x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Steel town that's home to militants

The clampdown on the Pakistani charity Jamaat-ud-Dawa after the Mumbai terrorist attacks has successfully cut off the Kashmiri group.

The light engineering factories in Gujranwala are linked to militants' financing.
The light engineering factories in Gujranwala are linked to militants' financing.

GUJRANWALA, Pakistan // A government clampdown on the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a Pakistani Islamist charity banned by the United Nations after the Mumbai terrorist attacks, has effectively cut off Lashkar-i-Taiba militants in India-administered Kashmir, investigations reveal. A series of interviews and field visits to key locations have fingered Gujranwala, an industrial city 60km west of Lahore, as the prime recruitment ground for Lashkar militants since the early 1990s. The Lashkar, and subsequently Jamaat, were headquartered at Muridke, about halfway between Gujranwala and Lahore on the historic Grand Trunk Road. "Whenever news of a major operation against Indian forces in Kashmir is reported, you can be sure young men from Gujranwala were at the forefront," said a factory owner and financier of the Jamaat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Gujranwala and its surrounding rural areas were selected as a focal point because of a coincidence of demographic factors. The urban population is dominated by ethic Kashmiris, who migrated there in a series of Muslim refugee movements between 1885 and 1949; the dates mark the establishment of Hindu Dogra rule in Kashmir and the UN-negotiated ceasefire between India and Pakistan that partitioned the state into two countries. The surrounding rural areas, renowned as the growing centre of Basmati rice, are dominated by various clans of the indigenous Punjabi Jatt tribe. In addition to farming skills, the Gujranwala Jatts are notorious for their machismo and propensity for violence, consistently making the district one of Pakistan's most murderous. Another Jamaat financier said the Jatts' bloodletting tendencies coincided with the strongman traditions of urban Kashmiris, criminal gangs of which frequently fight gun battles for territory in town. However, respect for each other's power and jurisdiction has prevented the two communities from ever clashing. "What the Lashkar did was successfully marry the inherited sense of oppression of physically strong young Kashmiris with the propensity to armed violence of their Jatt neighbours by giving them a collective sense of purpose," he said. The final factor was the ready availability of financing from the conservative local business community, predominantly from the Punjabi Mughal steel-working clan, which owns most of the city's light engineering factories. Jamaat financiers and activists were happy to confirm the link between the two organisations, explaining the emergence of the Lashkar in the historical context of the upsurge of militant activity in Indian Kashmir after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. The Lashkar emerged as a major factor in the Kashmir insurgency after the failure of Pakistan-backed mujahideen groups, prominently the Hezb-i-Islami faction led by Gulbadin Hekmatyar (now a Taliban ally in north-east Afghanistan), to form a sustainable ruling coalition in Afghanistan. That failure cost Mr Hekmatyar's Pakistani supporter, the Jamaat-i-Islami, operational leadership of a quasi-official campaign to undermine Indian rule. However, the subsequent splintering of militants into ever-radical factions, and the spiralling collateral cost that followed, created a political vacuum that was filled by the creation of the Lashkar-i-Taiba. Recruitment activity by the Lashkar, supported by the airing on Pakistan television of plays romanticising the insurgency (but careful to portray fighters as indigenous residents of Indian Kashmir), peaked in Gujranwala in the early- to mid-1990s. It was about that time that recruiting, indoctrination and military training centres started despatching units of men in their early 20s across the so-called Line of Control. One such centre was the village of Gondalanwala, on the fringe of the Gujranwala urban sprawl. Previously notorious as a narcotics distribution centre for local pushers, it was cleaned up by returning Kashmir insurgency veterans affiliated with the Lashkar at the urging of fed-up community leaders. Lashkar preachers roped in the idle young population and in 1995 infiltrated a unit of about 20 militants across the Line of Control. All were later killed in battles with Indian security forces and buried locally, earning the village the local nickname of Shaheedaan Wallah Pind (village of martyrs). Lashkar activity became increasingly covert in the late 1990s, as civilian governments led by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif withdrew material support for the Kashmir insurgency, under pressure from the West, with infiltration practically tailing off by 2000, said a local Jamaat commander. The banning of the Lashkar in 2001, after it was blamed by India for an armed attack on the parliament building in New Delhi, led to its bifurcation, with the Jamaat acting as a fund-raising and logistical support arm that popularised itself locally through charitable and disaster relief work, most impressively after the 2005 earthquake that struck northern Pakistan and Kashmir. Notably, the Jamaat avoided antagonising the religiously liberal majority population of the area by refraining from proselytising hardline Islamist views. Instead, it quietly lobbied the local business community, surfacing in public only during Ramadan to appeal for charitable contributions. The donated cash and gold would be used to finance logistical reinforcement of Lashkar militants in Indian Kashmir, via farmstead centres such as the recently deserted one at Gondalanwala. Financiers claim that a hard core of several thousand Lashkar militants from Gujranwala remains in India-administered Kashmir, but passion for the fight is waning without propaganda support from the government and material support from the military. Families of young militants who have survived a guerrilla existence of up to six years have also tired of the fight; several high-profile veterans have in the last year been persuaded to return home to marry, and have subsequently emigrated to the West to avoid detention by security agencies. However, the Gujranwala nexus of Jamaat-ud-Dawa activists and businessmen are adamant that Lashkar militants were not involved in the Mumbai terrorist attacks; their reactions to questions range from furrow-browed annoyance to innocent-faced expressions of surprise. "Our fight is against Indian forces in Kashmir," said the factory owner and financier who did not want his identity revealed. "We are realistic and understand that we can't liberate Indian Kashmir. We don't even want that, because we know a free Kashmir would become another mêlée of competing militants like Afghanistan did in the 1990s. Our agenda is to end oppression - if the Indians stop, so will we." thussain@thenational.ae