By Praveen Swami
Liaqat Shah arrived at the Sanauli check-point on the India-Nepal border with his family last weekend, travelling with his wife Akhtar-un-Nisa Geelani, and teenage daughter, Zabeena Geelani. The family was on an extraordinary journey from Muzaffarabad to their village in northern Kashmir, a stone’s throw across the Line of Control—travelling over a thousand kilometres, through Karachi and Kathmandu. Home was just one train ride away.
But then, at the check-point, something happened. Shah was taken aside by a small group of men in plainclothes and arrested. Shah, the Delhi Police said on Friday, is a top Hizb-ul-Mujahideen operative, tasked with conducting a strike that could have claimed dozens of lives before Holi. The police claim to have recovered an assault rifle and three grenades meant for the attack.
There are a mass of reasons, though, to doubt this account. Unless a credible explanation surfaces, the arrest could explode into a scandal which could undermine the credibility of the Delhi Police’s already-controversial counter-terrorism operations.
Shah’s story began in 1995, when he left his home in the small north Kashmir village of Dardpora in Kupwara district, and crossed the Line of Control to train at a Hizb-ul-Mujahideen camp in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. He returned home late in 1996, the Jammu and Kashmir Police say, to serve with a Hizb unit operating in the Kupwara area. There are no charges, though, that Shah participated in any terrorist act. In 1997, he crossed the Line of Control again, now fleeing police pressure, leaving behind first wife Amina Shah.
Like hundreds of one-time jihadists, Shah discovered Pakistan wasn’t all he’d imagined it to be. The Hizb-ul-Mujahideen was in decay, torn apart by internal dissensions and diminishing support from Pakistan’s intelligence services. Family members say Shah's wife, to add to her husband’s woes, flatly refused to leave Kashmir. Shah was reduced to eking out a living as a labourer—not fighting in the victorious army of liberation of his imagination.
Shah tried, evidently, to settle in. In 2006, he married again—this time, the widow of Noor Hasan Geelani, a Hizb insurgent killed by the Indian Army in 1995. Geelani's wife, accompanied by her 19-year-old daughter Zabeena Geelani, travelled to be with her new husband that year, on a legitimate Indian passport.
Geelani, family members have told Firstpost, soon tired of her life, and insisted the family return home to Kashmir. Hundreds of others in the same situation have been making the same choice. This year alone, Jammu and Kashmir government figures show, 14 one-time jihadists have returned, along with 25 family members. Last year, over 150 ex-jihadists and their families returned to Kashmir; the year before, the figure was 140. In several cases, the families included Pakistani nationals. India and Pakistan have come to a quiet agreement to facilitate these flows—though national laws in both countries continue to deem such crossings illegal.
The Delhi Police, however, claims Shah’s motives for returning home were less than benign. In a press release issued on Friday, it said the United Jihad Council, the apex organisational alliance of Kashmir jihadist groups, met in January to consider new offensive plans. Following the meeting, it said, two Hizb operatives told Shah “that he had been chosen to supervise young fidayeen recruits who would commit spectacular terrorist strikes in Delhi”. Following the attack, Khan was to “return to the valley to settle down and to engage himself in talent spotting, i.e. finding new recruits and facilitating their cross border travel”.
Elements of the media have latched on the January date, to suggest it is inconsistent with separate claims that the plot was meant to avenge Parliament attacker Afzal Guru’s execution. “Police said a meeting was held in January to plan this attack,” one account asks triumphantly. “How would the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen have prior knowledge of Guru’s hanging which took place in February”?
This makes no sense: the plain language of the Delhi Police press release makes clear the attack plot wasn’t conceived as a response to Guru’s execution. It ought not be implausible to newspaper-readers—a category that hopefully includes journalists—that the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen was planning a strike in January. This is because Hizb chief Mohammad Yusuf Shah—who prefers the vainglorious pseudonym Syed Salahuddin—publicly promised one in a speech made on January 24. Pakistan’s Daily Ausaf newspaper quotes him as threatening to “relaunch the Kashmir jihad”.
>But that’s as far as the Delhi Police story can stand up.
Precisely what evidence the Delhi Police has to back up its claim that Shah was in on this plot is about as clear as mud. Intelligence sources have told Firstpost, information on the alleged plot involving Shah was first generated by the Research and Analysis Wing. Precisely what it was, though, no-one will say—which means its unlikely to be produced in court. Following the Sanauli arrests, the sources said, the Intelligence Bureau asked the Delhi Police why exactly Shah had been held. It was told that the police was aware of the background, and was facilitating his return to Kashmir—something we now know to be a flat-out lie.
Now, if the Delhi Police knew Shah was in contact with the Jammu and Kashmir Police, there is no explanation for why it was never consulted on the investigation. Shah’s credentials, any half-competent investigator knows, ought to have been verified—something that would have needed nothing more than a phone call. It is also mystifying that his wife and daughter, who are material witnesses to the alleged plot, were allowed to proceed home to Kupwara. The man who is alleged to have brought the weapon recovered in Delhi, conveniently for investigators, has eluded arrest—and there is thus nothing on record to link him to Shah.
It isn’t inconceivable that the Delhi Police, backed by RAW, did stumble on a significant terror plot. The Delhi Police’s conduct so far, though, does nothing to inspire confidence. Part of the problem is the force, just like other elements of government, is addicted to deviousness—engaging in crook-like behaviour even when there’s a straightforward way to deal with a problem. I’ve argued earlier that the Delhi Police’s counter-terrorism operations get a bad rap, and this is why. There is either mind-boggling incompetence at work here—or, of course, worse. Delhi Police Commissioner Neeraj Kumar needs to come up with credible answers, fast.