Hazratbal Mosque Crisis: How and Why it
by 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 favor- able 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 Hazratbal mosque.
"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 casualities..."
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 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 Farnandes of the current round, who had wrecked so much by his
bullishness, who along with Mr Farooq Abdullah had sponsored Gen (Retd) KV
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 agancies 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 agancies 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 fo 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
The decisions were being taken, the 'negotiations' were
being conducted by persons about whose tenacity, judgment, 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 KPS 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 discuss- ions 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
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 GC Saxena,
there was an inner group which decided things - it included key persons from the
army, military and civilian intelligence, the paramilitary and civil
adminsitration. 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
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 NIC 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 storm 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 commander on the spot, the
governor cannot decide among such vastly different options. That was obvious.
Yet the way the 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 entrus- ted 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 deci- sions 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
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 fore- front 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 find 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
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.
Source: Observer, October 27, 1993