AM Watali: Militancy was manageable but it was allowed to get out of the hand

  • Bilal Handoo
  • Publish Date: Jun 23 2017 7:39PM
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  • Updated Date: Jun 23 2017 7:39PM
AM Watali: Militancy was manageable but it was allowed to get out of the hand

Around the time the first signs of militancy appeared in Kashmir in the late 80s, a high-profile visitor walked into a senior police officer’s office. “What about these guns?” the visitor asked, sounding concerned. “I reckon they are for Farooq Abdullah, whom the central government wants to remove from power?” 

The visitor was Syed Ali Geelani, the then legislator from Sopore, and the officer was AM Watali, the deputy inspector general of police who shortly found himself at the receiving end of the guns.

Not long after, a group of gun-toting men appeared in Rajbagh, Srinagar, on the evening of September 18, 1988. The armed movement was about to claim its first casualty. Although the first militant strike had occurred a few days previously, on the Srinagar Telecom Office, nobody had been killed. 

That evening, as Watali, who had been actively involved in combating resistance in Kashmir from the “treacherous 60s” to the “dormant 80s” turned up, he was greeted with gunfire. His guard was wounded and, in the firing, one of the militants, Aijaz Dar, was killed. 

Sympathies poured in for Watali, including from the Jama’at-e-Islami, where he had “good friends” such as Qari Saif-u-Din and Geelani who would embrace him at social gatherings although he remained at odds with its ideology.

Reflecting on the early days of the militancy in his memoir Kashmir Intifada, released on May 27, Watali reasons that it was a result of Delhi’s machinations and its penchant for constantly installing sham governments in Jammu and Kashmir and denying democratic space to people, particularly the youth. Novel methods of rigging elections were employed, he writes. Often, even statutory provisions were misused to keep away opponents from elections. 

He, however, disagrees with the common notion that the 1987 assembly election was massively rigged. Had that been the case, he argues, Geelani wouldn’t have won or the other Muslim United Front candidates. The fraud was no more than some local officials doing favours to their political patrons and was limited to half a dozen constituencies, he says. For example, the National Conference won Handwara unfairly with the help of a junior police officer who created an “atmosphere of terror” in the late Abdul Gani Lone’s backyard.

Watali also disagrees that rigging of the 1987 assembly election was the immediate trigger for the militancy. The spark for the armed resistance, he points out, was lit in the 1960s. In fact, pockets of armed resistance have existed in Kashmir right from 1947. The full-blown insurgency, he says, was the consequence of “faulty policies” of various institutions of the Indian state and their ignorance. The failure of India and Pakistan to work out a settlement for Kashmir only complicated the problem. The former police office himself sees India’s claim over Kashmir as limited to the “conditional” Instrument of Accession.

These days, Watali leads a quiet life away from the trappings of power and influence, spending his days reading and playing golf. But the conflict took a toll on him, he says, especially the killing of his younger brother by “unknown gunmen” at Rajbagh during early nineties left him “shattered”.

 

In a conversation with Kashmir Ink, Watali talks about his days leading the crackdown on the militancy, the Kashmir dispute and his memoir. Edited excerpts from the interview:

 

The armed rebellion shaped up right under your nose during the late 1980s. How exactly did it come about?

In 1989, when I was DIG, Kashmir, I got a call from Baramulla. The caller was an army commander who wanted me to come over to brief his rank and file about militancy, which had just begun. The moment I reached there, I found some 60 commanding officers led by a general waiting to be addressed by me.

I explained how groups of Kashmiri youth were motivated for militancy and sent for training to Muzaffarabad through Domari Galli of the Shamasbari mountain range in Keran. At that time, Domari Galli was the only active route used by the Kashmiri youth for exflitration and infiltration. But the army commander rejected my contention saying, “How is it possible for a teenage boy from Lal Chowk to climb and cross through Domari Galli, which is ascended with difficulty even by the toughest Gorkha soldier?” 

“Sir,” I replied, “you are missing the point. The Lal Chowk teenager is a highly motivated Kashmiri. He can even climb the highest reaches.” 

None of the army officers agreed. “Do you rule out that the militants come from RS Pura border?” another question followed. I could sense they were playing smart with me although I knew they were ignorant about what was happening on the ground. I left saying, “Now it’s up to you to see where the exfiltration and infiltration is taking place from.” 

I recount the incident to tell how self-denial in the security set-up helped shape the militancy.

 

What about the government in Srinagar? Did they also downplay the militancy initially?

The government’s response was on the expected lines. When the militancy was still a low-key affair, Government of India wanted to exercise a military option in the interior of the valley, particularly in Srinagar where some low-scale militant activities had surfaced. Governor Jagmohan called a meeting at Raj Bhavan. The top brass of the army and other security forces attended the meeting along with then chief minister Farooq Abdullah. I sat quietly as the who’s who came up with the most remarkable conclusions. Jagmohan sensed my silence and asked, “Why aren’t you saying anything? What do you think should be done?” I told him the militancy was still a low-key affair and manageable, provided the borders were sealed. My argument was simple: with a loosely guarded LoC, no amount of arrests was going to help. But my suggestions didn’t go well with one of the top army generals at the meeting. “Infiltration cannot be prevented with porous LOC,” he said. 

I put up a tough face, however, and addressed the governor, “If this is the situation, then we are betraying the nation! Normally, people think that we have a mighty Indian army guarding our borders where even a crow cannot fly. But when we tell them that we can’t do it, what will happen?” Both Jagmohan and Farooq Abdullah supported me on this, but the army remained in denial, arguing, that the porous borders could not be sealed.

I told them I had seen much of the border and can say it with authority that out of 100 infiltration attempts, the army can stop at least 95. Still, they denied. Then, I left nothing unsaid, “We have proof that your people take money on the borders to facilitate the movement!” This stirred up a hornet’s nest with the army commanders shouting, “What are you talking about?” 

“Listen,” I told them, “I am not talking my head off. I have got proof. Some people with me tell me how money is being paid at the borders for infiltration.” 

When all this was happening, Delhi mulled to exercise the military option. Though Farooq Abdullah all along, on our advice, opposed implementation of the AFSPA, he also endorsed the military option later. It happened in the late 1989. Until then, I would only deploy J&K police for anti-militancy operations. I almost clashed with Farooq Sahab on the issue of AFSPA at a meeting. I told him once the military option was exercised, militancy was likely to escalate. This resulted in my voluntary exit from the police. Disastrous consequences of the move followed soon.

 

So you had already made some arrests by then?

Yes. In fact, one boy from Lal Chowk, who later rose to become a commander, stated how one Captain Rasheed from Muzaffarabad would act as their guide and help them cross over due to his monetary liaison with the BSF. Captain Rasheed also disclosed that he was deputed to assassinate Dr Farooq Abdullah. He even laid an ambush on the Tangmarg road to kill him but somebody told him that Farooq’s mother is a Gujjar. It struck Rasheed that he too is a Gujjar and gave up the idea. Later, after his arrest, he disclosed this plan to Farooq Abdullah: “How could I kill my Gujjar brother!” I could see that Farooq was shivering hearing this.

 

How was the overall official response to the militancy?

It was quite a scene. Whispers about the coming of guns and gunmen had unnerved the officialdom. It was during one such tense moment that Moosa Raza, then J&K’s chief secretary, walked into my officer sans any prior notice. His sudden appearance was alarming. Because here was the man who wouldn’t visit a police establishment without prior information and yet he showed up in clear violation of the protocol. As it turned out, the man, at the instance of Delhi, meant to conduct some devastating business in the valley. 

“What is our strength of the CRPF in the valley and where is it deployed?” he asked. I told him I have only two battalions of CRPF at my disposal in the valley, which are with district SPs and other officers.

 

“May I know where they are?” he asked. I called for the daily Control Room deployment chart and informed him they were deployed mostly in Anantnag and Kupwara, and some companies were deployed in Srinagar police stations. Being a sharp man, he kept asking, “Are they just meant to be there for accommodational purposes or operational purposes?” I told him they are at the disposal of the police officers concerned 24 hours a day. What he said next was disturbing, “Why don’t you deploy the CRPF on roads, crossings etc, like the J&K police?” 

“Sorry,” I told him, “I am the commander and it’s my discretion which force I will use and where I will put them and how I will deploy them. If you and anybody above don’t agree with my operational plans, then they can change the command and replace me.” 

I remember it was spring 1989 and my reply unnerved the chief secretary to the extent that he let out the secret: “Actually, the home ministry is not happy about this non-deployment of the central forces here.” The cat was out of the bag. They were going to opt for the military option. But I made my position clear, to which, he said, “Alright, come over to Farooq Sahab’s residence in the evening. Let’s talk there.”

 

So, he had come as Farooq Abdullah’s emissary to you?

No. Only to convey to me the displeasure of the Centre. To be honest, I hadn’t received any word about it from Farooq Sahab until that evening when I went to his residence. All top Srinagar-based central government officials, state officials and intelligence officers were present there. I was the most junior official to attend that meeting. 

Farooq Sahab walked in and went at me straightaway. “Why aren’t you obeying my orders? Why do you always want to have your way?” That was the turning point in the history of Kashmir and, of course, my career.

 

“Turning point”? How? 

I will tell you. Initially, I thought Farooq, by reprimanding me, was playing to the gallery to impress Delhi. I assumed that maybe in the presence of IB and other top Indian officials, Farooq Sahab’s irate behaviour with the DIG, under whose jurisdiction was Kashmir from Banihal to Karnah, was his clever message to the Government of India. But I was wrong. Farooq wanted the bad bargain. “Just now,” he shouted at me, “issue orders by a wireless message and hand over the city to the CRPF.” “Hand over”, not deploy. Now, that was an absolutely grave calling.

“It cannot be done!” I stood up and told him to his face in presence of every one. “Law does not permit me to do that. I cannot do it!” 

“No, why cannot it be done. You do it!” 

“I will not do it,” I thundered. “This will be disastrous. I will not kill people. You know what will happen? The CRPF men do not know the topography of the town. If a militant from a lane or a bylane throws a grenade at them, they are likely to open fire in retaliation, resulting in the killing of innocent passersby. I won’t let innocent people die. My boys in police know those lanes. They will run after the militant and will catch or attempt to catch him than kill the civilians.”

Silence ensued. Nobody spoke. Maybe, they wanted to make me a scapegoat as per some well-thought out plan. Even my DG stood quiet. But I continued to confront the chief minister, “I will not do it. They are your people. They are your voters.” To which, he thundered, “Do you think I am going to fight elections, again?” 

I told him, “Do you know what your Intelligence is telling me? They are telling me they will cordon and search the whole area from Khanyar to Rajouri Kadal. I will not do it because that is unethical and unprofessional. How can you bring out the whole population, ladies included, and search the houses. It is not done. That’s not my policing ethics. Instead give me specific information and the police will search them, but I cannot put the whole city under siege. It is not permissible. And I am not going to deploy the CRPF. I assure you, I will control the situation with my own force.” 

Finally, Home Secretary ML Kaul, a Kashmiri IAS officer, pacified me saying, “Please take it easy.” He then told the officers gathered there, ‘let’s discuss the issue among ourselves first before reaching at a final decision’. I left in a huff.

I began thinking about what was likely to happen in Kashmir. Anything was possible and Ali Mohammad Watali wouldn’t be able to stop it from happening.

I knew my bosses would do whatever they wanted, with or without me, but I wasn’t going to lend my shoulder to them to fire from and kill innocent people. 

 

What happened next?

After two days, I went to Farooq Sahab’s residence and informed him about my plans to go to Haj. He stood up from his chair saying, “Is this the time for you to go to Haj? There is a crisis around.” But I stood firm and told him that my wife has saved every penny for the holy journey. “What will I do here? Government of India has decided an extension for you. I will send you with a delegation later,” he insisted. But I was bent on going. 

“Tell me how I am going to manage things over here? At least, suggest some name as your temporary replacement for these couple of months,” he said. I named Gopal Sharma, who I knew as a thorough gentleman. He had received his training with me. I soon left for Haj, handing over the charge to him. 

Then, in Mina, I read in a newspaper how the government had finally deployed the CRPF in Srinagar. My worst fears came true when the report said that a group of militants had lobbed a grenade at the CRPF men deployed in Saraf Kadal and killed four of them. In retaliation, the CRPF killed five civilians including a schoolboy, the son of a staunch National Conference supporter Ghulam Din Gani. That military option implemented in my absence is still continuing. 

 

Did you object to it once you returned from Haj?

I could not. Revoking the military option was out of the question. I knew the worst was on the cards. But before long I was appointed a Public Service Commission member and I quit the police. Soon after, a new phenomenon started in Kashmir. 

The youth boarded buses to Pakistan. Women sang folksongs and showered sweets on them. It seemed as if ants were climbing the mountains to cross over such was their number. On top of those peaks, Indian forces stood guard. Strangely, they didn’t object. For 10 consecutive days, that exodus was allowed to take place. The question – who allowed this and why? – still beguiles me. Around 10,000 youth crossed over. 

Pakistan may not have been even equipped to handle such a large influx of people. So, they gave them a few days training and sent them back, which helped them sustain the militancy. But the sensible lot never returned. They made their lives in Pakistan. One among them was Mateen from Srinagar. He rose to become a famous lawyer in Pakistan. I had detained him during the early days of militancy but released him on the insistence of the late Mohiuddin Karra, a famous leader.

 

So, how many of them returned?

The majority of them returned to fight the security forces and most were neutralised. But why it happened in the first place still confuses me. I tried to ask Jagmohan when I bumped into him in Delhi after he was removed as governor following the Hawal massacre.

“Why did you take two days after being appointed governor for the second time to reach Srinagar from Jammu?” I asked him. “The paramilitary forces, earlier under control, were emboldened after Governor’s Rule was imposed and carried out the Gawkadal massacre.” 

Jagmohan replied, “A snag in my helicopter delayed my flight to Srinagar.” The timing of the “snag” did raise questions in my mind but I skipped them to ask, “Why did you allow people to go in processions to the UN Observer’s Group office with memoranda. You had more force at your disposal than I had. Why didn’t you impose curfew to save human lives?” 

“I was advised by someone,” he replied, “to allow the procession as it was just people letting out steam against Farooq Abdullah.” I told him it was not rage against Farooq Abdullah but against the establishment. I thought maybe the then home minister of India Mufti Mohammad Sayeed might have told him to go soft on the procession but he never divulged the name of the “advisor”. Jagmohan always played his cards close to his chest. 

“But why did you allow the exodus of youth to Pakistan Administered Kashmir that fanned the militancy in the valley?” I asked him. He pleaded ignorance, “I don’t know anything about it. When did it happen?” 

It was hard to believe that the governor was ignorant of a swarm of youth crossing the border in broad daylight.

 

Going back to the initial days of the militancy, how did you deal with it as DIG, Kashmir?

See, as I have written in my book, the seeds of the militancy started sprouting in 1964-65. I would talk to the disgruntled youth and convince them they should concentrate on their careers before seeking Azadi or Pakistan or anything else. I had given the same advice to Shabir Shah when he landed in police lock-up as a Class 9 student on charges of stone-pelting. 

Today, scores of those youth who heeded my advice are successful doctors, lawyers, engineers, media practitioners and even politicians. This is to tell you that militancy was manageable but it was allowed to get out of the hand because of faulty policies. 

When I handed over charge, only 38 militants were active and wanted by the police, including a few guides. Even the sponsors did not have many resources to fan the militancy. Probably, it was later mishandled in a way that things became uncomfortable for common people. 

 

How much was the rigging of the 1987 election responsible for the eruption of the militancy?

The rigging wasn’t as massive as it is being projected. I was on the ground monitoring everything. It was not the National Conference but the Congress that had planned the rigging because it had entered into a seat sharing deal with the NC in the valley after signing the Rajiv-Farooq accord. The Congress was more desperate to win. 

As per my estimate, the MUF wasn’t going to win more than 10 seats. They still ended up winning at least half that. Even Geelani Sahib was being made to lose from Sopore. When the returning officer told me and the Divisional Commissioner how the NC candidate was literally sitting on his head to declare him the winner, we thwarted the move. 

However, massive rigging took place at Amira Kadal. We had prevented it until afternoon but then a fight broke out and the rigging started. Let me tell you, though, Farooq Abdullah never told me or any other official in my presence that a particular person was to be defeated or that the election was to be rigged in any manner.

 

Which was the first militant group in Kashmir during the late 80s and what was your impression of it?

The only militant outfit active during the initial phase of the militancy was the HAJY group. We could never arrest any of them, nor did we meet its commander-in-chief Ashfaq Majeed. By the time I quit, they had again crossed over to Pakistan.

 

What do you make of today’s policing in Kashmir?

Sadly, there is no connection between the youth and the police. It seems the police have lost professionalism. Being pro-people or pro-Kashmir doesn’t make one anti-India or anti-Pakistan. We were pro-people, and I am proud of that. When I was around, nobody would have dared to even think of using a Kashmiri as a human shield. In fact, during the long curfews imposed during GM Shah’s government, we would encourage people to come out and offer nimaaz in Jamia Masjid. That pro-people approach gave respite to the people resulting in lasting peace. Today, people are not allowed to even pray and confined to their houses, which is counterproductive.

 

But isn’t it strange that despite your “pro-people” policing, you became one of the first targets of the militants?

I think by killing a high-profile policeman like me those boys wanted to get publicity and a sense of achievement. But let me tell you, that particular group didn’t take their commander into confidence when targeting me. The commander had told them it was not to be done. They bypassed their commander, Bilal Siddique, a carpenter and my neighbour in Rajbagh. There was factionalism within that group. Its hardcore members like Aijaz Dar and Maqbool Ilahi hadn’t become the commanders and Siddique’s appointment hadn’t gone well with them. It was not the main group under the commander’s orders that attacked me, but a splinter group. Probably in that hesitation, Dar got killed in accidental fire by his own colleagues. Being my neighbour in Rajbagh, I had earlier allowed Aijaz Dar to be bailed out on his father’s plea. 

The following morning, scores of people came to my residence to congratulate me. Among them was Bilal Siddique. He hugged me and said, “Congrats, God saved you!” I didn’t know he was the commander of the group that had attacked me.