Masood Azhar, the stodgy, 5ft 3-inch terrorist ‘Maulana’, under detention for the audacious attack on Pathankot’s air base has had his eyes firmly set on India for two decades now. Most remember that he was flown to freedom by a special plane on December 31, 1999 so 155 passengers on board the hijacked plane to Kandahar could be rescued but few know that when Azhar first landed in India in 1994 on a fake Portuguese passport, Srinagar was not the city he first went to.
Azhar chose Lucknow as his first stop after landing at Delhi’s international airport on January 29, 1994. Reaching Ayodhya was far more important because the demolition of the Babri Masjid was the spark that ignited his desire for jihad. His visit to the disputed site, where all that was left of the Babri Masjid was rubble, is an experience best narrated in Azhar’s own words.
The words give an insight into the making of this terrorist: “I remember the day I was standing there. In front of me lay the Babri Masjid in ruins. Angrily, I was stamping the ground, squashing the Indian soil with my shoes and saying, ‘O Babri Masjid, we are ashamed, O Babri Masjid, we are sorry…you were a sign of our glorious past and we will not rest till we restore you to your former glory.’” These lines - translated by intelligence officials from tapes that sold openly in Bahawalpur, his home town in Pakistan’s Punjab -- became part of speeches he gave to indoctrinate and motivate the militant cadre.
Azhar, who formed the Jaish-e-Mohammad (Army of the Prophet) only after his release in Kandahar, started his learnings at the Jamia Islamia school at the Binori mosque in Karachi where he found himself in the company of students who were under the influence of leaders of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), a militant organisation that was then active in Afghanistan and later extended its activities to Kashmir.
Azhar may never have turned his attention to India or Kashmir were it not for the demolition of the Babri Masjid. He was content playing the role of a ‘journalist’ through a militant journal called Sada-i-Mujahid (Knock of the Mujahid). He spent time, spreading the message of jihad through his writings and also travelled to collect funds for his comrades in Afghanistan where he went for training but failed because he was overweight.
I had a chance to meet him after his arrest in Kashmir. Azhar refused to look me in the eye for his religion forbade eye contact with women. It didn’t matter at all that the Indian Army surrounded him or that he was in captivity. He had no problems, rather, no reservations, narrating what he had done in the two days that he had spent in the Valley. He was fortunate, I remember him telling me, that Allah had chosen him for what he called an Islamic duty and his only regret was that he had been captured and not killed. Had he been tortured, I asked him. Driven by rage - he broke his own rule - and looking me straight in the eye said sarcastically, ‘No, the Army has been showering me with petals.’
He was good at procuring donations through his speeches, he told his interrogators after he was arrested in Kashmir.
He came to the Kashmir Valley--after a brief stop in Ayodhya--with a precise mission: to motivate the militants. Once in Srinagar, he contacted Sajjad Afghani, a sharpshooter who had performed bravely against the Russians in Afghanistan and whom Azhar had first met at the training camp in Yuvar in Afghanistan.
Word had already reached Srinagar and the neighbouring district of Anantnag that Azhar had arrived and that he would soon be addressing them. Sajjad joined him at the mosque in Lal Bazaar that evening and they set off for a remote village in Anantnag, about 70km from Srinagar. The meeting or majlis-e-jehad that took place there is once again best described in Azhar’s own words: “About 25 armed mujahideen were gathered at a small house in the village. They greeted us warmly and soon a religious discourse began. The young men’s chests were decorated with magazines and within them burned the flame of courage and bravery. All of them were listening to me intently and their AK-47s lay cradled in their laps like children in their mother’s care. Some of them also had carbines and rocket launchers that they must have seized from the Army. Three or four of our soldiers were guarding the door downstairs and they had wanted to join us too but then duty came first and they had to be content with listening to me over their wireless sets. After the majlis ended, my brothers stretched out on the floor and I decided to go down and join the mujahedeen who were on guard duty. Before I did that, I picked up a Kalashnikov and after feeling the weapon in my hands, found that it was ready to talk to the mushrikeen (enemy). The bullet was in the chamber and it was ready to fire and I felt ecstatic at the thought of enemy soldiers falling… my joy knew no bounds as I held the loaded gun in my hands.”
Azhar was arrested along with Sajjad within two days of him reaching Kashmir.
Azhar spent months after that in the hands of various interrogating officials, drawn from agencies like the Intelligence Bureau and the Research and Analysis Wing. The interrogating officer for Kashmir’s counter intelligence wing, after several days of trying to break Azhar, interestingly noted in his report that “he (Azhar) was not himself involved in any subversive activity in Kashmir”.
Unknown to his interrogators, the Pakistan establishment was devising desperate strategies to secure Azhar’s release. The Pakistan high commission in Delhi even wrote to the Ministry of external affairs. Azhar was also charged with an attempted jail break while he was in custody in Jammu.
The plan to free Azhar finally came through after the hijacking of IC 814 when he was swapped in exchange for passengers. For Azhar himself, it was a moment when he had been blessed. His flight to freedom is, once again, best described by him. “The plane was flying high and heading for Pakistan and soon it would be over Baluchistan and then over Afghanistan... Jaswant Singh, the minister of Bharat, sat in the very first row. He had a personal physician with him who gave him some tablets. The cabin crew politely offered us refreshments but we declined saying we were fasting. We were neither hungry nor thirsty but lusting for the freedom that would soon be ours. The historic moment arrived when the plane started descending…
…The runway flashed by and I felt a mixture of emotions. The land where the plane had touched down, everything belonging to it was intensely dear to me. Mullah Omar (the one-eyed leader of the Taliban), the person whose deep love filled my heart, lived here in Kandahar. He, whose presence is a true blessing for Muslims, had made Islam proud. When I was in prison I desperately yearned to behold this city and kiss the hand of Mullah Omar… The plane was racing towards the airport building and the sight of the beautiful faces of the thousands of Taliban armed guards was adding joy to my heart... A few feet away stood the Indian plane that had been hijacked a week ago. As I watched mesmerised, two masked men came down on a rope ladder and ran towards our car and hugged me in a warm embrace. A storm of emotions washed over us and tears welled up in our eyes. Had the world seen those tears, they would have known why these soft-hearted men - being called terrorists and extremists - had taken this step. It was because of the atrocities committed by India...
...Both my hands were free and I was sitting in a Taliban car heading towards freedom, a freedom about which my prayer is: Ya Allah make it a precursor to the liberation of Kashmir, the Babri Masjid and the Masjid-al-Aqsa (Jerusalem).”
That freedom has now been curtailed. Azhar, who formed the Jaish in 2001, is once again under the scanner for his and his organisation’s role in the Pathankot attack. Once again, he finds himself under the scrutiny of AK Doval, the national security advisor who as a senior Intelligence Bureau officer then, was a key negotiator - talking to the hijackers - on the same tarmac where the Azhar had regained his freedom.