On May 21, 2002, the Kashmiri separatist leader, Abdul Ghani Lone, was gunned down as he attended the 12th memorial service for Mirwaiz Moulvi Farooq, at the Eidgah in Srinagar’s old town. The mirwaiz, the cleric whose seat was the iconic Jama Masjid in Srinagar, had been gunned down in 1990, allegedly by a Hizbul Mujahideen gunman on suspicions of having been in touch with then Railway Minister George Fernandes in the VP Singh government. Later in the day, more than 60 civilians were killed in Central Reserve Police Force firing at Hawal in Srinagar during the mirwaiz’s funeral procession.
Today, separatist leaders still call for a memorial service at the Eidgah, amid tight restrictions on this day, for both the mirwaiz and Lone. Lone, a complex and seasoned mainstream politician who joined the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly as a Congress MLA in 1967 before moving on to the National Conference, Janata Party and then his own People’s Conference, had turned to separatism in the late 1980s. He was arrested in 1990 and on his release in 1992 came up with the idea of bringing together all separatist outfits under one platform that eventually came to be called the All Party Hurriyat Conference.
In the controversial book, Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, former Research and Analysis Wing chief, AS Dulat, gives his own version of Lone’s last days and the impact of his death. Excerpts from the book:
[Abdul Ghani Lone] was released in the late summer of 1992, and upon release he had a brainwave: of setting up a conglomeration of all separatist outfits, which would be called the All Party Hurriyat Conference, Hurriyat meaning freedom.
He discussed the idea with the ISI. After his release in 1992, he travelled to Saudi Arabia, where he met a Brigadier Saleem and broached the idea. It was not a very pleasant encounter. ‘I’m not used to interacting with people in uniform,’ Lone told Brigadier Saleem. ‘I’ve been a minister in Kashmir, we’ve had a democratic system there, however flawed.’
‘You’d better get used to meeting people in uniform,’ Brigadier Saleem said. ‘Because we call the shots.’
Lone’s relationship with the ISI would always be rough.
Lone rose to his highest prominence in the Hurriyat. He was the one true politician in the Hurriyat, and the rest of the Hurriyat leadership envied him for his political skills and sagacity.
Since it included nearly thirty outfits with differing aims – some were for independence, some were for accession to Pakistan, and some even wanted Kashmir to join a global caliphate – Lone suggested that as a first step they put aside their differing aims and focus on the basic issue: that Kashmir was a disputed territory. ‘Let us first persuade the Indians that they should concede that Kashmir is a disputed territory and its future is yet to be decided,’ Lone told his colleagues. ‘Once they do it, then comes the question of how we will solve the issue of this disputed territory.’
The only other person who had long political experience, though he always operated from the margins, was Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Not surprisingly, when the Hurriyat was formed, and during the early years, the two of them were close. It was only over time that they developed acute differences: Geelani insisted their movement was a religious movement, whereas Lone would say, no, it was a political movement.
Indeed, when the Lashkar-e-Toiba business began in a big way, people like Geelani used to say, ‘Yeh hamare mehmaan hain.’
‘They are not our guests, these Taliban and all,’ Lone would respond. ‘We don’t want them here, they’re not our guests, people coming here and killing Kashmiris.’
This was a sore point between the two...
[T]he 1996 election was a masterstroke that broke the back of militancy. Had Farooq not agreed to participate – had the election not been held –militancy would have continued another ten years, perhaps. (This was not the same, however, as saying that Kashmiris were politically satisfied.) As it was, militants were coming out from the cold, Kashmiris were going to elected politicians to sort out their daily complaints. And then, of course, the Kargil war happened, which was a big jolt to Kashmiris both in Pakistan and at home, for there seemed to be a misalignment between Pakistan and the one country that could make things happen, the USA.
Lone went on a long trip in 1999 and he visited America. He returned in November, around Diwali, and then made a couple of statements that sounded pretty reasonable. The Americans had probably made it clear to him that the militancy was bunkum and that they weren’t going to support it any more.
Lone was crucial in the Hurriyat if we wanted to move forward politically with the separatists. Therefore, when he began speaking reasonably, it looked like a great opportunity. It was time to reach out to him.
I had met Lone in jail several years back, but that’s never the same thing. Frankly, I didn’t know him then, and he may not have even remembered my face. So I told one of our officers, a tall fellow, ‘Go pick up Lone Saheb and bring him here.’
‘How?’ the officer asked.
‘What are you asking me how, you know where he lives, go get him.’
So the officer went with a basket of fruit to Lone and said, ‘Saheb wants to meet you.’
Lone was a smart guy. He understood.
In the beginning, I would talk to him, but he said nothing. Zero. He probably didn’t trust me, as I was the R&AW chief.
Lone gradually opened up, but even then he spoke little: very measured, few words, but everything he said was meaningful. He was a typical politician, the only one among these separatists. He was a bit like Vajpayee; Vajpayee used to speak even less. He understood politics. In Kashmir he was regarded as one of the smarter politicians, maybe the smartest after Farooq; maybe even smarter. He was in that league.
Nonetheless, he responded positively, and we continued a dialogue, right until the end in 2002. He would talk about politics and the movement and dialogue. He was quite happy talking. He was honest enough to acknowledge that the gun had ultimately failed, and that Kashmiris needed to move on. Lone was totally fed up with Pakistan.
One of the interesting things Lone said was that he thought the movement was a sort of an experiment, and that he didn’t expect too much from it though Kashmiris would emerge wiser out of it. It was a fascinating insight, I felt.
One day in November 2000, Lone visited and said: ‘I want a passport, I want to go to Pakistan.’
‘Lone wants a passport,’ I told Brajesh Mishra. ‘De dijiye, kya hai.’
He got his passport within two days.
Lone needed a passport because he had fixed the marriage of his son Sajad, then a businessman in Dubai, to Asma, the only daughter of the JKLF chairman, Amanullah Khan. It was a big deal in Pakistan, as it involved the coming together of two political families, and it was well attended by VIPs. It was also the focus of the international media because on 19 November, the first day of the wedding when a ‘rukhsati’ was hosted by Amanullah Khan in Rawalpindi, Prime Minister Vajpayee announced a unilateral ceasefire for Ramzan, to begin from 26 November. Lone hosted a reception the next day, in Islamabad, where this ceasefire was the talk among the guests.
A few days later, Lone met Pakistan’s chief executive, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. The General asked him, ‘How are things in Kashmir?’
‘Don’t worry about Kashmir, look after Pakistan,’ Lone apparently replied. ‘Your radicals will bite the hand that feeds them.’
Musharraf responded by laughing.
Years later, in the interview to Newsline magazine mentioned earlier in the chapter, Lone recalled his meeting with Musharraf. ‘We spent more than an hour and a half together,’ Lone said. ‘He was interested in discussing Vajpayee’s announcement and whether India was open to genuine dialogue. I think it is unfortunate that Musharraf came to power as a military dictator. . . if the Indians cooperate, Musharraf is still the best man on the Pakistani side with whom the Indians can deal on Kashmir. He is a practical man. He can reach a settlement on Kashmir.’ This is what every Kashmiri leader except Geelani but including Omar Abdullah, who met Musharraf, was to say.
It is very significant that Lone came to the conclusion that Musharraf could have settled with India on Kashmir, while we in government were still wondering whether or not to trust this soldier. Years later, in 2014, while addressing his last press conference as prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh would bemoan the fact that they had almost clinched a deal.
Lone also spoke to Musharraf about ‘ownership’ of the Kashmir issue. ‘We said to the Pakistanis that they should try their level best to help Kashmir get out from being an Indian possession, but in doing so they should not express a preference for any option,’ Lone said. ‘Otherwise, they would create problems for our freedom struggle.’
In fact, Lone went to the dinner party hosted in his honour by the Jamaat-e-Islami in PoK, where he asked the Pakistanis if they had a hidden agenda.
‘Would you also like to take us over and occupy our land?’ he asked.
He explained that his question was in relation to the ceasefire offered by Vajpayee, to which Kashmiris had to have their own response. It was also related to foreign militants: ‘They are welcome so long as they come to help us,’ Lone said. ‘But they must not take up the role of the “owners” of the movement.’
One group of folks who probably did not like his questions was the ISI. As it was, it was annoyed with the way he was cold- shouldering the outfit.
For instance, ISI chief General Mahmud invited Lone for dinner. Lone dilly-dallied and then finally he did not go. It was a rebuff the ISI did not forget. In fact, the ISI began to believe that Sajad was the evil influence on his father; that maybe Sajad was in contact with the Indians. For his part, the elder Lone thought that Mahmud was too much of a hawk, and said the ISI chief was ‘cracked’. After retirement, Mahmud grew a beard and joined the Tabligh Jamaat. A colleague of his described him as a gone case.
That was not the last time that Lone met Musharraf; the General, who was now president, held a tea party for the Hurriyat leaders in New Delhi, while he was on his way to Agra for a summit with Prime Minister Vajpayee in July 2001.
At the party, Lone is supposed to have said: ‘We’re tired, we’re exhausted, we can’t carry on like this. You’re only getting Kashmiris killed.’
To which Geelani objected. ‘We’re not tired, we will never be tired,’ he said. Everyone stared at Geelani, and what he was implying: that Kashmiris should continue to get killed.
By the time the Agra summit happened, I had already shifted to the PMO. My brief was no longer external intelligence, and when I asked for the agenda I was told it was Kashmir but in particular the 2002 assembly election. Since I had a lot of time at the PMO I was meeting Lone more and more, and I spoke to him about the coming election.
‘Yes, I understand that elections are important,’ he said. The 1996 poll was a clear example.
‘Look,’ I said. ‘The PM wants totally free and fair elections.’ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Free and fair. It is the right way forward.’
It got to a point where I said, ‘Will you help us?’
‘How?’ he asked.
‘You could contest,’ I said.
‘My time is over, but I will help you,’ he said. ‘Don’t ask how, let the time come.’
Now there are people who think that Lone was looking to participate in the 2002 election; that he wanted to be chief minister; and that he was shot dead because the Pakistanis thought he might participate in elections. It is a lot of bunkum. He never, ever gave any indication that he wanted to participate. The notion that he wanted to be chief minister is also silly; as no one, not least Mufti Sayeed (who got the job), thought that anyone other than Farooq Abdullah would become chief minister.
What he would say is that for elections, we would have to look for younger people; ‘I’m too far gone now,’ were his words. He was hinting at the next generation, and also at Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, then the head of the Hurriyat.
Lone felt that he had been through too much. He would turn seventy that year, and after all that he had stood for and spoken against, to be part of an election would be a total turnaround, which, at this stage, he could not do. He was willing to help in the democratic process, but without getting involved. ‘I’m with you,’ he’d tell me. ‘This is a good idea and we will help you indirectly.’
Lone tried to convince the Hurriyat of the relevance of the election. He told them that militancy had a limited shelf-life which was long over.
Yet he could not convince them. First, because they were well-behaved ISI followers who did not step out of line. Second, as Lone called them, they were like the nawabs of Oudh who depleted their wealth yet carried on like royalty; the Hurriyat had also got what they could out of militancy till there was nothing left, and yet they carried on. The Hurriyat argued back that election was a flawed idea which would only make them part of the Indian system. The Hurriyat was not convinced....
And then Lone met the ISI for the final time, in April 2002.
On 18 April, Lone accompanied Asma, his daughter-in-law, to Dubai as she was going home to Pakistan and at the time there were no direct flights from India. Also en route to Dubai were his man Friday, Zahoor Watali, and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. In Dubai they met Sardar Abdul Qayoom Khan of PoK; Ghulam Nabi Fai, the ISI’s Kashmiri in Washington, DC; and Syed Nazir Gilani, heading a British NGO called J&K Council for Human Rights; all of whom were there to attend a Kashmir Peace Conference of those who wished to end the violence and resolve the dispute politically. In fact, at the meeting, Lone asked Sardar Qayoom to urgently request the Pakistan government to withdraw jehadi groups from Kashmir.
He also took the opportunity to meet the new ISI chief, Lt. Gen. Ehsanul Haq. His family was against his meeting the ISI, as they felt he was walking into a trap.
Nonetheless Lone went, and at this meeting complained against the Hurriyat’s political handler, Brigadier Abdullah, which is an old and popular cover name for ISI officials. As mentioned in the chapter with Firdous Syed, the ISI used to handle Kashmir with a military wing and a political wing, each headed by a brigadier. Lone had a problem with his particular Abdullah.
‘Lone Saheb, we will change him immediately,’ Lt. Gen. Ehsan said.
The new political handler was the military attache at the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi, Javed Aziz Khan, and he was given the code name of Brigadier Rathore. (Now retired, he continues to advise the Pakistan government on Kashmir.)
Brigadier Abdullah apparently did not take kindly to being shunted out. He may have ordered the hit on Lone, and it was possibly not a conscious decision by the ISI chief.
As it was, Lone’s encounters with the ISI were never really good due to his allergy to the military. Even talking to the ISI was like banging your head against the wall: the officers would listen to your every argument, would smile, nod, and then go back to what they originally said.
Thus, going to Dubai was Lone’s fatal mistake. In Pakistani eyes, he was too much of an Indian, too far gone. The ISI more than anything dreaded the general mainstreaming of Kashmiris, led by Lone.
Lone had spent about a week in Dubai. From there he went to London, where he spent two days, and on to Washington, DC, where he met National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice; Fai was also at this meeting. In fact, Lone handed Rice a note on Kashmir. His wife Hanefa and Bilal joined him in Washington.
Lone then returned via the east, as he wanted to show Hanefa around Singapore. He travelled to Kuala Lumpur, from where he was to go to Singapore, and stayed the night, but he then got an urgent summons from Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. The young Mirwaiz wanted Lone to cut short his visit and attend the twelfth anniversary of the assassination of his father, Mirwaiz Moulvi Farooq.
So the Lones never went to Singapore. Instead, on 18 May, they arrived in Delhi, and on 20 May they reached Srinagar.
The next afternoon, according to his driver Rashid, Lone said his afternoon namaaz, left his home in Sanat Nagar, and at around 2:15 p.m. arrived at the Idgah for the ‘barsi’. The rest of the Hurriyat leadership except for Geelani was already on the dais: Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Professor Abdul Ghani Bhat, and Moulvi Abbas Ansari. They all made speeches, and the unusual thing that day was Lone did not make a speech. In between every speech, a group of boys in the crowd would shout pro- Pakistan slogans.
The last speech was by the Mirwaiz. As he wound up, at around 4:30 p.m., someone started shouting something about a grenade.
The leaders decided to exit, and as Lone was descending from the stage, about twenty shots rang out.
The crowd ran helter-skelter, so no one could get a look at who the gunmen were. Rashid, who had parked Lone’s car about 60 yards away and had a view of the stage, pushed through the pandemonium, but by the time he reached Lone, he was dead.
Lone’s two PSOs had also been shot. Though Lone had been shot multiple times from the front, the PSO who died had been shot from the back. The other PSO was taken to hospital.
Driver Rashid loaded the two bodies and took them to Sanat Nagar. When he reached, Lone’s wife was on the first floor; she ran downstairs and began weeping. Neighbours and local shopkeepers also came. Abdul Ghani Lone was no more.
Sajad was overcome. As he later wrote in a local newspaper: ‘[I] lifted the shroud and there he was – my Dad – lifeless, stone cold, eyes closed, hair curled back, in a state of eternal slumber. My Dad’s journey of life had ended.’ He went ahead and named the killers. ‘I was filled with anger and out from my mouth came the infamous statement blaming the ISI for my father’s killing. I was unmindful of the TV crews and their cameras. And in the evening it was across all the TV screens.’
And when Geelani came to Lone’s place, Sajad told him to get out.
Then Sajad’s mother, Hanefa, took him aside. ‘I’ve lost my husband, I don’t want to lose my son,’ she said. ‘I will not allow a second dead body with bullets in this house. Calm down.’
Hanefa told her son to retract his charge against the ISI, which he did. The next day Geelani was allowed to participate in the funeral procession. A few days later Sajad wrote an article in which he said, ‘even grieving is dangerous in Kashmir because it can lead to further loss’, explaining why he backtracked. Yet it never left Sajad’s mind. He wrote an article in the Tribune on 29 December 2011 titled ‘In the Land of the Mutes’, in which he wrote: ‘Death comes in multiple ways, and so does mourning, thanks to the leaders who have managed to learn to extract profit from the enterprise.’ It was clearly a reference to Geelani...
One of the ironic fallouts of Lone’s assassination is that once he had said that the Hurriyat would break over his dead body; and a year after he died, it broke.
The ISI used to credit R&AW with splitting the Hurriyat, but actually it was the ISI which split the Hurriyat, for it wanted to build Geelani up. A further irony is that in 2014, the ISI was still trying to get the three Hurriyat factions to re-unite, but that looked unlikely, as the moderate Hurriyat people are not too enamoured with Geelani.
In his interview to Newsline magazine, which was published after his killing, Lone had spoken of the need for the government to engage the Hurriyat:
‘On one side there is the APHC that says that Kashmir is a disputed territory . . . On the other side is the Indian government that says: “Kashmir is an integral part of India and accession is final.” . . . The APHC reflects the view of the main political forces in Kashmir that differ with India on these crucial questions. Therefore, the APHC and the government of India are the two main parties that face each other. So, if there is to be a dialogue to narrow down the differences or to find a solution, it must be the Hurriyat and the government of India that enter into discussions.’
In the end, when the Hurriyat began talking to the government – to Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani – it just followed what Lone suggested earlier.
Excerpted with permission from Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, AS Dulat (with Aditya Sinha), Harper Collins Publishers, India.