In 1989, when the then Union Home Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s daughter Rubaiya was kidnapped by the JKLF, Sayeed was over eager to give in to the demands of the kidnappers that five terrorists should be released. And this in spite of knowing that no harm would come to her. In an exclusive conversation with The Sunday Guardian, Arif Mohammad Khan wonders what his now late colleague was up to.
New Delhi: Former Union Minister Arif Mohammad Khan, who was a part of Prime Minister V.P. Singh’s Cabinet, says that his then colleague, Home Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, appeared to have protected terrorists in Jammu & Kashmir, as a result of which terrorism got a fillip in the region.
In a shocking revelation to The Sunday Guardian, Khan said that after the kidnapping of Sayeed’s daughter Rubaiya (23), on 8 December 1989 by Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), there were acts of “omission and commission” on Sayeed’s part. Khan, along with his Cabinet colleague Inder Kumar Gujral (who later became Prime Minister), was sent to Srinagar by the Centre, immediately after the news of Rubaiya’s kidnapping reached Delhi.
In a conversation with this newspaper, Khan said that the V.P. Singh dispensation was putting pressure on the then Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah to release the terrorists in exchange of Rubaiya Sayeed. Abdullah was adamant that he would not release the terrorists and kept warning the Centre that releasing them would be a huge mistake, a view shared by Khan. The father of one the kidnappers was reassuring Abdullah’s government that no harm would come to the girl and that the kidnappers were ready to let her go. In spite of this categorical assurance, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed established contact with the JKLF kidnappers through a judge—Justice M.L. Bhatt, and through him leaked the news that the Central government was ready to give in to the demands of the kidnappers and release the five terrorists that they wanted released.
Such was the haste to release the terrorists, that all five of them were released even before Rubaiya was.
“Why did Mufti behave in this manner and why did he leak the news to the terrorists through Moti Lal Bhatt that the Central government had already ordered the state government to release the five terrorists? I don’t know what was his motive and intention. But when I came back from Kashmir, I saw him (Bhatt) at Mufti’s house. I was told he was staying there for five-six days… He was constantly in touch with them (the kidnappers).”
“I have absolutely no doubt that the manner in which the Rubaiya Sayeed matter was handled, gave a fillip to terrorism (in the valley),” Khan asserted.
Khan also revealed that he had suggested to Mufti that the latter should resign as his kin had been kidnapped and, therefore, the matter should be handled by someone else, but in vain. He also said that the day Rubaiya was released Mufti made the statement that “now Government of India will deal with Kashmir issue on a priority”, the way it was dealing with Punjab. “So, it creates doubts in your mind,” Khan said.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q: The Centre has formed a Group of Ministers to work out ways ahead in Jammu & Kashmir, after revoking of Article 370. What is your comment?
A: I have been saying this for long that our reputation is going to be tested. Because we know that so many reports we have seen. The same boy who is recruited to pelt stones…a few days later when there is a police recruitment, the same boy appears there to be recruited as a policeman. It gives you an idea of the problem Kashmir is facing. I strongly believe that if people start noticing what is described in economic terms as a “happening economy”, the wheels of economy start moving fast. They will start realising the difference and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has rightly pointed out that the existing structure had become a source of obstacle in the path of development and progress of the region. If people see that those obstacles are now being removed, and they must see it, and experience it, then very soon the situation would start becoming normal. Rather, we should hope that the Kashmiris should become enthusiastic about building a “new Kashmir”, that means post-370 Kashmir.
Q: Do you think there is a need to articulate India’s point of view aggressively, especially in the wake of fake news and false narrative being circulated everywhere?
A: Yes. Everywhere—in the country and outside, because we have been facing the menace of terrorism since 1988. This did not happen in a vacuum. Actually, the whole issue of terrorism and separatism is linked to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 when Zia-ul-Haq took over. He made a speech; it’s a famous speech at the officer training centre. He said that there was no chance of defeating India. Establishment in Pakistan has become so full of revenge and they hold us responsible and not themselves for the creation of Bangladesh. And in Pakistan, establishment means army. Pakistan is not a country with army, but army with a country. That is the real establishment there. Zia-ul-Haq said now it is very difficult to achieve your goal in the battlefield…we need to have a strategy of inflicting 1,000 cuts on India, cause heavy bleeding which makes India collapse—very well planned and thought-out policy. Terrorism has not sprung on its own. Pakistan used it as part of their strategy and policy. We need to tell the world the kind of extraordinary situation we were facing, people from across the border were infiltrating to our side. They had weapons with them, huge amounts of money to buy services of local miscreants. Ordinary average Kashmiri is a law abiding, peaceful person whose ethos, morality is rooted in the Rishi tradition. His conduct is bound to be motivated by those values. The average Kashmiri is not a violent person.
Q: Do you think the kidnapping of Rubaiya Sayeed in December 1989 was a turning point in the rise of terrorism in J&K?
A: Actually the turning point was the 1988 election. This was the time when the Indian economy was in a very bad shape. In 1990, we had a foreign reserve of only $1 billion. Then the political situation—there was a coalition government. The social situation was also very bad. Mandal happened during that time. Even on the communal front—after Shah Bano in 1986—the tension in the air was palpable. Taking all these factors into consideration, maybe they thought it’s the best time to send infiltrators in. But the problem started in 1988-89. Then the Rubaiya Sayeed kidnapping happened, which definitely became a great source of comfort and encouragement for the terrorists.
I have absolutely no doubt that the manner in which the Rubaiya Sayeed matter was handled, gave a fillip to terrorism.
At the time I was Minister of Energy and Civil Aviation, also member of the Economic Affairs Committee of the Cabinet of Prime Minister V.P. Singh’s government. I was not a member of the Political Affairs Committee but on the day the kidnapping happened, a meeting of the Cabinet was held where I, very seriously, suggested, in fact, instead of addressing the Prime Minister, I turned my face to Mufti Sahib, who was the Home Minister whose daughter was kidnapped. I said we are not the only country where this thing has happened. There are other countries as well where ministers’ relatives were kidnapped by the terrorists. They successfully dealt with the issue. How did they deal? The minister concerned, because his own relative was kidnapped, tendered his resignation and allowed some other colleague of his to handle the situation. I said my request to you is that you don’t deal with this affair. Let someone else deal with this because your own daughter is there. What I said in the Cabinet meeting, fortunately, Farooq Abdullah has mentioned this in the book Kashmir’s Prodigal Son. Then maybe on the third or on the fifth day in the night, I received a call from Cabinet Secretary T.N. Seshan. He told me that the meeting by the Political Affairs Committee had just finished and the committee has decided to send I.K. Gujral to Srinagar. So, you just pack your bag and come to the airport. I reached the airport.
We landed at Srinagar early in the morning at around 5 am or 5.30 am. At the time, I was not aware what had transpired in the meeting of the Political Affairs Committee. So when we reached there and sat in the hamam—it is a small room which is kept warm—Farooq Abdullah, the Chief Minister, started giving the details of how he was being pressurised to release five terrorists in exchange for the release of Rubaiya Sayeed, wherein he named the Prime Minister, Home Minister (Mufti Mohammad Sayeed), another minister, Cabinet Secretary, Home Secretary and a host of other people. So I was surprised. He was very emphatically saying that if you make this release, then it will become very difficult to control terrorist activities. Before Gujral could say anything, I said: Farooq Sahib, bilkul mat chhodiyega (Don’t release anybody). He said so much pressure is coming. I said I will stand with you. I do not know what happened after that as we were in the guesthouse the whole day. Mr Gujral must have informed Delhi that this was what I told Farooq Abdullah and I was kept out of the loop the whole day. But all my Kashmiri friends who came to see me and even when I went to a Kashmiri friend’s house for lunch, everybody told me “Arif Sahab, bilkul mat ghabrayiye, agar ladki ko inhone chhu diya to terrorist gira gira ke mare jayenge Srinagar mein (if the kidnappers touch the girl, they will be killed in Srinagar). Kashmiris never tolerate any misbehaviour with a girl, which is a fact.
Later on, after we reached Delhi and went to Mufti’s house and we met Moti Lal Bhatt, who was a judge of the Allahabad High Court. I came to know all the details of this man—when he was a judge in the J&K High Court, there were complaints against him of freely giving bail to terrorists. Therefore, he was transferred to the Allahabad HC. The day Rubaiya was kidnapped, Mufti summoned Bhatt from Allahabad and this man—with his connections with Jamaat-e-Islami and all those people whom he had released on bail—was all the time in touch with the terrorist organisations and leaders of the Hurriyat and it was he who leaked the news that the Centre has already ordered the state government to release the five terrorists. Before that, that father of one of these terrorists, a government employee, was talking to the government. The father was reassuring the government—Farooq Abdullah and Moosa Raza, the Chief Secretary—that the kidnappers had committed an error and ye kal tak chhod denge (they will release the girl by the next day). But the next day, he himself disappeared and later on he told these people what he could have done. He said: “When I met the boys they told me you are asking us to release for nothing. Have you received the news that that Central government has told the state government to release the five men?”
Q: Would you say that Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was more interested in releasing the terrorists rather than Rubaiya?
A: In their zeal to secure the release of Rubaiya Sayeed, they were ready to go to any extent… The impression was given that we were a soft state… Also, those five terrorists were released before Rubiya Sayeed was released… I refuse to believe that Mufti, who himself was not only a Kashmiri but in Kashmiri politics since his adult days, was not aware of the Kashmiri ethos (of not hurting a girl). Therefore, I have my doubts—why did Mufti behave in this manner and why did he leak the news to the terrorists through Moti Lal Bhatt that the Central government had already ordered the state government to release the five terrorists? I don’t know what was his motive and intention. When I came back from Kashmir, I saw him (Bhatt) at Mufti’s house. I was told he was staying there for 5-6 days. Days after Rubaiya was kidnapped, he had reached Delhi and he was constantly in touch with them.
Q: But are you certain Mufti was the one who leaked it to Moti Lal Bhatt?
A: Must have. And everybody in Kashmir says that Moti Lal Bhatt leaked it to these leaders.
Q: So, the information that Moti Lal Bhatt passed on could have been from Mufti Mohammad Sayeed…?
A: In Kashmir everyone said that it was impossible that they could even touch the girl.
Q: And the militant’s father was also saying…?
A: The militant’s father was saying that anybody does this, they will lose total public support, and people will become hostile. Even after receiving the news in Delhi, we were still in Srinagar, some senior journalists told me, after receiving the news that Rubaiya has been released, Mufti spoke to us and he said that now Government of India will deal with the Kashmir issue on a priority. It will give more priority to Kashmir, even more than Punjab. This statement he made on the day when Rubiya Sayeed was released. So, it creates doubts in your mind. It was kidnapping of a girl that will wake up the Government of India to come to the conclusion that now this issue has to be dealt with on a priority. What was he talking about? You are giving the message to the terrorists that this is the way if you want to succeed.
Q: Do you think that the then Home Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was responsible for aiding and abetting terrorism in Jammu & Kashmir?
A: We can say that…in the sense they failed miserably… It may be due to acts of omission and commission both.
Q: And how did that give rise to terrorism?
A: That is for everybody to see.
Q: Is it a fact that terrorists kind of thought that it was a go ahead, that this was the way to sort out their “problems”?
A: Yes. If the Home Minister after the release of Rubiya Sayeed says now we shall deal with the Kashmir issue as a priority, what does that mean? They are giving the message to the terrorists that if you get (kidnap) a few more people, then you will receive more attention.
Q: Would you say that Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, at the time of formation of the PDP, was close to the separatists?
A: By and large it was there. Many papers have written about it. I was not in Kashmir, but I have read in the newspapers that it was.
Q: That the PDP was close to the separatists?
A: I don’t know if they were close, but certainly these separatists had shown some sympathy…
Q: So, you mean to say that the 1989 episode itself showed Mufti family’s closeness to the separatists?
A: The episode started showing cracks in our resolve to deal with terrorism. And it projected us as if we are vulnerable and make compromises.
Q: So, this was 1989, and the Home Minister’s daughter gets kidnapped. What sort of action was taken after that against JKLF (which kidnapped her) and the other groups?
A: I am not aware about any major initiative launched by the Government of India against JKLF or other organisations, because they had kidnapped Mufti’s daughter. I am not aware, but a very unfortunate message went—message of leniency. The message was that if you apply pressure, the government will melt. That impression was very strong.
Q: Basically, the terrorists were given the impression that they had a free hand?
A: Free hand, I won’t agree—but that if you apply pressure, the government is vulnerable, (ready) to make a compromise.
Q: And from that time onwards, the radicalization rose in the Valley, the Pandit exodus happened in the early 1990s.
Q: We have seen even during Mehbooba Mufti’s time, she’s talking about the healing touch. So, is this healing touch actually sympathy towards militancy or what is going on?
A: I have no problem with that, but healing touch for whom? Healing touch does not mean giving respectability and credibility to terrorists, to separatists.
Q: So do you think that the removal of Article 370 is going to help the situation?
A: It has removed doubts. There is no peg available to hang your hopes on, that Kashmir can be separated from India and that mindset has received a severe jolt. Now I feel that the government surely is adjusted in the sense that we have given them the background that so many things they are lacking is because Article 370 was there. Since Independence, we have spent much more money on Kashmir, if we spend now more, that will be nothing new. Compared to the rest of India, we have spent four-five times more on Kashmir. But now we want results. This is a happening economy, and if people see this and they are provided with jobs and make them see what is happening on the ground, I don’t think it’ll take very long to normalise the situation.
Q: Do you think it is possible that the present Narendra Modi government will ensure that change takes place on the ground?
A: I think they will go out of their way. I feel that they have put their reputation at stake. Based on the speeches made by the Prime Minister and Home Minister, I feel they will go out of their way to ensure that people start noticing a happening economy, progress, development, jobs creation. If you remember, that earthquake that severely affected the PoK, we were involved in the relief work and at that time, people from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir saw this side of Kashmir. And most of them were in tears. Kashmiris of the Pakistani occupied area started comparing their area with ours (which is much more developed). There are no airports, or roads in PoK. So now they will start comparing.