Five rounds chambered in his rifle, just in case war broke out again, constable Charan Das stood watch on Srinagar’s Nawakadal bridge, guarding himself against the bitter February cold with a small fire made with the remnants of a wooden crate. He paid no attention to the two men who walked up through the darkness of the night until their daggers pierced his chest. The Border Security Force guard crawled through the snow for a few metres, his lungs fighting for air before he died.
Later, during the night of 3 February 1967, a clerk at the Maharajganj police station wrote up First Information Report 21, recording the murder.
Fifty years ago this month, India destroyed al-Fatah, the terrorist network responsible for Das’ killing, but almost without firing a shot. Figures on the fringes of the network became pillars of the establishment: Former deputy chief minister Muzaffar Baig, respected political leader Bashir Ahmad Kitchloo, and highly regarded inspector-general of police Javed Mukhdoomi.
As New Delhi considers its next steps in Kashmir—holding elections and exploring options with Pakistan through a back-channel dialogue—the story of the Master Cell holds out important lessons. Fighting terrorism, it shows, isn’t all guts-and-glory: Quiet politics can be a much more lethal weapon than bullets.
The birth of the Master Cell
In the summer of 1964, months before the second India-Pakistan war, Islamabad threw its weight behind a new covert network founded by Ghulam Sarwar, Hayat Mir, Ghulam Rasool Zahgir and Zafar-ul-Islam. The network, known as ‘the Master Cell,’ drew heavily on educated élites, especially medical students and engineers. Alienated by New Delhi’s appointment of proxies in place of an elected government, scholar Navnita Chadha Behera has recorded, this youth cohort had been seduced by secessionism.
“The crossing of the Line of Control,” wrote the would-have-been insurgent Nazir Gilani, “was as mystical for a Kashmiri youth as the Eve of St. Agnes”—a wry reference to European folkloric traditions, where young women perform divinatory rituals for a vision of their to-be husbands.
As war raged through the summer of 1965, these networks positioned themselves as a revolutionary vanguard, fighting in support of Pakistani troops and irregulars. Grenades were thrown in Srinagar’s Regal Chowk and Lal Chowk, bridges burned, and pamphlets showered on streets.
In the mountains of central Kashmir’s Budgam, Hayat Mir set up a parallel government, even running Islamic courts that on one occasion executed a supposedly promiscuous woman. A Hindu grocer’s goods were looted, and distributed to the rural poor.
Even after the 1965 war ended, the network hoped to keep up its terror campaign. Equipped with explosives left behind by retreating Pakistani forces, bombings were conducted across the state. The cell drew up plans to assassinate then Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Ghulam Muhammad Sadiq, and home minister DP Dhar.
“The underground cells had succeeded in creating a fairly strained situation in the Valley by their acts of terrorism,” wrote the legendary police officer Surendra Nath, who would go on to serve in the Northeast, as well as in violence-torn Punjab.
“With the training received by two members of the Master Cell, which they would have imparted to other members, and with the availability of high explosives on such a large scale, they could have brought the normal life in the Valley to a standstill.”
The rise of al-Fatah
Late in 1966, Zahgir, a long-standing veteran of the secret war in Jammu and Kashmir, and his Pakistani intelligence handlers began setting up a new organisation called al-Fatah. The Idea of Pakistan’s military, scholar Stephen Cohen noted, interest in insurgent wars had been sparked among officers studying at United States academies. Where the United States sought to prevent such wars, Cohen wrote, Pakistan studied these “in terms of launching a people’s war against India”.
The new group’s first operation, the 1967 murder on the bridge in Nawakadal, was followed by a series of robberies, notably the treasury of the education department in Pulwama, and the Jammu and Kashmir Bank’s Hazratbal branch. In the mountains of Beerwah, al-Fatah set up a training camp for new recruits.
Fazl-ul-Haq Qureshi, who later became a secessionist politician of some prominence, claimed that al-Fatah succeeded in sending 300 cadre for training to Pakistan by 1971, recruiting from mosques across the countryside. The real problem, he said, was that weapons were not available, “as Pakistan had decided that the time was not ripe to arm the jihadis.”
The Pakistani covert operative Salim Jehangir, who ran al-Fatah’s training camp, also told Zahgir that large caches of carbines did exist. However, Haji Jalaluddin, the operative who held the weapons, had strict instructions not to hand them over to al-Fatah until he received authorisation from Pakistan’s covert services. The war of 1971 looming, and Pakistan’s energies focussed to the east, that authorisation never came.
In themselves, Zahgir wrote in his diary, al-Fatah’s actions amounted to little. They were, in his view, setting up the foundations for a long war to slowly weaken India, just as “a mosquito does while fighting with an elephant.”
Exceptional counter-intelligence work led to Zahgir’s arrest in 1972, along with al-Fatah’s members. The operation was led, interestingly, by then-deputy superintendent of police Ali Mohammad Watali, the officer targeted in the first terrorist attack in Kashmir using assault rifles, which took place in 1989.
Turning the enemy
Following the unravelling of al-Fatah, New Delhi set about initiating the endgame—turning one-time-enemies to its side. After India’s victory in the war of 1971, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi capitalised on her situation to negotiate a deal with Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah. Abdullah agreed to some limited political autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir, and renounced his demand for a plebiscite once and for all.
Inside Kashmir, chief minister Sadiq’s successor in office, Syed Mir Qasim, began negotiating with al-Fatah’s jailed operatives, using the services of the officer who broke the network, Pir Ghulam Hasan Shah. Those charged with minor crimes were released; the rest were provided with special facilities for their education and care at the Central Prison in Srinagar.
Later, chief minister Qasim wrote: “I was upset at the kinds of crimes they had committed. [But] I was after all a father and, therefore, could not take refuge under the cold crime-and-punishment principle. I told the State Assembly on March 25, 1972, I can swear that I suffer the same pain as do the parents of these young people.”
The psychological operation worked. In 1975, the bulk of al-Fatah’s cadre went mainstream, forming the Inquilabi Mahaz, or Revolutionary Union, which supported the Indira Gandhi–Sheikh Abdullah agreement.
A small group of dissidents—Fazl-ul-Haq Qureshi, along with Nazir Ahmad Wani, Hamidullah Bhat, Mohammad Shaban Vakil and Farooq Ahmad Bhat—rejected the deal, but became politically marginalised. They, too, turned.
“Long years of absence from employment had made a major dent on my financial status,” Qureshi said, “and with children to raise, I wanted to stay on the job”. He resigned his position in the secessionist People’s League; the government dropped his prosecution.
For the best part of two decades, Kashmir was quiet—until Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s rigging of the 1987 elections again led the legitimacy of the political system to collapse. Like an earlier generation of radicals had done in the 1960s, a new youth cohort again turned to secessionism.
As New Delhi plans its next steps in Kashmir, it’s time for leaders to reopen this long-forgotten Kashmir file, and contemplate its lessons.
The author tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.