Muzaffarabad: senior Kashmiri independence fighter tells Al Jazeera he would welcome the ‘help’ of the Taliban.
Muzaffarabad, Pakistan-administered Kashmir – Formed in 1989, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen has been at the forefront of the fight against the Indian army in Indian-administered Kashmir. Led by Syed Salahuddin, who is currently resident in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi, the group has carried out numerous attacks against Indian forces since the armed campaign calling for Kashmiri independence began in 1989.
Today, it is believed to be one of the campaign’s only organisations that has widespread membership from within Indian-administered Kashmir.
Al Jazeera spoke to Muhammad Abdullah – not his real name, as he spoke on condition of anonymity – a senior fighter who has been with the movement for the past 23 years. Abdullah, a 38-year-old veteran of the Afghan war against the Soviets and of more than 50 operations in the Kupwara district of Indian-administered Kashmir, says that his group’s fighters continue to cross the Line of Control – the de-facto border between the Indian- and Pakistan- administered sides of this hotly disputed territory – and will continue to do so, to fight what he calls “Indian military occupation”.
In a wide-ranging interview with Al Jazeera, conducted in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, he also said that anti-US and anti-state fighters in Afghanistan owe Kashmiris “a debt”, and that he expects that it will be paid “on [Kashmiris’] terms” after the planned US military withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014.
Al Jazeera: Can you tell us the nature of your organisation’s work here in Kashmir?
Muhammad Abdullah: “The objective of our work is that the Indian military occupation of Kashmir be ended through jihad. Kashimiris carried out non-violent resistance from 1947 to 1988. But nothing was achieved through that, and so, out of desperation, Kashmiri youth were forced to take up the gun, and to fight a jihad against the occupying Indian forces.”
AJ: What is your role in the movement here in Muzaffarabad? Do you co-ordinate operations? Do you provide training for fighters within Indian-administered Kashmir?
We take weapons from the Indian forces against whom we have launched operations. Those [local] youth are trained using those arms, and they use them against the Indian army.
Muhammad Abdullah, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen
MA: “Azad Jammu & Kashmir [AJK, the name given to Pakistan-administered Kashmir] is a part of Kashmir – both occupied Kashmir and AJK are part of one Kashmir. There is no difference between them. We have a fundamental and legal right to come here and to prepare ourselves, to organise ourselves and then, whenever we get the opportunity, to go into [Indian-administered territory] and carry out armed operations against the Indian army.
“As far as training is concerned, I think that, before 1995, we needed to have training camps in parts of Azad Kashmir. But since then, particularly since 2000, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen has trained people in different parts of occupied Kashmir itself. Senior fighters are present. And those youth that wish to take part in the armed jihad for freedom, we train them at the local level.
“We take weapons from the Indian forces against whom we have launched operations. Those [local] youth are trained using those arms, and they use them against the Indian army.
“That is how things are going forward. There have been many ups and downs. We have faced many difficulties. Pakistan is not able to help us militarily. And we do not wish to become a burden on Pakistan either.
“Therefore, through Kashmiri self-will and action, we are standing on our own two feet, and are running this armed movement. And today, there are jihadis in every corner of Jammu and Kashmir.”
AJ: Clearly each operation must be planned meticulously. What is the process for that?
MA: “Hizb-ul-Mujahideen is a well-organised movement, which has representatives at every tehsil [sub-district]-level. We have deputy military chiefs there, who command the whole network. HM has a policy that when the public is on the streets – when they are carrying out peaceful demonstrations against the Indian forces – then it is our policy that we do not do any operation there…
“We carry out our operations in far-flung areas, in the jungles and mountains, where the security forces are deployed, close to the LoC. That is where our mujahideen are operating.”
AJ: We have seen a drop in IED attacks as carried out by HM, as compared to previously. Was this a conscious change in policy?
MA: “As conditions change, the Kashmiri mujahideen have faced resource constraints. So when we have something that we can do – whether it they are the tactics of IEDs, raids or ambushes – then we decide based on the conditions and the timing.
“For IEDs, we use remote-controlled types, as well as Claymore anti-personnel mines and anti-tank mines. Six of my friends have lost their limbs trying to extract the mines from the minefields on the LoC without setting them off.”
AJ: How do you cross the LoC to carry out operations?
MA: Things have become a lot more difficult since they put up the fencing at the LoC. Now it is quite difficult to cross the LoC for a single person or group. But even then, thank God, we have found a few ways to get across, which I cannot talk about*. So we use those to cross – but this is now not happening very often.
“You can say that this border-crossing activity is two to three percent of our operations. Now our real focus is on operating within [Indian-administered] Kashmir. We acquire resources there, we train people there and we get all of our arms from there – be they stolen or bought – as well. This is how things have been since 2002.”
*In a separate interview, Abdul Aziz Alvi, the AJK chief of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa organisation, which has been banned in the United States as a front for jihadi outfit Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, claimed that fighters crossed the LoC “with Indian soldiers’ consent” on certain occasions, and that on others they employed an electronic device costing Rs75 (about $0.70) to foil a sophisticated Israeli fence surveillance system installed by Indian forces. The JuD and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba are considered to be closely allied to Hizb-ul-Mujahideen.
AJ: So your mode of operations and tactics at the moment seem to be focused on operations, training and recruitment to be carried out from within Indian-administered Kashmir, to not involve cross-LoC operations, which have become difficult.
MA: “Yes, [cross-LoC operations] are difficult, and we also want that within the Kashmiri nation there is a sense of self-reliance, that our movement does not appear to be controlled [by outside forces]. That this be a free movement, and that people fight of their own accord. We want it to be a purely Kashmiri movement – whether that is politically or with arms.”
AJ: What is your response to the charge that Pakistani intelligence agencies such as the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) use outfits such as Hizb-ul-Mujahideen as proxies, or that they, at the very least, allow you to operate?
MA: “I say this with clarity: no-one controls the Kashmiri mujahideen. They attack Indian forces whenever they want, wherever they want. They do not need permission from anyone, and neither do they ask for it.
“If they say that someone sitting in Pakistan is running the mujahideen, then this is an outright lie.”
If they say that someone sitting in Pakistan is running the mujahideen, then this is an outright lie.
Muhammad Abdullah, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen,
AJ: Why did the latest state of tension, which began on August 6 after five Indian soldiers were killed in a raid, start?
MA: “The LoC in Jammu and Kashmir is more than 600km long, between India and Pakistan. And there are mujahideen in every district and sub-district of Jammu and Kashmir. This incident on August 6 happened 6km inside the LoC, in the Poonch area. India alleged that it was carried out by Pakistani security forces, even though Pakistani forces can never cross the LoC. This was done by the mujahideen [who are on that side already], according to our reports. It was carried out by mujahideen inside, but India made it an excuse to highlight the issue before planned talks between India and Pakistan. They wanted to highlight it as not a Kashmiri issue, but an India-Pakistan issue.”
AJ: Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has made normalising relations – especially economic relations – with India a core part of his agenda. How would you react if Pakistan allowed the Kashmir issue to cool in order to secure the favourable trade terms Sharif has been seeking?
MA: “The UN resolution passed on January 5, 1949, speaks of Indians and Pakistan, but also of the Kashmiri people, and their right to choose between Pakistan, India and independence. Pakistan, India and Kashmiris are the three involved in this, and it is important that they sit together to find a solution.
“We have this expectation from the Pakistani government that all of the sacrifices that we have given for independence – that we are fighting empty-handed against India, with the youth putting their lives at risks – so we want PM Sharif to make Kashmir a core issue, because this is a matter of the Kashmiri nation’s future. And Pakistan’s prosperity is inherently linked to Kashmir.”
AJ: How many recruits or members does Hizb-ul-Mujahideen currently have in Pakistan-administered Kashmir?
MA:”I think that every child in Azad Kashmir is a mujahid. This should be clear. It is only a matter of circumstances, that not everyone gets a chance [to fight]. Kashmiris are fighting for their rights, and it is our brothers’ duty that they also help us.
I think that every child in Azad Kashmir is a mujahid. This should be clear. It is only a matter of circumstances, that not everyone gets a chance [to fight].
Muhammad Abdullah, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen,
“It is also the duty of the Pakistani forces, that if India is bringing in soldiers from different parts of the country – from Calcutta, Madras, Mumbai, Kerala – and occupying Kashmir with them, then why is Pakistan not helping us? It should do so.
“But if there is opportunity for Pakistani forces to help us, then the people of Azad Kashmir should openly support us in the armed struggle…
“I would also say that this is a social organisation that has thousands of members.”
AJ: You said that HM’s point of view is that this is a Kashmiri fight for independence. We have heard that when the US military withdraws from Afghanistan in 2014, other armed groups – such as the Taliban or Lashkar-e-Tayyaba – will come here to Kashmir. Will you welcome this help, or would you prefer for this to remain a purely Kashmiri fight?
MA: “This is the world’s responsibility. Kashmiris have carried out non-violent movements, and we have been harshly beaten and killed for it. And we have fought as well, even though we have no resources. We have no military equipment. We still say this: the UN must, according to its own resolution, give Kashmiris the right of self-determination so that this solution can be solved peacefully.
“When Pakistan and India have negotiations, what does our group do then? Our chief, Syed Salahuddin Ahmed, he has said several times that HM wants a solution to the Kashmir crisis, and that if that can come through negotiations, we will be happy with that. But we cannot accept Indian military occupation, and we will not compromise on that…
“If the world takes any step towards [ending the occupation], then it is very welcome. But if it does not do anything [on the diplomatic front], if the 700,000-strong Indian military in Kashmir can take help from Israel, can take artillery from Sweden, can take the newest military hardware from the world to oppress Kashmir and crush our movement, to fire on citizens at the LoC… Do Kashmiris have no options to ask for help?
If [the Taliban] come to our aid, we will welcome them.
Muhammad Abdullah, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen,
“I think that if the UN and human rights organisations, the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), and those in India and Pakistan who speak of peace, do not step forward to solve this problem… even today in Kashmir – in Srinagar, Sopore, Kupwara, Baramulla – you see graffiti saying ‘Welcome Taliban!’ and ‘Welcome Lashkar-e-Tayyaba!’ on intersections and walls. This means that people, when they have lost faith in the world, and India’s word on democracy… then they will definitely ask for help from people.
“And if anyone comes to our aid, we will welcome them…
“In 1990, I took part in the Afghan War against the Soviets. And because we are all Muslims, wherever there is an attack on Muslims, we will fight for their rights, we will fight for their independence. It is the religious duty of every Muslim to help other Muslims. And I would like to say that many Kashmiris have been martyred in Afghanistan. So it is a debt that the Afghan mujahideen owe us, to help us.”
AJ: Do you think there is a danger of the movement being hijacked by such fighters, or of them not acting according to your orders or strategy?
MA: “They will help us, but they will help us according to our wishes and terms. And I have faith that if such a time comes to pass, they will fully help us. As Muslims they will help us. They will not take any steps forward from Kashmir further towards India.”
AJ: Do you think that your actions as an armed group provide justification for some of the restrictive laws that the Indian forces enforce on Kashmir?
MA: “We cannot put down our guns to appease India. If India… says that its unjust laws in Kashmir are justified, then we ask them this then: we had a completely non-violent movement in 2008, in which hundreds of thousands of people went on a march towards Muzaffarabad – and you fired upon them, with bullets and tear gas. They were empty-handed. Sheikh Abdul Aziz was killed in that firing… The Indian forces before them had guns and tanks. They have helmets and protective equipment. They are in the wrong – they are the ones occupying the area – and a Kashmiri child, when he sees a soldier from Madras on his street corner, he asks: ‘Who are you?’ This is his right.
“So before India teaches us about humanity, it should learn it itself.”
AJ: Do you think the fight for Kashmir will end, in the coming days, weeks, months, years?
MA: “We have been slaves for 65 years. In the history of nations, this is not a long time… Our efforts are ongoing, on a political level, diplomatic level and on an armed level as well, Kashmiri mujahideen are fighting. And so I would like to say clearly that, God-willing, conditions will change, and… we will win the war against India, both on the political and armed front.”
AJ: Do you have children, and would you want them to take up arms as well?
MA: “I have three sons: a 12-year-old, a 10-year-old and an 8-year-old… You can write this down: I have been in this movement for the past 23 years. I joined it at the age of 15 years old. And I am happy that I was able to sacrifice everything for my nation. And I would also be happy if my sons fought a war for the independence of Jammu & Kashmir from India.”
AJ: Do you talk to them about these things?
MA: “Absolutely. I tell them when Indian militarily occupied Kashmir, how they did it, why they did it, and why we are carrying out our struggle. We have no relationship with India – not religious, nor geographic. We have no relationship with them. I always tell them: ‘Whenever you get the chance, you must work for the independence of Jammu & Kashmir’…
“I would let [my son] go [and fight] when he is 100 percent capable of doing it. When he recognises the nature of it, when he knows Kashmir’s history, when he is 100 percent physically fit, then I will let him go, God-willing.”
Report by Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim