A Kashmiri businessman, who is being questioned by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) over his alleged role in organising funds for militants and separatists in the Valley, has told investigators that he was part of an effort by the Hurriyat to act as mediator between India and Pakistan during the Kargil war. The offer, made during the peak of the conflict in 1999, was rejected by Pakistan, he claimed.
The businessman, Zahoor Ahmad Shah Watali, claimed during questioning that he was closely associated with the slain separatist leader Abdul Gani Lone, on whose behalf he carried a letter addressed to then prime minister Nawaz Sharif and containing the mediation offer to Pakistan. Watali claimed that the offer was an effort by the Hurriyat to “legitimise itself”.
Official sources told The Indian Express that Watali also claimed that he played an instrumental role in ensuring the presence of Nawaz Sharif in New Delhi for the swearing-in ceremony in May 2014 of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The businessman claimed that he had once accompanied Abdul Gani Lone during a visit for treatment to the US, where the Kashmiri leader allegedly met former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto and another senior functionary from Islamabad. During that meeting, he told investigators, Lone allegedly told Bhutto that his first choice would be an independent Kashmir but if left with no options, would prefer to go with India. Read | From the Valley, in the NIA and ED net
Abdul Gani Lone was shot dead by unidentified gunmen during a rally in Srinagar in May 2002. His son Sajjad Lone is a minister in the J&K government. According to Watali, sources said, he also met Sardar Muhammad Abdul Qayyum Khan, former president of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to initiate a dialogue between the then prime minister A B Vajpayee and Pakistan military ruler Pervez Musharraf. Qayyum facilitated a telephone conversation between the two leaders soon after the Agra Summit, said sources quoting from Watali’s statement to investigators.
Watali has claimed that he was told by another Kashmiri leader and also the then chief of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) to mediate with Pakistan and ensure Sharif’s presence at Modi’s swearing-in ceremony, said official sources linked to the case. Watali told investigators that he met Sharif at a five-star hotel in New Delhi during the visit.
Watali, who had business interests in Pakistan and some Gulf countries, has claimed that he arranged meetings of Hurriyat leaders at his residence in New Delhi to initiate dialogue between the Centre and separatist leaders on a number of occasions. Hurriyat hardline leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani attended some of these meetings, Watali told investigators.
The NIA has alleged that Watali received funds from foreign sources and distributed them to militants and separatists in Kashmir to carry out “anti-India activities”. As part of its investigations, the agency raided multiple locations in Srinagar, Handwara, Kupwara and Baramulla linked to relatives and employees of Watali. The searches, the NIA has claimed, unearthed material related to receipt of funds by Watali.