Meet the men NIA is probing for funding militancy in Kashmir
In its ongoing probe into the funding sources of the militancy in Kashmir, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) has either arrested or called for questioning a number of separatist and civil society leaders. Here we profile seven major leaders who are now in NIA crosshairs to get a sense of what makes them important in Valley’s separatist hierarchy.
He is the president of the Kashmir Traders and Manufacturers Federation. He runs a wholesale apparel business and has many shops across Lal Chowk. In 2014, he was instrumental in forming the Kashmir Economic Alliance, an amalgam of the various business groups and was also its founder president. However, it is his politics which has always landed him in trouble. Khan is known to be close to the separatist groups, particularly the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF).
Khan has always sided with separatist politics and also extended his support to the Hurriyat protest programmes. Last year, Khan backed the Hurriyat protest calendars and shutdowns.
“We are willing to sacrifice our businesses for the sake of Kashmir,” Khan said during the unrest last year. “We (businessmen) are common people first… we cannot go outside (the Hurriyat calendar). We have to adhere to the decision of the people”.
He has also taken a strong position against the proposed construction of townships for Kashmiri Pandits and the establishment of Sainik (soldier) colonies.
Khan has attracted a fair share of controversies. Last year he had to endure public wrath when in the course of the unrest he met Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti as part of a civil society group to discuss the prevailing situation.
In 2014, a breakaway group of the Kashmir Economic Alliance accused him of having a ‘tactical understanding’ with the candidates of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Assembly elections.
Farooq Ahmad Dar, the breakaway group's chairman, alleged that “In the past, Khan and his supporters Siraj Ahmad and Iqbal Trumboo had held many deliberations with central government agencies and travelled to New Delhi for that purpose.”
One of the most prominent businessmen in the Valley, Zahoor Watali has made some grand claims in NIA custody: he has said it was on his urging that the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif attended the swearing-in of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
He allegedly also told NIA that he carried a letter on behalf of the slain Hurriyat leader Abdul Gani Lone to the then prime minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif in which an offer to mediate the Kargil crisis was mentioned. He also said that he had accompanied Lone to US where he met Benazir Bhutto.
Interestingly, Zahoor Watali is the brother of Ali Mohammad Watali, one of the Valley's most famous police officers who was a DIG in the early nineties and handled counter-insurgency operations.
While his alleged larger-than-life claims in NIA custody haven’t been verified, it remains true that
There is, even though his alleged claim that he brought Sharif to Modi’s swearing-in appears a bit far-fetched. For one, he was close to Abdul Gani Lone - the father of Sajad and Bilal Lone – as both hailed from North Kashmir's Handwara.
Some reports have even said that Watali was once the driver of the late Lone. But he became rich as a state forest lessee in the sixties and seventies. He is said to have started his business with a band-saw machine. Later he set up an oil mill, joinery mill and finally entered the Valley’s lucrative real estate business. He developed residential colonies and multi-storey apartments across Srinagar.
Now his business has spread not only across the Valley but also across the Middle East. Reports suggest that he has also worked as a broker in Dubai while operating cargo flights between Dubai and Russia. He is also said to have helped Pakistan get sugar from the Middle East.
His proximity to separatist groups is evident from the fact that in 1990, he was arrested from his Srinagar house along with Bilal Lone, Sajad Lone and Yasin Malik. He spent eight months in Jammu jail.
In 2011, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir Barrister Sultan Mahmood Chaudhry was a guest at the wedding of his son.
Mian Abdul Qayoom
One of the highest paid lawyers in Srinagar, Mian Abdul Qayoom is also a staunch separatist, ideologically allied with the hardline Hurriyat faction led by Syed Ali Geelani. In 1995, two unidentified men allegedly from pro-government counter-insurgency group Ikhwan-ul-Muslimoon opened fire at Qayoom, leaving him seriously injured in one leg. Though the wound healed, he still walks with a limp. No investigation was ordered into the incident.
Qayoom was subsequently elected as the president of the Kashmir High Court Bar Association. He has been elected four times to the post so far.
In March 2010, he was among the seven separatist leaders who were invited by Pakistan to visit the country to hold talks with the government there. But in July that year, Qayoom was arrested following the outbreak of unrest in the state over the Machil fake encounter in which Army killed three innocent Kashmiri youth near the Line of Control and passed them off as the infiltrating terrorists.
Qayoom was accused of instigating the protests. The government also charged him for launching parallel investigations into human rights violations besides supporting government employees in their stir, holding seminar on census and endorsing stone-pelting. Qayoom was released after nine months in jail.
It was the sting of Khan and some other middling separatist leaders like Bitta Karate by a television channel that brought the NIA on the scene. The channel caught Khan claiming that the separatists received money from Pakistan to fund protests and militancy in Kashmir.
But other than this one-off slip, Khan has largely enjoyed a good public image as an amiable, moderate leader. He also enjoys a vaunted reputation of a competent organiser, responsible for acting behind the scenes to arrange separatist programmes. In fact, many in Kashmir perceive him to be the man behind the one-time separatist stardom of Shabir Shah. Except for Geelani, he is senior to all other separatist leaders.
But Khan could never find his place among the top separatist ranks. For the major part of his career, he has been under Shah’s shadow and after his split with him in mid-nineties he remained a senior yet middling leader in and outside Hurriyat.
In recent years, Shabir Shah and Khan have made up. The duo jointly exited from moderate Hurriyat to form ‘Real Hurriyat’ and then joined Geelani’s faction. He was with Geelani’s faction when the sting happened. Geelani promptly expelled him.
A senior leader of the hardlone Hurriyat faction, he is mostly identified as the Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s son-in-law. He is believed to be in-charge for organisational and the administrative matters of the faction.
Altaf, however, has had his fair share of controversies which have embarrassed Geelani. During last year’s protests, Fantosh’s son Anees-ul-Islam was appointed as a Research Officer in the state’s tourism department with an alleged annual package of Rs 12 lakh. But more than the job, the timing of the appointment was telling. He got the job in November last when nearly a hundred people had lost their lives, several hundred had been blinded and thousands of others had been injured.
Nobody knew about the appointment until the news came out in early March, stunning everybody. And when it generated a firestorm of debate on social media, Geelani stayed silent. His organisation chose not to respond.
In some public circles in Kashmir, Fantosh is rumoured to be close to PDP. And it is alleged that he was the one CM Mehbooba didn’t want the NIA to arrest.
He is the spokesman of the moderate faction of the Hurriyat Conference and is a close aide of its leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. Islam (real name Aftab Hilali) was once the chief commander of the pro-Pakistan Hizbullah, a formidable militant outfit in the nineties. But he subsequently quit the militancy and joined Hurriyat.
Islam has since cultivated the image of a being a moderate leader. However, he has had very little say in the Hurriyat. His role is limited to explaining the Hurriyat position on various issues to the media. He is also seen as the only separatist leader who doesn’t wear his ideology on his sleeve, something that has occasionally attracted criticism from hardline separatists. Islam also survived a militant attack in the late nineties.
Farooq Ahmad Dar alias Bitta Karate
Now known exclusively by his nom de guerre, Karate is among the very first people who crossed the LoC in 1989 to train as militants. On his return, he became one of the most prominent commanders of the JKLF. He became notorious for his alleged murders of around 20 Kashmiri Pandits. He was arrested in late 1990 and spent 16 years in prison. He was released after the Supreme Court quashed his successive detention under the Public Safety Act. Ever since, Karate has worked as a JKLF member or an independent separatist leader plying mostly a moderate line. He has often denied having killed Pandits and also tried to reach out to the community to shore up his image.
He was also the leader who was stung by the television channel. In the interview he is shown demanding crores of rupees to create unrest in Valley.