It was like an Eid gift from US president Donald Trump to Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. The Muslims of the sub-continent were celebrating Eid-ul-Fitr on the night of June 26, when the US administration, in a surprise announcement, declared Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin a Specially Designated Global Terrorist. Moments later, Trump would meet Modi in Washington.
The Indian media highlighted this announcement as a “big win for India.” The Pakistani media termed it “an unjustified act of the Trump administration to please Modi.” The foreign ministries were silent that night, but the media battle between the two, especially between TV channels, was so jingoistic that it was much worse than the diplomatic name-calling between officials.
Certainly, the media battle that night was a manifestation of rising tensions between the two nuclear powers of South Asia. Question is, why is Syed Salahuddin considered a “terrorist” by many Indians and a “freedom fighter” by a majority of Pakistanis? Perception is not always reality, but it is often more important than reality. The tension between India and Pakistan is often exaggerated because of this confusion between fact and opinion.
India needs to understand that the manner in which Syed Salahuddin is perceived in Pakistan is different from how Lashkar-e-Toiba founder Hafiz Saeed and Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar are seen. Many Pakistanis don’t like Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar’s “interference” in Jammu & Kashmir because they are not Kashmiris. But their view about Syed Salahuddin is entirely different. They think he is a well-educated Kashmiri from Srinagar who was forced to pick up the gun after the rigged election in Jammu & Kashmir in 1987.
Known as Pir sahib within Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) circles – as well as by former president and army chief Pervez Musharraf — Salahuddin contested the 1987 elections from the Muslim United Front (MUF). The National Conference alleged that then PDP chief, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, was quietly supporting Syed Salahuddin, who contested under the name of Syed Yousaf Shah.
Salahuddin lost the election, then alleged it had been rigged. He was arrested and detained for a long time; after his release in 1989, he joined the HM, actually started by a former school teacher, Master Ahsan Dar.
.After crossing the border into Afghanistan, Pir sahib went to Khost area and joined the Al Badar training camp, which was once established by Hizb-e-Islami Chief Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Initially HM cadres were trained not in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir but in the Al-Badar camp in Afghanistan, where militants learnt their trade on weapons supplied by the US to fight the former Soviet Army.
Pir sahib became the HM’s Chief Commander in 1991.One cannot deny the fact that Hekmatyar developed differences with the Pakistani establishment when prime minister Benazir Bhutto started supporting the Taliban movement in 1995. Both Hizb-e-Islami and HM had close links with Jamiat-i-Islami (JI) in Pakistan, and JI was a close ally of Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif those days.
Around the mid-1990s, Pir sahib announced he was disassociating his outfit from the Jamat-i-Islami, that the HM was not affiliated with any political party and that the people of Jammu & Kashmir had launched an “armed resistance” movement.
This move created fissures in the Hizbul Mujahideen. Some Pakistani militants who were close to JI as well as Hekmatyar established the Al-Badar Mujahedeen under the command of Bakht Zameen Khan, a native Pashtun from Dir.
Disconnecting HM from JI was only a political move by PIr sahib. He only wanted to gain more support from all the political parties within Pakistan. Soon he started meeting the leaders of all the major parties. I remember my first meeting with him in the late 1990s. While responding to one of my questions he said, “I am only following in the footsteps of Bhagat Singh. If he was a freedom fighter, I am also a freedom fighter. If he was a terrorist, then I am also a terrorist”.
Pir sahib attracted the attention of many liberal politicians and intellectuals of Pakistan, by comparing his armed struggle in J&K to the American war of Independence and the Irish Republican Army’s war against its state. In fact he was in contact with the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed within the framework of the United Jihad Council, but he never spoke against the US like Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar.
Then he developed differences with the Nawaz Sharif government. When the erstwhile Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee came to Lahore in a bus in 1999, one HM commander, Abdul Majeed Dar, addressed a press conference in Islamabad and accused “Nawaz Sharif of betraying Kashmiris.” The government of Nawaz Sharif was toppled soon after by Musharraf in October 1999.
It is interesting to see how the wheel of history has come full circle. In 2000, Pir sahib was contacted by the US administration through an American messenger, Mansoor Ejaz. His first meeting with Ejaz was set up by former ISI operator Khalid Khawaja. ,According to Pir sahib, Ejaz delivered him a message from the Clinton administration.
In his second meeting, Ejaz’s mother joined in. She was an old friend of Musharraf’s mother. Ejaz met many Indian officials in Delhi and Srinagar before offering a peace deal to Pir sahib. Musharraf also pressurized Pir sahib to announce a ceasefire with India.
Then in July 2000, ISI Chief General Mehmood Ahmad managed to persuade Abdul Majeed Dar to agree to a ceasefire. The Clinton administration remained silent, but Mansoor Ejaz was definitely acting on behalf of a third party. It was exactly what Pakistan wanted.
Vajpayee’s BJP government started talks with the Hizbul Mujahedeen, but there was a revolt within the ranks. Many Hizb commanders sent messages to Pir sahib from across the LoC, that India will use these talks to create differences within the “freedom movement.” But the ceasefire hardly lasted, so Pir sahib withdrew from it in the middle of the talks.
The September 11, 2001 incidents changed the international scenario. The US lost interest in Kashmir. Abdul Majeed Dar felt abandoned and was assassinated, soon after.
Now the question is, if the Hizbul Mujahideen was a terrorist organization, why did the BJP government at the time try to engage this outfit in talks?
More stories about Salahuddin can be found in a book by former R&AW chief AS Dulat, ‘Kashmir-The Vajpayee Years,” in which he talks about Pir sahib reaching out to former Jammu & Kashmir chief minister Farooq Abdullah, through an IB officer K M Singh, for help with admitting his son (Pir sahib’s son) in a medical college.
Farooq Abdullah agreed. He obliged Pir sahib. His son got admission and Pir sahib called K M Singh and said, “I am grateful to you”. When I enquired from Pir sahib about the claims made by A S Dulat in his book, he dismissed it as disinformation of R&AW to tarnish his image.
Many opponents of Pir sahib have used this book to prove that he, Salahuddin, is a hypocrite. Still, the Trump administration’s declaration about designating him as a ‘globally designated terrorist’ could be a blessing in disguise. Trump obliged both Modi and Syed Salahuddin. That’s what Pir sahib wants these days. Nobody can doubt his sincerity with the Kashmir cause. Trump gave an Eid gift to both Modi and Pir sahib.
Perhaps the Hizbul Mujahedeen could try and exploit anti-US feelings not only in J&K, but also in Pakistan. The first death anniversary of HM commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani is on July 8th.Trump provided HM supporters with the excuse to not only burn Indian flags but also American flags across the Kashmir valley. But this will only put more pressure on Nawaz Sharif to make even louder statements in support of the Kashmir struggle.
What could be the immediate impact of the US terrorist declaration against Syed Salahuddin? He cannot travel to the US or maintain any assets in the US.
Fact is, it’s a diplomatic win for India. Equally, it will not create any problem for Pir sahib. He is not interested in visiting the US or having any assets there.His mentor, Hekmatyar, an associate of Osama bin Laden, was also declared a ‘global terrorist’ by the US State Department in 2003 and faced UN sanctions as well. These sanctions were lifted in 2016 after he met Afghanistan’s president Ashraf Ghani.
The British ‘Guardian’ newspaper announced, about Hekmatyar, that the “Butcher of Kabul (had been) pardoned in (an) Afghan peace deal”. Hekmatyar returned to Kabul on May 4, 2017, with the full support of the Trump administration.
Many in Pakistan view the Trump administration’s declaration against Syed Salahuddin as a pressure tactic to force not only Hizbul Mujahedin but also Pakistan to start a meaningful dialogue with Delhi. Nobody can deny the fact that the ultimate solution of Kashmir dispute lies in dialogue, but right now it doesn’t seem as if the Indian and Pakistani media are interested. They would rather accuse and abuse each other for a long time to come.
Meanwhile, the threat of radicalization in Jammu & Kashmir has drastically increased, because ISIS is trying to cultivate angry Kashmiri stone-pelters. Ultimately, all the stake-holders will have to sit down and talk about a possible solution one day.
Certainly, Trump seems to have put his foot into India-Pakistan “bilateral” relations. It may just be the beginning of third-party mediation in the Kashmir dispute.