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Saturday, 27 December 2014

जब समंदर से मुझे घृणा हो गई थी - संस्मरण।

समंदर से मुझे प्यार है और मेरी अब तक की जिंदगी में ये किसी न किसी तरह से मुझसे जुडा रहा है। मैं अरब सागर के किनारे बसे शहर मुंबई में पैदा हुआ, पला-बढा। समंदर के साथ मेरी पहली याद तब से जुडी है जब बचपन में अक्सर रविवार के दिन मां-बाप मुझे गिरगांव चौपाटी घुमाने ले जाया करते थे। इसी गिरगांव चौपाटी के सामने खडे ऐतिहासिक विल्सन कॉलेज में मैने 5 साल गुजारे। बतौर टीवी पत्रकार पिछले 15 सालों से यहीं समंदर किनारे अनंत चतुर्दशी के दिन सुबह से रात तक गणपति विसर्जन कवर करता आया हूं। साल 2007 तक साप्ताहिक छुट्टी की शामें अक्सर मुंबई के मनोरी बीच पर सूर्यास्त देखते हुए गुजरतीं थीं। मनोरी, तुलनात्मक रूप से मुंबई का सबसे खूबसूरत और साफ सुथरा समुद्र तट है और मैं अब भी अक्सर यहां दोस्तों और सहकर्मियों के साथ आते रहता हूं। समु्द्र के प्रति लगाव ने मुझे इसकी गहराई में झांकने के लिये भी उत्साहित किया। यही वजह रही कि साल 2008 में मैने आस्ट्रेलिया से पंजीकृत डाईविंग स्कूल से पेशेवर स्कूबा डाईविंग (गोताखोरी) का कोर्स किया। समुद्र के भीतर छुपी खूबसूरत, रंगबिरंगी दुनिया ने मुझे इतना प्रभावित किया कि बीते 6 सालों के भीतर मैं विश्व के कई बेहतरीन डाईविंग लोकेशंस पर गोताखोरी कर चुका हूं। आज जिस समंदर से मुझे इतना प्यार है उसी से मुझे अबसे ठीक 10 साल पहले यानी दिसंबर 2004 के बाद कुछ सालों के लिये नफरत हो गई थी, घृणा हो गई थी।


26 दिसंबर 2004 की दोपहर मैं चैन्नै पहुंचा। चैन्नै में सबसे ज्यादा तबाही मशहूर मरीना बीच पर हुई थी। पुलिस वालों ने मरीना बीच की तरफ जाने वाले सारे रास्ते बंद कर दिये थे। खुशकिस्मती से मेरा कैमरामैन वेंकट तमिल जानता था। पुलिसवालों से तमिल में बहस करते करते वो हमें बीच तक पहुंचाने में कामियाब रहा। मरीना बीच किसी शहरी इलाके से सटा भारत का सबसे लंबा बीच है। बंगाल की खाडी पर मौजूद इस बीच के एक छोर से दूसरे छोर तक पहुंचने के लिये 13 किलोमीटर का सफर करना पडता है। दुनियाभर के पर्यटकों की यहां भरमार रहती है। यही मरीना बीच उस दोपहर नर्क में तब्दील हो गया था। सुबह 6.20 मिनट पर आई सुनामी की 7 मीटर ऊंची लहरों ने जो तबाही मचाई थी, उसके निशान हर ओर बिखरे पडे थे। मछुआरों की उलटी पडीं नावें, कबाड में तब्दील हो चुकी कारें, खानपान के स्टॉलों के बिखरे पडे टुकडे, लोगों के ढेरों जूते चप्पल कुदरत के कहर की कहानी कह रहे थे। उस सुबह सुनामी की लहरें यहां 206 लोगों को निगल गईं थीं, जिनमें ज्यादातर जॉगिंग करने वाले लोग, रेत पर क्रिकेट खेल रहे बच्चे, चंद पर्यटक और मछुआरे थे।

शाम होते होते सुनामी की भयावहता की तस्वीर लगभग पूरी तरह से साफ हो चुकी थी। मैं 2 हफ्तों तक तमिलनाडु में रहा और इस दौरान कई दिल पसीजने वाली कहानियां सामने आईँ। भारत में सुनामी की वजह से सबसे ज्यादा नुकसान तमिलनाडु में हुआ था और तमिलनाडु में सबसे ज्यादा मौतें समुद्र तट से सटे नागापट्टनम जिले में हुईं थीं। भारत में सुनामी की वजह से करीब 18000 लोग मारे गये थे। इनमें से 8 हजार लोग तमिलनाडु से थे। इन 8 हजार में से अकेले नागापट्टनम में ही 5 हजार लोगों की मौत हुई। मछुआरों की बस्तियों से दूर दूर तक इंसानी शवों के सडने की बदबू आ रही थी। उनकी गलियों में इतनी लाशें पडीं थीं कि पैर रखने के लिये जगह ढूढनी पडती और ध्यान देना पडता था कि किसी शव पर पैर न पड जाये। जिस समुद्र से मछुआरों का पेट भरता था, जिसकी वो पूजा करते थे, वही आज उनके लिये राक्षस बन गया था। उनसे सबकुछ छीन लिया था। कहीं पूरा का पूरा परिवार बह गया तो कहीं किसी का पति, किसी का बच्चा, किसी के बुजुर्ग मां-बाप को सुनामी की लहरें अपने साथ ले गईं। हजारों लोगों की लाशें भी बरामद नहीं हुईं। भारतभर में अब भी करीब साढे 5 हजार लोग सुनामी के बाद से लापता हैं।

चैन्नै से 70 किलोमीटर दूर कलपक्कम परमाणु केंद्र है। केंद्र के पास ही उसमें काम करने वाले अधिकारियों की कॉलनी है। सुनामी ने इस कॉलनी को पूरी तरह से तबाह कर दिया था। यहां मैं अभिजीत नाम के एक शख्स से मिला, जिसकी आँखों के सामने सुनामी की लहरें उसके पिता को बहा ले गईं। अभिजीत ये मानने को तौयार नहीं था कि उसके पिता की सुनामी में मौत हो गई होगी। उसने पिता की तस्वीर के साथ सैकडों पोस्टर छपवाये और दिनरात कलपक्कम के इर्द गिर्द के इलाको में उन्हें चिपकाने लगा जिसमें लोगों से अपील की गई थी कि अगर कोई उसके पिता को देखे तो उससे संपर्क करे। इस बीच ये अफवाह उड गई कि सुनामी से कलपक्कम परमाणु केंद्र को भी नुकसान पहुंचा है और रेडिएशन फैलने की आशंका पैदा हो गई है। इसने आसपास के इलाके के लोगों को खौफजदा कर दिया। इसके बाद परमाणु केंद्र के ओर से मीडिया को बुलाया गया। हमें परमाणु केंद्र के अंदर ले जाया गया और वो जगह दिखाई गई जहां सुनामी की लहरों ने नुकसान पहुंचाया था। वैज्ञानिकों ने हमें ये समझाने की कोशिश की कि सुनामी से नुकसान सिर्फ परमाणु केंद्र की समुद्र की ओर वाली दीवार के कुछ हिस्से को ही हुआ था। वहां रेडिएशन फैलने का कोई खतरा नहीं था।

इसी तरह चैन्नै से कलपक्कम के रास्ते में एक मगरमच्छ फार्म बनाया गया है, जहां दुनिया भर की कई प्रजातियों के बडे बडे मगरमच्छ और घडियाल रखे गये हैं। अफवाह उडी की सुनामी की वजह से यहां के सारे मगरमच्छ भाग गये हैं और वे आसपास की बस्तियों में हमला कर सकते हैं। फार्म के प्रबंधन ने हमें बुलाकर बताया कि ये बात सही थी कि सुनामी का पानी आ जाने की वजह से मगरमच्छ अपने अपने तालाबों से निकल भागे थे, लेकिन जल्द ही फार्म के कर्मचारियों ने उन्हें पकड पकड कर फिरसे कैद कर लिया और अब मगरमच्छों से लोगों को कोई खतरा नहीं था। भारतीय पुरातत्व में रूचि रखने वालों के पसंदीदा प्राचीन शहर महाबलीपुरम में भी सुनामी ने काफी कहर बरपाया था। कई लोग यहां भी समुद्र में समा गये, जिनमें से कई पर्यटक थे। उस दौरान यहां एक दिलचस्प खबर ये आई कि सुनामी की वजह से यहां कुछ प्राचीन मूर्तियां बाहर निकल आईं जो कि तब तक समुद्र की रेत की नीचे दबीं हुईं थीं।


हालांकि मैने मार्च 2011 में जापान में आई सुनामी भी कवर की है, लेकिन दिसंबर 2004 में हिंद महासागर में आई सुनामी उससे हर मायने में काफी बडी थी। 2004 की सुनामी को अब भी दुनिया के अब तक दर्ज इतिहास में सबसे बडी कुदरती आपदा माना जाता है। इंडोनेशिया के करीब समुद्र के भीतर आये भूंकप से पैदा हुई सुनामी लहरों ने 14 देशों के करीब 2 लाख 30 हजार लोगों की जान ले ली। कहीं इन लहरों की ऊंचाई 6 मीटर थी तो कहीं 30 मीटर तक। सुनामी ने बता दिया था कि कुदरत जब चाहे तब इंसानी दिमाग और ताकत को चंद पलों में ही नेस्तानाबूद कर सकती है। सुनामी के बाद समुद्र से मेरी घृणा क्षणिक थी, क्योंकि उस नरसंहार के लिये पूर्णत: कुदरत को दोष देना भी गलत है। इंसानों की लालच और अंधी सोच भी इसके लिये बडी हद तक जिम्मेदार है। समुद्र की सीमाओं को हम पाट पाटकर छोटा कर रहे हैं। वहां ऊंची ऊंची इमारते बना रहे हैं। ऐसे में यही सवाल उठता है कि समुद्र हमारे घर में घुस रहा है या हम उसके घर में ?

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Attraction of Foreign Terror: Remember Mohammed Afroze, the Pilot?

Mohammed Afroz was arrested under POTO in 2002.

Areeb Majid of Kalyan near Mumbai and Mehdi Masroor Biswas are two fresh Indian faces who got attracted to international terrorist organizations and allegedly attempted to become part of their activities. These two names remind me of Mohammed Afroze who in the beginning of past decade allegedly got attracted to Al Qaeda and was prosecuted by Mumbai cops. Mohammed Afroze’s case is one of the most bizarre cases in the recent history of Mumbai Police which had international ramifications. The arrest of Mohammed Afroz, the investigations & later the trial against him were covered by me & it is one of the most interesting terror related cases which I have covered as a journalist.

Mohammed Afroze, a lad residing in Cheetah Camp slums of north-eastern part of Mumbai was picked up from Hotel Abott in Vashi, New Mumbai. Police sources informed that they had got a “big catch”. They had got a terrorist who had planned to conduct a suicide attack in London in the same manner & on the same day when multiple attacks took place on USA on 09-11-2001. When I first got the news, I realized that this was a story on which I have to work for several months & this would also be very competitive as every crime reporter would strive to get something exclusive in this.

I found out his residential address in Cheetah Camp and after hacking my way through narrow, stinky & filthy lanes of the slums I reached his house. In that locality which was just a couple of kilometers away from Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Afroze’s family seemed to be better off than other slum dwellers & his house could be easily distinguished from other houses. Afroze’s house was a permanent construction made of bricks & finished with plaster & tiles while other houses in the area were constructed with tin, tarpaulins & jute. When I reached his place, his family members behaved very arrogantly and refused to speak anything on camera. Irately, they asked me to leave the place. I tried to convince them and pleaded with them for a while but it was of no use. I also told them that if injustice was being done with their son, I will take their side & pressurize the cops to free him. After all my efforts failed, I decided to leave the place, but not before talking to Afroze’s neighbours. After speaking to 3-4 persons in the locality I just managed to get tit bits of Afroze’s personality. He was of very reserved nature & mingled only with few people of his age. One of his neighbor told that he was famous as “Pilot” in the locality as since his childhood Afroze told his friends that he wanted to become a pilot & was also learning to fly in some foreign country. He told me that since last few years most of the time Afroze was out of Mumbai & rarely visited his home at Cheetah Camp. Another neighbor told me that he was of very timid nature. Few months back when Afroze came home somebody robbed him of his gold chain at knife point.

 I visited the first court hearing of Mohammed Afroze. Afroze was brought to Esplanade Court, amidst tight security arrangements. His security was parallel to one which is being provided to the Prime Minsiter of India. A pilot police van, then several vans of armed cops, then a big blue van in which Afroze alone was kept, followed by half a dozen other police vehicles led passersby to assume that some “VVIP” was traveling. Indeed, for Mumbai Police, Mohammed Afroze was a “VVIP accused.” When, Afroze was produced in the court, the police sought his remand on charges of robbery. A fellow journalist satirically remarked- “So much security for a single accused of robbery… I can imagine what Mumbai Police will do when it arrests Dawood Ibrahim. They will order a curfew in the city”.

Mumbai Police got a remand of Afroze for 7 days. One of my police sources who were not part of the investigation team told me that he was booked under charges of “robbery” so that police could get time to interrogate him & then book him for “the real charges”.

Mohammed Afroze was later booked under the then enforced stringent law of Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). Sections of Indian Penal Code like waging war against the country were also applied on him. 

On 14 December 2002, Mohammed Afroze gave a confessional statement before the court. He said that he was very much aggrieved with the 9-11 attacks in USA & wanted to reveal the truth. Additional Chief Metropolitan Judge V.P.Tawre gave him 4 days time to reconsider his decision & warned him that his voluntary confession could be used against him, but Afroze was adamant. However, he later retracted this statement.

In his confessional stated Mohammed Afroze stated that he was working for an international terrorist organization Al-Qaeda. He was recruited to this terrorist organization by a radical Islamist named Maulana Mansoor Ilyas who ran a mosque at Victoria, Australia.  According to Afroze’s statement, he took flying lessons in 3 countries. He took his initial lessons of flying in Royal Victorian Aero Club in 1997.
After he joined Al-Qaeda, he was asked to take advanced lessons at Tyler International School of Aviation in Texas, USA in 1999 & then in 2000 he joined Cabair College of Air Training at Bedford, UK. He told that his aviation training was funded by his uncle Mubarak Musalaman, who was staying in UK.

Afroze told in his confessional statement that Al Qaeda planned to use his flying expertise to conduct terrorist attacks on UK on 09-11-2001. He met 9-11 attack suspect Mohammed Atta at Iliyas’s residence. There were total 53 guys who were divided into 5 groups. Each of the group was given its target. The targets were World Trade Centre at New York, Pentagon at Washington, DC, Westminister in London, Rialto Towers in Australia & Indian parliament in New Delhi.

Afroze said that he was part of the London group. He alongwith Rashid, Rehman, Kasim, Abbas & Rafique were instructed to board a Manchester bound plane from London’s Heathrow airport & then hijack it. The hijacked plane was to be crashed in the Westminster area of London city. Afroze was assigned the responsibility of commanding officer of the operation. He along with others accomplices reached  Heathrow airport, but as the attacks had already taken place in the US, the airport in London was shut down as a precaution. Hence, the operation was aborted. When the UK security & intelligence agencies started focusing on the domestic flying schools, Afroze thought it prudent to escape back to India.

The detailed confessional statement of Mohammed Afroze led to multiple questions & sought further investigations on the claims he made & information he revealed. Mohammed Afroze became one of the most high profile terror suspects of India. He was one of the first accused to be arrested under Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance (POTO) which was later withdrawn. To conduct his trial one of the best special prosecutors of Maharashtra Mr.Ujjwal Nikam was appointed. M.N.Singh, the then police commissioner of Mumbai, who had become famous for investigating 1993 Mumbai serial bombing case himself, investigated the case.

Several teams were sent to various countries to verify the claims made by Mohammed Afroze. M.N.Singh was heading the team which went to UK. In London he interrogated Mubarak Musalaman, the maternal uncle of Afroze who allegedly financed his aviation training for terror attacks. However, later it came out that most of the countries didn’t co-operate with Mumbai Police teams for unknown reasons. Some were reluctant to allow Mumbai cops to interrogate suspects named by Afroze while others didn’t co-operate in investigating the financial aspects of the case. Counterparts of Mumbai Police in foreign countries also created hindrances citing technical reasons. As a result nothing came out from the foreign visits & no substantial evidences could be gained to collaborate claims made by Afroze in his confessional statement.

Apart from the feeble investigation, there was also a grave legal mess up in the case. Afroze was charged under POTO, but at the time when Afroze conspired to commit the offence, POTO was not in force. Moreover, the accused of POTO were required to be produced before a specially designated court, but Afroze was being produced before a Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) judge A.Bhangale. Also, some of the charges leveled on him didn’t match with the sections of POTO.
 Although, the charges under POTO were withdrawn from Afroze, he was charged with several other sections of Indian Penal Code (IPC).

Sections of IPC under which Afroze was charged.
What the sections read.
121-A.
Conspiracy to wage or abetting to waging of war against Government of India.
120-B
Criminal Conspiracy as defined by Section 120-A of IPC.
126
Committing depredation on territories of Power at peace with Government of India.
467
Forgery of valuable security, will etc.

However, the results post trial was a big blow for the prosecution. Afroze was acquitted from 2 major charges of conspiracy for waging war against India (121-A) & criminal conspiracy (120-B) He was convicted for depredation (126) & forging his higher secondary school certificate for the purpose of acquiring pilot’s licence. He was sentenced 8 years of imprisonment, but soon got bail & filed an appeal in Bombay High Court against his conviction.
“This was the first criminal case which I handled independently as a law professional.” recollected Afroze’s lawyer Advocate Mubin Solkar, who became my friend while I was covering the trial. Advocate Solkar was just 23 years old & had finished his studies of law only few months before he got this assignment. It was not an easy assignment for a beginner which was much hyped by the media & was being observed by security & intelligence agencies of several countries of the world.

“Many lawyers refused to take up this case viewing its seriousness & nobody had prior experience of fighting a legal battle under POTO which was recently passed by the central government. I took this as a challenge.” The challenged worked positively for Advocate Solkar right from the beginning. During one of the initial hearings, the prosecution informed the court that they are withdrawing charges of POTO. Later, acquittal of Afroze from major charges added more feathers to Advocate Solkar’s cap & he earned an image of a reliable criminal lawyer in the legal fraternity of Mumbai in his very first assignment.

I was the first journalists to interview Mohammed Afroze after he was released. While talking on my camera in a small room of a social organization Aman Committee at Crawford Market, Afroze declared that his first priority would be to absolve himself from the remaining charges for which he was convicted. He vowed to lead his life as a law abiding citizen & will work for the betterment of his community.

In the later years Afroze set up a unit at Navi Mumbai for manufacturing & exporting leather goods. My next meeting with him was in October 2004, when he contested Maharashtra state assembly elections as an independent candidate. Wearing a white Pathani suit Afroze didn’t look different from other politicians. The timid looking, vulnerable boy of Cheetah Camp slums was now know as “Afroze bhai” (Brother Afroze) in the locality after his jail stint. After being released out of jail, Afroze got an idea of how much “publicity” he attracted & how media had made him “famous” in the locality. He was surprised to see that even the Yoga session which he attended in prison was published as big news in the newspapers. Overwhelmed by such media coverage, Afroze considered the advise of friends and relatives that he should “encash his fame”. Afroze decided to contest the next assembly elections from Trombay constituency of Mumbai city. Trombay was one of those constituencies where there were significant number of voters from Muslim community (Out of total 488000 voters, 225000 voters were Muslims.) He first approached Samajwadi Party(SP) & then Congress & Rashtravadi Janta Party(RJD), but nobody appeared to be inclined to back the candidature of a former accused of terrorism.
After approaching all the parties claiming to be secular and pro minorities, Afroze settled to contest the elections as an independent candidate.
“Why will people vote for you?” I asked.
“If I win I will take up the issue of proper water and electricity supply in the area. I have been born & brought up in this locality and I am aware of the problems here. People in the locality will surely vote for a candidate who knows them & who has a plan to solve their problems.” Afroze retorted like a confident politician. Mohammed Afroze’s candidature was reported widely in media & he was listed among the candidates with criminal records. The results of Assembly elections brought bad news for Afroze. He lost the election, but managed to get 5000 votes, which surprised many.

Mohammed Afroze is not in news now. His dates of court on appeal against conviction are also no longer covered by the media. Afroze didn’t contest any elections after 2004 & nor he gives any interviews to television channels. Most of the new generation journalists covering crime & terrorism are not aware of Mohammed Afroze’s story. However, this case has been registered in the history of Indian counter terror operations as a lucid illustration of how Indian authorities lacked in dealing with a case. It not only exposes the legal acumen of Indian investigating agencies but also depicts a diplomatic failure of Indian government, which was unsuccessful in persuading the foreign governments to sincerely assist the investigations. Many questions still remain unanswered, like, what happened to other guys who allegedly took training with Afroze? Where are those guys? What is Mubarak Musalman doing? Where is Maulana Mansoor Ilyas now? 

Friday, 12 December 2014

J & K Diary - 3 : Life between trade & grenade !

At top is a Pakistani post & below are Indian hamlets.
Old farmers cutting dry grass on the field, toddlers playing along the street side, little children going to school, women heading to home with grocery, grazing cows and sheeps…Pakistani bullets spare no one. Whether you are a civilian or an army man, whether you are a kid or grown up, man or women, bullets fired by Pakistani guns don't discriminate, don't hesitate. You may get killed or injured or lose your loved ones, neighbours or pet animals. Welcome to Sabjiyan! Sabjiyan is a small cluster of hamlets adjacent to Line of Control (LOC) near Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) in Poonch district of Jammu and Kashmir. People here literally live under shadow of death. Sabjiyan is located at a place where Jammu region ends and Kashmir valley begins. Hence, it’s a key spot for infiltrators to sneak into the valley with their sinister designs. Adjacent to this village is a hill whose top is occupied by Pakistani army which has built a post there. Being at a height, Pakistani soldiers get a bird’s eye view of the village below. They can see movements of the villagers and shoot them whenever they want to distract Indian security forces at the time of infiltration bids.
  
Shadow of death: 
A house at village Jallas opposite PoK, Poonch
While visiting this area, I could sense the danger and jeopardy. We could feel the fear which has seized the life of people living here. At this moment everything seems normal and by the next moment there could be a spray of bullets from the top and you are dead. Bullets may come anytime whether it is broad daylight or dark of the night. Just a few weeks before I visited Sabjiyan, there was an indiscriminate firing from Pakistani soldiers. I met Ashfaque Ali, an old man residing at a hamlet of Sabjiyan. One afternoon at around 2 pm while he was cutting dry grass on a field, Pakistanis started firing. There was chaos all over. Everybody started running to dodge the bullets. Asfhaque also tried to escape but a bullet hit his right arm. Hours later he was taken to a governmental hospital in Poonch. There was tremendous blood loss due to the injury; however, he was able to survive. A 9 years old girl was not as lucky as Ashfaque. She was unable to escape and got killed. Apart from civilian casualties there have been numerous incidents where members of security forces were killed. Sabjiyan provides a strategic advantage to Pakistani forces as they have occupied dominant heights and Indians below them could be easily targeted.

Not very far away from Sabjiyan is village Jhallas which is just opposite LOC and Pakistani army posts are clearly visible. Here I met a postman named Pashorilal alias Mitthu.
This 40 years old man’s body is full of marks due to injuries by splinters. There are several in the village like him who survived inspite of being hit by Pakistani bullets and splinters and bear similar marks on their body. There are numerous houses in this village whose walls facing PoK have marks of bullets. Since October 1, 2014 there have been several instances of ceasefire violations by Pakistanis in which 8 people have been killed and 94 got injured including 13 securitymen.

Such villages around 725 kilometres long LOC have witnessed a long history of bloodbath and have lost several of their residents. Many have migrated to safer areas. In 2003 there was a ceasefire agreement between Indian and Pakistani governments wherein it was mutually decided that security forces of both the countries will keep their artillery 20 kilometres away from the LOC. This was a great relief for these villagers and they were able to sleep fearlessly. However, normalcy across LOC was very shortlived.  Pakistani forces began ceasefire violations under some pretext or the other which compelled Indian forces to respond accordingly.

“Firing bandh karo…Namaaz-E-Janaaza hone wali hai”
 
LOC:Road connecting Poonch (India) & Rawalakot (Pok) 
If you look at the map of Jammu and Kashmir you will notice that except eastern direction Poonch town is surrounded by PoK from rest of the three sides. At most of locations, Pakistani forces are at dominant heights. However, there are few locations where Indian armed forces too are stationed at relatively good height. According to Paresh Kumar, a local resident of Poonch, whenever Pakistanis start firing on our villages from their heighted positions, Indian soldiers also retaliate by firing from those posts where they are on advantage.
There is a village at PoK side near LOC where Indian post is on dominant position. The Azaan (call for prayer) made from the loudspeaker of the mosque of that village is heard even in Indian side. Whenever Pakistanis fire on Indian villages, Indian forces start a response which often seems unstoppable. Pakistani side suffers casualties and they are not able to pick up their dead bodies also due to continuous firing by Indian forces. In such circumstances one hears an announcement from the loudspeaker of Pakistani mosque –  “ हिंदुस्तानी फौज से गुजारिश है कि मेहरबानी करके फायरिंग रोक दो। नमाज ए जनाजा होना है। (Indian army is requested to please stop firing. We have to do funeral prayers.)

Mobile goes hostile.
In areas around the LOC towards Indian side, you will not be able to use your mobile phones. The icon on your mobile phone which displays network strength goes blank. If you start manually searching the mobile network, you will not find any Indian service provider, but the menu will display Pakistani ones like Telenor, Zong, Ufone etc. This is because Indian government has not allowed installation of mobile towers near LoC. However, this is not the case with PoK side. One can see numerous towers of Pakistani mobile service providers in close proximity to the LOC. Lack of Indian mobile services and presence of Pakistani mobile networks provides an advantage to Pakistani OGWs (Over Ground Workers). Pakistani spies employed by Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) working on Indian soil use Pakistani sim cards to communicate with their colleagues on the other side of fence and pass on sensitive information. 
Pakistani television channels are also easily accessible on the Indian side.

Here grenade…there trade.
Trade Centre at LOC, Poonch.
Life at the LOC reflects irony. Just 2 kilometres away from village Jallas which frequently witnesses firing from Pakistani soldiers is a place where two countries exhibit a totally different picture. This place is Cross LOC Trade Centre where trade between India and PoK takes place. One trade centre is at Indian side and another one is at PoK side. Both the trade centres are located beside the  road which connects Poonch from Indian side to Rawalakot at PoK side. Cross LOC trade commenced in October 2008 as a “Confidence Building Measure” between the two countries. Pakistan sends dry fruits to India while Indian traders sell fresh fruits to Pakistan. Initially, the trade began with 5 to 6 trucks from both the sides per week, but today it has increased upto 25 trucks. Even when the gunshots during exchange of fire between Indian and Pakistani soldiers are heard closeby, the activities at both the trade centres go on.

Although, Indian traders are happy that the government is allowing them to conduct trade with PoK, they are having several grievances too. At Poonch I met Pawan Anand who is the president of Cross LOC Trade Association. He says that Indian government creates unnecessary troubles for the traders while such is not the case with Pakistani traders. “Under the pretext of security check all our goods are unpacked at LOC check point. This damages the product and we have to spend money and time on their repackaging. This is not done by Pakistan with their traders. I don’t understand why they are checking goods which are going towards them. They should be more concerned about what is coming from them. Lack of mobile towers makes communication difficult with Pakistani traders. We don’t have any proper meeting place also to discuss business. We have to meet our Pakistani counterparts at the zero line. Earlier we used to trade in 21 commodities but now we just trade in 3 to 4 items. We also require a negative list of items to know which items are not to be traded. We also need temporary permits to visit PoK and check the quality of goods which we need to order”.

Around 350 traders are involved in Cross LOC trade. Recently, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Poonch for election campaign, a memorandum of demands prepared by traders was submitted to him. Traders are expecting that Modi government will redress their grievances.

“T” for Terror and “T” for Turnout.


Pakistan backed terrorists tried to disrupt Jammu and Kashmir assembly election process and terrorise the voters. The first phase of elections saw 70 % voters turnout which broke earlier records. Apparently militant organisations got upset with this and they tried to infiltrate from Arnia near Jammu so that second phase of elections could be disrupted. However, their attempt was foiled by Indian security forces and terrorists intending to enter India were eliminated in an encounter. Turnout of second phase also saw around 70 % voters exercising their democratic right. Long queues of voters were seen especially outside polling centres of villages which directly fell within the range of rogue Pakistani bullets. Successful elections in the second phase further enraged the terrorists and they attacked an army camp before the third phase in Uri. Although, all the infiltrated terrorists were killed, Indian armed forces also suffered heavy casualties. Even such violence didn’t deter voters of Uri to come out and vote and Uri saw a large turnout in the third phase of elections.

Citizens of Jammu and Kashmir coming out to vote inspite of such hostile circumstances and violent attempts by separatists to prevent them from voting only signifies that they have faith in Indian democracy and its with India where they see their future and well being.

Monday, 8 December 2014

J & K Diary-2 : Life of a refugee.


From prime minister Narendra Modi to chief minister Omar Abdulla, all the politicians who were campaigning for ongoing Jammu & Kashmir assembly elections didn't miss to talk about refugees. They sympathised with their plight and promised them governmental support for a better life. They also blamed each other for the miseries of refugees. However, this has not been new to the people concerned. They have listened to similar speeches and promises by politicians since past six decades. Instead of their life getting better, their problems have aggravated over the years. During my visit to Poonch district for the election coverage, I got an opportunity to meet many refugees and closely observe their life. I was overwhelmed with the stories of cruelty, atrocities, greed, survival and bravery.

Refugees are those people who fled to escape from being massacred from Pakistan or Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) at the time of partition in 1947. Those who came from PoK are called PoK refugees and those who came from Pakistan are called West Pakistan refugees. Presently, the estimated population of PoK refugees is around 10 lakhs & West Pakistan refugees is 2 lakhs. Most of these 12 lakhs refugees are settled in districts adjoining frontiers of PoK or West Pakistan. In Poonch town I met a 77 years old Sikh man named Rajinder Singh Josh. He briefly narrated to me his saga of fleeing PoK and settling in Poonch as a refugee –

“My father died when I was a child & my father’s younger brother (Chacha) raised me. We were living in an area near Poonch which now falls under Pakistan occupied Kashmir. At the time of partition in 1947 Hindus & Sikhs living in our locality were being massacred. My father’s younger brother and two elder brothers (Tau) took me with them and left our house with only the clothes which we were wearing. There was no time to carry anything else as the violent crowd was heading towards us to burn us alive. We walked towards India continuously for 5 days with hardly any food and water. However, death chased us enroute also. Pakistani soldiers randomly fired at people who were fleeing towards India. They used a rifle infamously known as “Tuckdum” due to the sound it generated when it was fired. In one such firing by tuckdums both elder brothers of my father died. Somehow I and my younger uncle escaped the bullet.

We reached Poonch, but life here too was no better than hell. We didn’t have anything to eat. Brigadier Pritam Singh who rescued Poonch from Pakistani tribals allowed us to eat anything we find except cows. We even ate horses to survive. There was no cloth to shroud the dead. Little children who died due to hunger or sickness were covered with leaves and were disposed off in the river.


We didn’t have any shelter to protect ourselves from the harsh weather so we started staying in houses which were abandoned by Muslims who fled to Pakistan. Today such houses are known as “Evacuee Property”. Many refugees have been living in such evacuee properties since they came here but they don’t have any ownership rights. We cannot sell them. Instead of supporting them, the government charged rent from the occupants of such properties. It is a very tough task to repair such houses as one has to go through a very arduous clerical process. You will see large families living in such houses with one or two rooms. To add salt to our injuries Farooq Abdulla government implemented Jammu and Kashmir Resttlement Act in the past decade. This act allows a person from Pakistan who fled Jammu & Kashmir during partition to come back and claim his property which he had left behind. His ownership rights get restored and he is allowed to sell that property. Any refugee who has occupied such property has to vacate it whenever somebody from Pakistan comes and claims it. This is totally unfair. Pakistan has not passed any such act which allows us similar liberty to claim and sell our properties in Pakistan. So far around a dozen Pakistanis have come and claimed their properties in Poonch district itself.

Till very recently we were not treated as state subjects also. Several promises have been made but we haven’t got any monetary assistance from the government.”

There are several senior citizens in Poonch town who have similar stories to tell. One can see people living in old dilapidated buildings labelled as “evacuee property”. Many refugees have come together to form associations and organisations which ventilate their grievances. West Pakistan refugees don’t have right to vote, but refugees from PoK which form the larger chunk have got voting rights and this is the reason why all political parties try to woo them.


(In third and last part of this series read how people are living under the shadow of death at Indo-PoK border.)

Friday, 5 December 2014

J & K Diary -1 : Untold Stories of 3 Ex Terrorists.

 
Recently, I was in north Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir to cover elections of state legislature which are held after every 6 years. Elections are being conducted in 5 phases and I covered the initial 2 phases. I was in Doda & Poonch districts of the state. Both these districts have seen a long spell of militancy and are still vulnerable. While Poonch having proximity to frontiers of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) is a hotspot for infiltration, Doda is known for hideouts of terrorists who intend bloodbath in other parts of the state. For an average Indian living outside this state, when he hears the word Jammu and Kashmir, the first thing comes to his mind is “terrorism”.  Ironically 3 decades ago the state was known for another word beginning with letter T, “tourism”. While roaming around the towns of Doda and Poonch, I came across few people who were terrorists till few years back & decided to surrender after being promised a good life by the government. I had interesting conversations with them and found them worth sharing on this blog.

Mohammad Iqbal:

At Poonch, I met Mohammad Iqbal. This 41 years old man who is educated uptil class 12 was a section commander with militant organisation Al Jihad from 1991 to 1996. In 1996 he gave up his weapon after being attracted by the government’s surrender policy. Two years later Mohammad married Farida Begum in 1998. From this marriage he has 2 sons and a daughter. Mohammad said that he wants to lead a life of a normal Indian citizen, but his past is still haunting him and has made his life terrible. Let us see Mohammad’s story in his own words –

“I came in contact with the terrorist organisation through people who were organising public protests on the streets for separation of Jammu and Kashmir. I was brain washed by them & they convinced me that gun is the only solution to safeguard our interests and self respect. So I went with them and got training to handle fire arms and explosives in PoK. But during my life as a terrorist, I realised that truth is not that what we were told. I felt that me and other youngsters like me were used. We were also not treated respectfully by our leaders. At that time Indian government came up with a surrender policy. We were promised employment. I surrendered before the armed forces…but things didn’t happen as expected. I was given Rs 1500 per month for a year for survival but no job was provided. Some of the ex militants who held higher posts in the militant organisation got some benefits.

After surrendering 10 of my batchmates in Al Jihad were killed by other militant organisations for betraying their cause. So far six attempts to kill me have been made. Some of my other batchmates after feeling cheated went back to militancy again. Few of them have joined Lashkar-E-Toiyba. When a surrendered terrorist returns back to militancy he becomes more deadly and cruel.

In 2001, when my first son was 6 months old I was picked up again by the cops on suspicion of my association with LeT. My wife Farida went to the office of then home minister to plead for his intervention in securing my release, but he kicked the door of his office so hard to throw out my wife that she got hurt and started bleeding. I was released after spending 2 years behind the bars.

Today I am earning my livelihood by repairing wrist watches at a small shop in Poonch. Apart from my wife & kids, I have old parents to look after. Even after so much suffering I have faith in Indian democracy & today I pressed the button of Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) with the same finger which was used to trigger AK-47.”

Ishtiaque Ahmad Dev :

“Before republic day I am arrested, before independence day I am arrested, before festivals I am arrested, before some VIP comes to town I am arrested…this is my life after I kicked the gun.” These words of Ishtiaque Ahmad Dev reflect the plight of those people who have quit militancy & are trying to lead a life of a normal citizen. Ishtiaque  joined militancy in 1989 & surrendered in 1996.

Ishtiaque’s story in his words – “The general environment after 1987 state assembly elections became very hostile towards the Indian government. We were convinced that the elections were rigged. Several protests were being organised and such protests also facilitated militant groups to recruit their members. They took advantage of people’s anger. Being a young blood, I too got swayed away with the circumstances & became a militant. We were taken to PoK for weapons training. We were asked to attend speeches & sermons by people invited by Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) to convince us for our mission. Once we had interaction with PM Nawaz Sharif also. ISI decided everything. They finalised the locations of attacks. Their attitude was very condescending towards us. They tried to dominate us but they had to face resentment also. They were trying to treat us like slaves & once we were about to have a violent clash with them.

Hindus were never the target of Indian militants initially. It was Afghani Mujahideen who joined alongside and started targeting Hindus of Jammu & Kashmir. I have a friend who fought alongside Afghani terrorists. Once during militancy he took shelter at a village home of his Hindu friend. His Afghani colleague accompanied him. For few days they stayed at this Hindu’s home. His family members cooked food for them. One day Afghani got enraged for some reason & killed all the family members of that Hindu. Now my friend too has quit militancy & he is unable to face his Hindu friend due to shame.

I gave up militancy, but have not got anything promised as per surrender policy. Infact, I have been detained, arrested and tortured several times after surrendering. I have faced almost all kind of interrogation tactics you have seen in movies. Even today after so many years of quitting militancy, I am being harassed by various security forces. I want to lead a normal life, but this system doesn’t allow you to forget your past.”

Ishtiaque Ahmad is now working as a journalist and contributes articles to an Urdu daily Udaan.

Ashfaque Rana :


Ashfaque Rana also joined militancy in 1989 when there was widespread resentment against 1987 election results. One of the first leaders to quit mainstream politics and join militancy was Yasin Mallik. He raised a separatist militant organisation named Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) Influenced by the thoughts of Mallik, Ashfaque Rana who was a 25 years old young man that time decided to join JKLF. He took training and vowed to participate in a violent struggle against Indian government for securing separation of Jammu and Kashmir. However, very shortly he realised that the agenda of separatist militant organisation was very hollow and Pakistan was using youths of Jammu and Kashmir to pursue its own purpose. This made him disillusioned with the militancy and he surrendered before the Indian armed forces.

Now 45 years old Asfhaque Rana has completed his post graduation in M.A. He has full faith in Indian democracy and has contested legislative assembly elections from Surankot seat of Poonch district. He is a member of Panther’s Party and development of villages in his constituency is his prime agenda. When I met him during his election campaign he said - “India is the country which gives true freedom to the followers of all religion. I am happy that JKLF also has quit militancy and has come on table top for discussions.”


(Read in part 2:  Plight of refugees living near LOC)