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India's forgotten army

By Praveen Swami

NEW DELHI SEPT. 13. In the summer of 1994, those listening in to radio-frequency conversations in Jammu and Kashmir began coming across a decidedly cryptic one. "This is Bulbul", the message would almost invariably go, "ask the Koel what song it will sing tonight."

`Bulbul', the Urdu word for the Asian song bird, was a mid-ranking military intelligence official working with troops of the 5 Rashtriya Rifles in Sumbal, near Bandipora. `Koel', the dark-coloured Cuckoo bird, was Mohammad Yusuf Parrey, better known by his alias `Kuka' Parrey, the folk singer-turned-terrorist-turned-pro-India-militia leader-turned-politician, who was assassinated today.

`Song' was a coded reference to details about anti-terrorist operations in the hard-hit Bandipora belt, in northern Kashmir.

Parrey was part of a large group of terrorists which, marginalised by the one-track support given by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence to the Islamist Hizbul Mujahideen, threw in its lot with the Indian security forces. In early 1994, Parrey, then the leader of the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen, began cooperating with the Army. Soon afterwards, the former National Conference MLC, Javed Ahmad Shah, began a parallel initiative backed by the State police's Special Operations Group (SOG) in Srinagar. Liaqat Khan joined the movement shortly afterwards, operating in the southern Kashmir town of Anantnag.

By late that year, all three groups had coalesced into the feared Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen. These groups, mainly ethnic Kashmiri and intensely hostile to the Islamists, were instrumental in suppressing terrorism in the run-up to the 1996 Assembly elections. Shah, for example, was the informant for perhaps the first Army encounter with the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which claimed the life of Major Ashok Gaur of the 10 Bihar Regiment. "Without these groups", says Farooq Khan, who was then the SOG head, "it would have been very difficult for the elections to have been held in a peaceful atmosphere."

Important figures from the Ikhwan subsequently contested the 1996 elections, although none but Parrey won a seat. Subsequently, Shah joined the National Conference.

In last year's Assembly elections, candidates from new factions of all groups contested, but again could not register success.

Soon after the 1996 elections, the Ikhwan hit hard days. Undermined both by public dislike of their ruthless tactics as well as Islamist propaganda campaigns, they found the political establishment arrayed against them.

Stripped of official cover, terrorist attacks resumed. On June 21, 1998, for example, Parrey's nephew Manzoor Parrey, code-named `Wafadar Khan', was killed in a landmine blast. An estimated 150 Ikhwan members have died in fighting since.

Between 350 and 500 Ikhwan members still remain on active duty with the Jammu and Kashmir Police and Army, and are paid a regular stipend. The loss of their leadership, however, has demoralised the group.

"The recent attacks on Ikhwan leaders", says a top Border Security Force official in Srinagar, "as well as the absence of a clear surrender policy, has also deterred many terrorists from laying down arms. We've shown we can't look after our own."

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