‘Main Salahuddin bol raha hoon’: A telephonic encounter with the Hizbul chief
Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin was tagged a global terrorist by the US on Monday, hours ahead of a meeting between PM Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump.world Updated: Jun 28, 2017 09:11 IST
One of the thrills of journalism is to experience the twists and turns of history and being up, close and personal with the makers or breakers of such events.
The Trump administration’s surprise but hugely symbolic tagging of Syed Salahuddin as a global terrorist unlocked memories of a telephonic encounter I had with this longest-surviving top gun of the Hizbul Mujahideen.
For reporters on the Kashmir beat – as I was with India Today in the 1990s – there was, and still is, never a dearth of adrenaline rush.
But the August of 2000 was packed with more than its share of suspense, hope and despair. After Kargil, terror had acquired a new and deadlier edge of “fidayeen” (suicide) attacks. Gloom was the dominant mood across the Kashmir Valley.
On July 24 came the dramatic announcement of a ceasefire by a local Hizbul commander, Majid Dar, who also offered talks. For New Delhi, it was an unexpected window of opportunity to end the Kashmir logjam.
A series of behind-the-scenes fast-paced parleys set the stage for the first – and the last since – direct contact between the dominant and deadly indigenous militant outfit and the Centre. The violence-weary Kashmiris sensed a tantalising augury of a new autumn.
But the optimism was short lived. Hours after the icebreaker, Salahuddin called off the ceasefire, demanding Pakistan be included in the talks. The high-stake initiative lay in ruins, while militant depredations were back, with a vengeance.
The turning point
For once, Salahuddin was the man of the moment. The shadowy figure with a flat cap and a cascading jet-black dyed beard seemed like the lynchpin of the Kashmir gambit. Indeed, he was a strategic asset for his permanent but ever-in-denial host across the border.
During my numerous reporting forays in Kashmir – it was like a second home since the first outing in 1993 – I heard fascinating stories, some apocryphal but most real, of how the cataclysmic circumstances had morphed ordinary mortals into fearsome figures. In the pantheons of home-grown militants, Salahuddin stood out for his sheer longevity and larger-than-life image.
The tale of his tryst with the gun was no less intriguing. A small-time preacher from a village near Srinagar airport, he was born Yusuf Shah. He was a polling agent for the Muslim United Front, a conglomerate of Kashmiri outfits known for disputing Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to India, in the 1987 assembly election that was marred by rigging by the pro-India National Conference (NC).
When Shah protested, a senior NC candidate slapped him publicly. The slap, as the story goes, was the turning point. He crossed over to Pakistan, floated Hizb and cast himself as its commander in a new avatar as Syed Salahuddin.
The collapse of peace talks only whetted my curiosity about the Hizb commander. But how does one reach a man safely ensconced with his masters in Pakistan? He had remained elusive for the Indian media. A glimmer of hope came during a chance meeting in Srinagar with a French woman journalist, who had a brief stint in Islamabad. She shared the satellite phone number of a Hizb spokesman, Hashmi.
Back in Chandigarh, I worked the phone lines for two days in vain. On the third day, the call got through. My prodding for an interview with Salahuddin was met with a slew of questions about my antecedents. I was told to call again the next day.
At the appointed hour, the call linked up with Hashmi, who handed over the phone to the man I desperately wanted to speak to on his next move on Kashmir. “As salam ale kum, Ramesh bhai. Main Salahuddin bol raha hoon (Greetings, I’m Salahuddin speaking),” said the gruff voice.
For the next 20 minutes, he answered a string of questions. “Our gun struggle is a quest for peace,” he said.
I had got what a journalist always craves for – an exclusive. But before it appeared in the weekly magazine I worked for, there was an unintended consequence of cross-border phone calls. Now, it was the turn of intelligence sleuths to knock on my door to cross-check my antecedents.