Dated 2019-04-23

The Legend of Syed Salahuddin

An official US statement, dated June 26, 2017, said that the Department of State had declared Mohammad Yusuf Shah aka Syed Salahuddin as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) under Section 1(b) of Executive Order (E.O.) 13224. While New Delhi’s Hindutva dispensation saw it as a huge success, it generated a severe criticism in Kashmir, Pakistan and various other parts of the world where the Kashmir movement has a support base. Bilal Handoo traverses through decades, piecing together many vital elements that led to the making of the legend called Syed Salahuddin.

Solemnising the nikah of his protege( jameel War). This is believed to be the last nikah ceremony presided over by Salahuddin in Kashmir.

When a midsummer Special Operations Group offensive in 1998 sealed the fate of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen’s “best strategic mind,” his Srinagar hideout yielded a trove of clandestine communication between him and his not-so-distant ameer. The handwritten sheets found stacked in Burhanuddin Hijazi’s safe house were akin in gravity to the secret notes and memos then flying between Srinagar and New Delhi. The neat pile clearly showed the priority and urgency the pro-Pakistan militant group accorded to seeking new means to rejuvenate Kashmir’s freedom struggle.

Hijazi’s ameer was that hulking man who had become an iconic figure with his keffiyeh, thick black beard and beret, and was given to making his point as much with his guerrilla tactics as with his heavily-accented English.

Operating from a nondescript three-bedroom bungalow in Rawalpindi, home to the Green Army, Syed Salahuddin  – the Budgam-born Yusuf who had adopted the nom de guerre of the Tikrit-born Yusuf, Salahuddin Ayyubi, the legendary Muslim military commander – headed a militant group that recruited Kashmiris only, and kept its distance from the activities of foreign militants.

The secret messages seized in Srinagar gave an insight into the man and his indigenous militant methods.

But for restive Maisuma in the heart of Srinagar, the Hizb’s Supreme Commander is beyond a secret communiqués story. Its defiant residents, who had taken him in a procession like a bridegroom on the eve of the 1987 election, know him as a humanist who had chosen the democratic path but was pushed into becoming an insurgent.

He had paced their lanes long ago, as a youth, looking for ways and means to resolve the Kashmir issue. One particular lane which, even in this crucible of revolt, qualifies as an alley of legends is also home to a matriarch who was invariably on the frontlines in street-battles against government forces. Gathering stones, and grappling with armed and helmeted cops, her daredevilry in the face of teargas shells and swinging canes is feted and sung far beyond the War Lane. Conscious of her militant mood, Muhammad Yusuf Shah of Soibugh had first walked through the street when yet to sprout a beard. Years later, he stepped out of it as Salahuddin.

The matriarch, Fatima War, now a septuagenarian, and known as Boba, that affectionate appellation Kashmiris usually reserve for mothers and mother-figures, holds a godmother-like sway over her clan – in fact, over all of Maisuma. Those on the resistance camp’s who-is-who list today would often visit her house, much before the fourth armed uprising broke out in Kashmir in the late eighties, to be fed the fire and steel of resistance. Hers was the lane where, during the middle of that decade, the young boys of the Islamic Students’ League (ISL) began courting an impassioned cleric to join religious gatherings in Maisuma. Behind that invitation was the larger aim to rope in the man who carried a clear head on his shoulders. It was in these congregations in Maisuma that the foundation for Kashmir’s historic move was laid.

Among these boys, Jameel War, the eldest of Boba’s six sons, was the leader, the hot-head, the tough guy, who welded together youngsters like Ashfaq Majeed, Yasin Malik, his own brother Hilal, and others, to seek the means and methods to engage the Indian state in Kashmir.  Jameel became the self-styled lieutenant for tuoath, as Shah, because of his karakul cap, soon came to be called.  A Rostom Razmadze to Napoleon Bonaparte. Like Razmadze, Jameel would let no one meet his master without passing through him first.

Shah too went on to preside over the engagement (nikah ceremony) of his bodyguard.

Those days, the cleric with a triple MA would ride through the city on a hefty Enfield. One day Jameel took the bike on the pretext of a joyride and ended up selling it in Chandigarh for peanuts. Shah trudged to the War Lane to register his complaint with Jameel’s mother, only to be rebuked for not being careful enough with that impulsive youth.

Today, inside the War House, such incidents are being recalled with a   sense of nostalgia. Boba still holds centre-stage as she talks of “my son, the soft-spoken philanthropist.”

“They dare call the man brought to the political front by the ISL a terrorist?” she deplores. “He is my son. And my son is a freedom fighter. He is on a just cause.”

At a walking distance from her home, Salahuddin’s former aide is now running a cab stand. The years of struggle and the price he has paid for his convictions have not dimmed his regard for the man who taught him the crux of “being a good Muslim.”

Bai Laal, as Jameel is known as in Maisuma, does not have words enough to speak of his master, the man who had contested elections under Indian democracy but was left duped and dejected.

“It was we,” he says in a voice like a foghorn, “that invited Muhammad Yusuf Shah from the Exhibition Grounds, where he led Friday prayers, to a religious gathering in Maisuma.”

That was in the mid-eighties, when Shah was the Jama’at-e-Islami’s chief in Srinagar.

The underlying plan was to introduce him to the democratic process and then support him as a candidate of the Muslim United Front. Being a part of the MUF, the ISL did not contest the polls even though it had been offered eight seats. But it had decided to support the Front in its campaign.

Then also, a lean and stylish young man fond of sporting trendy outfits would witness how various parties within the MUF geared to “raise the demand for the right of self-determination in the Assembly.

“It was indeed ambitious on their part,” says Muhammad Yasin Malik, who was a member of the ISL at that time and now heads the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front.

“We as the ISL knew that India would certainly not make it a cakewalk for the MUF, and therefore decided against contesting,” he says, brooding in his Abiguzar office. “The moment the results were announced, we stood vindicated.”

On polling day, the Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of the Kashmir police, AM Watali, was monitoring the situation in the Amira Kadal constituency. Till noon, he says, everything was hunky dory – until the MUF’s candidate in the segment was dragged out of a polling booth in the Presentation Convent School and put behind bars.

It was the fall of democracy, many say, a process never to be taken seriously again by Kashmir’s disillusioned youth.

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One by one, all members of the ISL were thrown into jails. Most MUF members and supporters were booked under the Public Safety Act (PSA) and lodged in various detention centres. Maisuma’s tuoath was put in Red 16, a dreaded torture centre of yore, along with Malik, Hilal War and others.

“We were severely tortured there,” recalls Hilal War, who has written a book mapping the incidents that shaped into a massive outbreak of militancy by the late eighties.

Only a teenager then, Hilal had been unable to understand why MUF supporters were subjected to such torture in custody.

“We were not felons, and had freshly taken part in a democratic process, and yet I was exposed to floodlights for many nights running inside the Red 16.”

He was released from the torture cell with a damaged eye, and Malik came out with an irreparable cardiac impairment.

But, as Hilal recounts now, that phase of detentions was about to change Kashmir. Muhammad Yusuf Shah and other detainees discussed the possibility of waging an armed struggle after everyone was dragged to jail despite fighting democratically.

“Even after democracy had ditched those men,” says Hilal, “they wanted to choose legitimate alternatives only. They discussed whether or not the UN charter endorsed an armed struggle.”

The charter did. Provided it was not on communalist lines.

Bitten by rigged polls, and smitten by Indian democracy in Kashmir, Shah did not take long, after he was let out of jail in 1989, to become Pir Sahib – a persona that gave supreme powers to the otherwise ordinary Soibugh resident.  But before he could take up arms, the complexion of Kashmir’s insurgent landscape had changed.

In his book Shadow War – The Untold Story of Jihad in Kashmir, Pakistani journalist Arif Jamal writes how in a meeting with the then Ameer-e-Jama’at in Muzaffarabad, Maulana Abdul Bari, in early1980, General Zia-ul-Haq had decided “to contribute to the American-sponsored war in Afghanistan in order to prepare the ground for a larger conflict in Kashmir.”

When Bari asked Zia who in Afghanistan would receive the biggest share of US assistance, Zia had quipped, “Whoever trains the boys from Kashmir.”

And the moment Kashmir’s Ameer-e-Jama’at, Maulana Saad-ud-Din Tarbali, snubbed the military ruler of Pakistan on the question of militancy, JKLF chief Amanullah Khan swiftly sent his aide, Nazim-ud-Din, aka Babar, to bring Trehgam’s Ahad Waza, and JKLF founder Muhammad Maqbool Butt’s brother, GN Butt, to Muzaffarabad in 1987 for the historic pact.

Yusuf Shah was still behind bars when Zia-ul-Haq’s program of supporting a struggle for independent Kashmir became clear to Waza.

“But the program wasn’t received well by the Pakistan army,” Waza, an erstwhile militant recruiter and now a mellowed rebel, says. “When the movement attracted international attention, it unnerved many across the fence. They thought the program would negate their stand on Kashmir.”

It was then that a fateful copter crash took the life of the military ruler (despised by certain quarters for sending Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to the gallows) and many accompanying dignitaries.

The arrival of Rajiv Gandhi’s buddy as the new Pak prime minister saw the Zia-backed training camps in Azad Kashmir being put on the freeze. Benazir Bhutto had her own plans for Kashmir. In November 1989, when efforts to win the pro-freedom JKLF over to its pro-Pakistan project failed, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) recruited JKLF cadres to set up a new organisation. And individuals such as Khalid Bangroo, Master Ahsan Dar, Nasir-ul-Islam and General Abdullah met in a musty Dak Bungalow in Tangmarg.

“The group floated a parallel organisation called the Ansar-ul-Islam,” Waza, a witness to Kashmir’s watershed events, says. “It wanted to take Pakistan on board to run the movement for Kashmir’s merger with Pakistan.” This was quite contrary to Zia’s program, and ultimately led to fissures and feuds in the resistance movement, “ably cashed in on by the Indian agencies.”

Nasir-ul-Islam – an alias for Hilal Mir – who shared Budgam roots with Muhammad Yusuf Shah, opposed the moves to declare the Ansar-ul-Islam as the armed wing of the Jama’at-e-Islami, the Islamist political party founded by Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi. Then, a faction led by Ahsan Dar formed the al-Badr, shortly renamed as the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. But the tussle continued between Hilal Mir and Ahsan Dar, the latter keen to turn the new group into the armed wing of the Jama’at-e-Islami. The ISI supported the schoolmaster from Pattan, forcing Mir to form the Jamiat- ul-Mujahideen in June 1991. At the fag-end of that year, Yusuf Shah took over Hizb operations, replacing Ahsan Dar, who was kidnapped in May 1992 and forced to set up a new organisation, the Muslim Mujahideen, a pro-India militia, operating in the Achabal area under the command of the renegade Nabi Azad.

Despite the Hizb’s aggressive postures, the former cleric repeatedly stressed that his group’s armed struggle in Kashmir had nothing to do with the pan-Islamic Jihad of Al-Qaeda. But intelligence files charge Salahuddin’s outfit with an estimated 65 per cent of all violence in the restive region, assassinations of many Muslim clerics “opposed to the Jama’at-e-Islami’s worldview,” and establishing “kangaroo courts where they behaved like bygone NC vigilantes, a law unto themselves.”

From the other side, the Hizb supremo went to Khost, Afghanistan, joining the Hizb-e-Islami chief, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Al Badr training camp, where militants learnt their craft on weapons supplied by the US to fight the Soviet Army.

“Hekmatyar was in close contact with the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen through Qazi Hussain Ahmad, the ameer of the Jama’at-e-Islami in Pakistan, then a close ally of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif,” says Junaid-ul-Islam, a former Hizb spokesman.

“The late Qazi Hussain Ahmad was ideologically supportive of the Hizb-e-Islami. And since the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen is an ideological ally of the Jama’at, its recruits landing in Muzaffarabad would be sent to Afghanistan for training.” Apart from Hekmatyar’s Al Badr camp, Kashmiri fighters developed their military skills at other Afghan sites, including those named as Khalid bin Walid, Al Farooq, and Abu Jindal where Osama bin Laden held a press conference in 1998.

But after the Afghan war and the subsequent influx of the Afghan mujahideen into the Valley, Salahuddin distanced his organisation from the Jama’at-e-Islami. Though the decision in the mid-nineties created a rift within the Hizb, Salahuddin was hailed in Pakistan’s liberal circles for a move aimed to gather more political support within the country.

The fiery speaker of old was again at his persuasive best when he began drawing parallels between the Kashmir struggle and the war of the Irish Republican Army. But despite knowing Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar, he refused to toe their line: he steered clear of America-bashing.

That, perhaps, is why he was secretly contacted by the US administration in 2000 when Pakistan’s military ruler, Pervez Musharraf was pressing him to announce a ceasefire with India. As Salahuddin took his time, the then ISI chief, General Mehmood Ahmad, persuaded his operational commander, Abdul Majeed Dar, who announced a truce on July 24, 2000. Salahuddin endorsed the ceasefire the very next day.

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What followed were talks with a team from New Delhi led by the Indian home secretary, Kamal Pande. The ceasefire eventually saw a Hizb faction being exposed to the full gaze of the media at the Nehru Guest House in Srinagar. Two weeks later, Salahuddin called off the ceasefire after dubbing it a “mockery.” This led to a split in the Hizb command. The pro-talks Majeed Dar and his associates shortly fell to the bullets of unknown assassins.

“Instead of wasting time on the dialogue process with India,” Salahuddin said, “it would be prudent to focus on our basic demands on the diplomatic, political and militant fronts to realise our goal.” His demands included scaling down Indian troops to their pre-1989 levels in the Valley, releasing imprisoned militants, ending all operations against civilians, and tripartite talks involving India, Pakistan and Kashmir. For this, he even counted on the “practical nature” of the then Indian Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, despite his (Salahuddin’s) deep apprehensions of “India’s unrealistic, intransigent and dilly-dallying behaviour.”


But after 9/11, Salahuddin – a dreaded terrorist for India, a state guest for Pakistan, and a freedom fighter for Kashmir – found himself in a tight spot in the face of a diplomatic win for India. Despite being mindful of the altered global scenario and America’s lost interest in Kashmir, he continued to draw flak. His militant methods, alleged deals with the Indian state and reluctance of his five sons (embodying traditional middle-class aspirations) to join the jihad became handy tools for his political opponents.

But something unexpected happened on Kashmir’s insurgent landscape in 2007 amid steady erosion in the Hizb’s ranks, after he had a visitor from Srinagar.

On October 16, 2007, the United Jihad Council (UJC), a 13-member alliance of militant groups led by Salahuddin, issued a momentous statement, asserting that it would abandon a conventional warfare weapon, landmines, in the Valley. It came as a big relief for civilians, because of the huge toll in life and limb the devices had taken across Kashmir. Among those cheering him was the Kofi Annan-led United Nations, which sent quick words of appreciation. But what otherwise was considered as the madness of the militant alliance had a clear method to it.

That fall, Khurram Parvez, a rights defender from Kashmir who lost his leg and a colleague, Asiya Jeelani, in an IED blast in Kupwara on April 20, 2004, while monitoring elections there, went to Azad Kashmir to meet the chiefs of all militant groups, including Salahuddin. The visit was to convince them to shun the use of landmines for the sake of civilian lives.

“They promised to abide by the humanitarian norms of the Geneva Convention, which says they cannot use such weapons where there could be civilian casualties,” says Parvez. The militant leadership agreed to eschew landmines, but disagreed to stop using Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and grenades, which, according to them, were their most potent weapons.

The announcement only elevated the status of the former advocate of democratic means, who has recently been designated as a “global terrorist” by the US. Interestingly, the tag has come for a man who has always rejected the ISIS and Al-Qaeda perception of the Kashmir movement and Islam, and described it as an “Indian attempt to link the Kashmir freedom struggle with international Jihad.” In fact, after 2008, he had changed the Hizb’s strategy. Armed militants were barred from showing up at protest demonstrations “as India needed an excuse to crush them (unarmed civilians) and turn Kashmir into a concentration camp.”

And now the “terrorist” label for Salahuddin is mostly being attributed to Washington’s gargantuan weapons deal with New Delhi for whom he remains an old foe, figuring on its list of 20 “most wanted” people, apart from being among the “most wanted” by its National Investigation Agency, the NIA. Though the tag bars US citizens from trading with the subject, it does not last long, as it gets reviewed every year. Lately, the designation was reviewed in favour of Salahuddin’s mentor, Hekmatyar.

As Osama bin Laden’s aide, the Afghan warlord was declared “global terrorist” by the US in 2003. The designation was lifted in 2016 when he returned to Kabul with an olive branch – that too, as an “American envoy.” Now the latest US State Department move is seen as the beginning of third-party mediation in the Kashmir dispute, besides an American attempt to cut Beijing down to size in the region, despite Donald Trump’s hopes of China reining in North Korea. The Trump-Modi nexus has already backfired, with Pakistan announcing its unflinching support for Salahuddin whose stature has risen even further. The move has also pitted India more against China which is expected to veto the tag as it vetoed the UN’s attempt to designate Masood Azhar as a terrorist.

“Branding Salahuddin a terrorist is a clear violation of the UN charter,” says a pro-freedom politician, not wanting to be named. “Gun is a bitter medicine for treating a disease which the Kashmir issue is. Otherwise, when not pushed to extremes, Salahuddin is a peace-loving man.”

Several years before a rich haul of his secret communications was dug out from Hijazi’s hideout in Srinagar, Salahuddin had bumped into his polling agent, Noor Mohammad, in a Muzaffarabad camp at a time Benazir Bhutto had frozen all training camps and militant launching pads in the region.

“Would you like to head a new outfit called the Green Army, comprised of twenty guerrillas, and return to the Valley to fight the occupation?” Salahuddin asked, as they sat down to discuss matters of great importance.

Belonging to the Malaratta area of Old Srinagar, where he and the Al-Umar Mujahideen chief, Mushtaq Zargar, would throw stones at the forces together, and worked for the same workshop as coppersmiths, Noor Muhammad agreed.

He was tasked to deliver a letter at a certain address in Kaw Mohalla, a densely-populated locality in downtown Srinagar.

But, on his way to the Valley, he was intercepted by the Indian army at Machil, and Salahuddin’s secret message fell into his enemies’ hands.

When the army major at the camp where Noor Muhammad was held brought in a translator for the letter, he learnt instantly that Salahuddin only wanted to deliver a stark message to his cadre in the Valley:

“Discipline yourselves! We haven’t picked up those guns for training them at each other! And beware of the divided house.”

Noor Muhammad was subjected to unspeakable torture.

Many years later, and after long and sustained mental help, he finally said: “Salahuddin never wanted feuds in militant ranks as he believed that everyone was fighting for Kashmir’s freedom.”

Precisely what the Wars of defiant Maisuma say of the man who became an insurgent after democracy played him false.


Jameel War at his hideout as Hizb commander in 1992

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