for a fact that Mast Gul vacated the dargah and he was escorted all the way to the LoC and permitted to go,” said Singh, who has always been under attack by the Congress for escorting Jaish-e-Muhammed chief Masood Azhar, Mushtaq Zargar and Sheikh Omar to Kabul in response to the demand for their release by the hijackers of the Indian Airlines flight 814.
Singh’s version has some resonance among the people of Charar-e-Sharif, who point to a ravine alongside the shrine through which Mast Gul and his men were allowed to escape. “There were soldiers on the other side of the ravine but they were withdrawn from there to let Mast Gul flee,” says Ali Muhammad, a local resident.
Now Mast Gul’s re-emergence on the scene as a Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan commander claiming attacks on Pakistan has once again broken him upon the consciousness of the Kashmiris. Looking rotund due to weight gain with a Kalashnikov characteristically by his side, Gul seems to have left Kashmir far behind, moving on to a new cause, which involves taking on, not India but Pakistan itself.
Shah, who once hailed Mast Gul as a “guest mujahid” in Kashmir, is not amused. “Our fight is against the occupation of Kashmir by India and it is limited to the confines of Kashmir,” he says. “Our people will not fight Pakistan.”