A scholar wages war in Kashmir's valley of doom

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The Independent Online

When Syed Salahuddin, the leader of the biggest Muslim insurgent group in Kashmir was seen on the world's television screens on Tuesday, it was Syed Shabi Ahmed's first glimpse of his uncle for eight years.

When Syed Salahuddin, the leader of the biggest Muslim insurgent group in Kashmir was seen on the world's television screens on Tuesday, it was Syed Shabi Ahmed's first glimpse of his uncle for eight years.

"The last time I saw Salahuddin was a Monday evening in 1992 at 9.30pm," he said, standing in the garden of the guerrilla's ransacked house in Soibugh, a village 30km west of the Kashmiri capital, Srinagar. "He was surrounded by heavily armed militants."

At the press conference in Islamabad this week, Hizbul Mujahideen's undisputed leader, a beaky, beaming figure, wearing a large cap and with a dense, woolly beard, announced the end of the first ceasefire ever called by a Kashmiri militant group. Intended to last three months, it held for a fortnight.

Across the valley of Kashmir, the disappointment and foreboding were palpable. The large car bomb that exploded in the centre of Srinagar on Thursday, killing 10 people, brought rapid confirmation of their fears and after both Hizbul Mujahideen and another group, Lashkar-e-Taiyyba, claimed responsibility, there was the further fear that therival groups were bidding to out-do each other in violence.

"Those 15 days of ceasefire were totally excellent," the guerrilla leader's nephew recalled wistfully. "We went outdoors after dark. People went to work with a feeling of ease. People thought the hard days were going to end."

Syed Shabi Ahmed, thin, sallow, grave in manner, is a school teacher in his thirties. His uncle was a teacher, too. The extended family lives in four sturdy, brick farmhouse buildings around a flourishing garden full of pumpkins and pomegranates, marigolds and dahlias. Beyond are the family's paddy fields. It is a compelling image of the fertility and prosperity of Kashmiri country life. So where did Salahuddin go wrong?

His career is a cautionary tale of what can happen when democracy is undermined. An outstanding scholar in this farming family, Salahuddin took a postgraduate degree in Political Science at Kashmir University. He was a paid-up member of the Islamic fundamentalist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, but until 1987 he followed the path of peace and constitutional politics.

In that year he stood as a candidate in elections for the state assembly. But amid widespread allegations of ballot-rigging by the ruling National Conference party, he lost. When he protested, he was arrested and beaten. The rigged elections of 1987 were Kashmir's grim watershed. Like many other Muslims, it was the year Syed Salahuddin and constitutional politics parted company. Two years later the insurgency flared into life and it has continued ever since. If I was standing here 15 years ago, I asked Salahuddin's nephew, what would have been different? What change has the insurgency brought about?

"Nothing," he said. "Nothing at all." The paddy fields still flourish thanks to the valley's abundant water, the pumpkins fatten, the red chillies dry in the sun. But he is glossing over the most obvious change: his uncle's house has boards nailed across the windows; inside it is a ruin. Ahmed does not care to mention it, but in 1991, after his uncle became prominent in Hizbul Mujahideen, Indian soldiers poured through the garden and smashed the house to pieces in retribution.

And there is another detail he does not care to share: right opposite is an army post with the specific duty of checking movements in and out of the family home. A journalist colleague of mine, taking a look at the neighbourhood, was pounced on by the sentry, who demanded to know if he had permission to visit the family.

The desperate change in Kashmir is the gloom that pervades the valley. Are the students you teach keen, I asked Ahmed. "Absolutely not," he answered sharply. "Only 2 or 3 per cent. Why should they study? What have they got to look forward to if they graduate? There are 200,000 unemployed graduates in the valley."

Syed Salahuddin and his comrades insist that they are fighting for Kashmir's liberation. But here and now, inSoibugh that claim awakens no resonance. Gulam Nabi Shah, 65, Salahuddin's elder brother, is the paterfamilias here, planting the family rice, tending the orchids. He is tall and grey and as grave in manner as his son.

"I have feelings for him because he is my younger brother," he says of Salahuddin.

"He chose his own way. I can't say anything about it. I don't know why he announced the ceasefire. I don't know why he called it off. We know nothing about these things."

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