THE WAR OF MANY FRONTS
LATE on the night of September 18, 1988, a single Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front operative named Riyaz Ahmad Sheikh arrived outside the gate of Deputy Inspector General of Police Ali Mohammad Watali – one of the police personnel who, in earlier years, had played a key role in dismantling al-Fatah and the Master Cell. Brandishing an assault rifle, he loudly demanded that the officer be awakened to meet his fate. Alarmed, the sentry at Watali’s gate put his .303 Lee-Enfield rifle to use. Sheikh thus became the first terrorist to give his life for the ongoing phase of the long jihad in Jammu and Kashmir. Just a month before the attempted assassination of Watali, a bomb had exploded
inside the Telegraph Office in downtown Srinagar.2 Another explosive went off at the Srinagar Club, then a favoured retreat of the city’s elite. The Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front claim the attacks to be the beginning of the war which, at the time this book is being written, has claimed well over 40,000 lives. To contemporaries, however, the bombing of the Telegraph Office may not have had the same symbolic and portentous significance it now bears. Earlier that year, helicopter skiing had been introduced in Jammu and Kashmir, and major new investments had been made in the power sector.3 Despite what had happened in front of Watali’s home, or at the Telegraph Office, there was no obvious reason to believe the year 1988 would be of specific significance. Many residents of Srinagar had witnessed the informal war, and the rise and fall of the Master Cell, al-Fatah and the National Liberation Front. No one had been killed, after all, in what would then have appeared to be just more punctuation marks in the story of the
jihad. Nor had any great damage been caused: the Telegraph Office still stands and functions in the languid manner that characterises most Indian government offices. For reasons I hope shall become clear as this chapter unfolds, it is not my
intent to provide a detailed account of the current phase of the jihad in Jammu and Kashmir here. Nor is it my intention to analyse what some believe to be the root causes of the violence, if indeed the unfolding jihad can be distilled to yield single elements. Many authoritative histories have been written about these events. Manoj Joshi’s The Lost Rebellion provides a superb account of the key players in the conflict, almost baroque in its detail, as does Mohammad Amir Rana’s encyclopedic A-Z of Jihadi Organizations in Pakistan; Pradeep Thakur’s Militant Monologues offers some of those players’ own accounts of events. For those interested in the historical context and political dynamics of the ongoing conflict, the work of Victoria Schofield, Sumit Ganguly, and many others have provided contrasting, but nuanced and finely wrought accounts. The proliferation of jihadist groups from 1991 onwards can be seen as the dense branches at the top of a tree, whose roots lie in the Partition of India and even earlier. If the previous chapters of this book have provided an understanding of the trunk of the tree, I shall seek here to inspect the structure of the foliage: an account of the ways in which the secret India-Pakistan war over Jammu and Kashmir, having grown steadily to 1991, finally exploded into full public view. Jammu and Kashmir is not, however, the only theme in this chapter, even if it
lies at the core of its narrative. During this period, it was just one of several fronts on which this war was waged. Pakistan’s retreat after the war of 1971, which had led to its dismemberment, would be checked by an unexpected gift: the flow of Western and West Asian aid that streamed in after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Among other things, the Afghan jihad led the United States to overlook Pakistan’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, an effort to offset the conventional military inferiority that was so brutally exposed in 1971. By the early 1980s, Pakistan would test the new balance of power in South Asia by backing terrorist groups fighting to carve Khalistan, a Sikh theocratic state, out of the Indian state of Punjab. This would lead both states to the edge of war before India, confronted with the risk that the fighting might just lead to a nuclear exchange, blinked. By the late 1980s, with terrorist groups having plunged Punjab into a conflict that, at its peak, was considerably more brutal than anything Jammu and Kashmir has so far witnessed, Pakistan was able to turn its eye to the main prize. The jihad in Jammu and Kashmir was, thus, just one theatre of a war with many fronts.