x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The Kashmiri militant with his mind now on marriage

The Pakistanis who once trained to take war to the Indians across the Line of Control are slowly adapting to peace - and party politics.

GUJRANWALA, PAKISTAN // A small-framed, bearded man in his thirties named Zubair walked into a computer repair shop in the Civil Lines suburb of Gujranwala, his eyes widening quizzically as he registered the playful taunts of his elder brother. "He's got better things to do nowadays. Since he got married, it's been hard to prise him away from his wife. The business is in trouble," said Badr, directing his banter at the newlywed.

Zubair smiled shyly and joined the small group of people huddled in conversation between stacks of ageing PCs. Assured by the right social introductions and the promise that his full identity would not be revealed, he introduced himself as the sole survivor of a squad of eight militants who had in October 1993 been besieged by Indian forces at the Muslim shrine of Hazratbal in the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Over cups of overly sweet milky tea, Zubair described how he had sneaked past a cordon of Indian troops and made it across the Line of Control, the heavily fortified de facto Kashmir border, back into Pakistani-administered territory. "I was so close I could see the expressions on their faces. It's a miracle that they didn't see me. It was as if I was invisible to them," he said. However, his return was viewed with suspicion by the Pakistani military's intelligence agencies, which from 1988 to 2002 deployed militants such as Zubair as strategic pawns in a barely covert guerrilla war against their conventionally more powerful neighbour.

"They couldn't believe he had survived unless he had been captured and turned by the Indians," said Salman, a school friend. "They detained and interrogated him for weeks before being convinced his return was a twist of fate." Interjecting, Badr said the brothers, both activists of the Jama'at-i-Islami, a mainstream religious political party, had continued to participate in the violence, operating guerrilla training camps and getting them into Indian Kashmir until 2002, when the Pakistani military pulled the plug.

They were unhappy about the policy U-turn, conducted under immense pressure from the United States, after an abortive attack on the Indian parliament by the Jaish-i-Mohammed militant group in December 2001 brought the nuclear-armed South Asian rivals to the brink of all-out war. "When the war reached the crucial point, the army showed it lacked the stomach for a final showdown," grumbled Zubair. "Frankly, it was a dishonourable display of behaviour, and we have lost all respect for them."

Since then, like the thousands of other militants recruited from eastern districts of Punjab that border Indian Kashmir, Zubair has given up the gun and rejoined mainstream Pakistani society. And while embittered by the army's change of tack and he was clearly enjoying the resumption of civilian life - especially one in which the romance of the early stages of an arranged marriage was taking priority over his mundane job of assembling computers from used parts and cheap Chinese casings.

Across town, in the sizeable garden of his home in Rahwali Cantonment, an army-administered upmarket suburb, another veteran militant was preparing to make the jump, as Winston Churchill once said, from "war-war" to "jaw-jaw". Posters on the street-facing wall of the house announced the candidature of Shoaib, formerly a ranking recruiter for the Lashkar-i-Taiba (LiT) militant group, in forthcoming municipal elections. An index of his ambition was that the dates for the elections are still to be announced.

He downplayed the posters with false humility and related how he now had the time for a new career in politics because the intelligence agencies had shut down the training camp in the nearby village of Gondalanwala that he had supervised. A subsequent visit to the village revealed a functioning office of the Jama'at-ud-Dawah, the charitable front of LiT, banned by the United Nations Security Council after its leaders were implicated as the alleged masterminds of the November 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai.

The activists who manned the office had been deprived of their weapons and intelligence agency-supplied four-wheel drive vehicles, and were sullen and suspicious at the appearance of the strangers taking an interest in the walls they had daubed with jihadist rhetoric. Shoaib, who claimed to know more about the Mumbai attacks than he was prepared to talk about, said the "operation went beyond the interests of the army", which had responded angrily after bearing the brunt of the diplomatic storm that ensued.

"The agencies were furious and ruthless, and did not spare anybody. Suddenly, we had become the enemy. Hundreds were arrested," he said. Forcibly retired from militancy, his thoughts turned to the thousands of volunteers drawn from Gujranwala and across Punjab province, most of them children of impoverished families inducted, indoctrinated and prepared for militant training at schools run by the Jama'at.

"You have trained more than five lakh [500,000] boys for jihad in Kashmir," he said, exaggerating. "It's not a good idea to suddenly leave them with nothing to do, because they include a lot of strange characters, like former criminals, who would be susceptible to other, more dangerous ideas." Like politics, perhaps. thussain@thenational.ae