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17 years later, the mystery of Mast Gul's escape remains

July 31, 2012 13:44 IST

Former army, R&AW and IB officers say they were unaware of any deal being struck with the dreaded terrorist Mast Gul during the Chrar-e-Sharief siege in Kashmir in 1995. Vicky Nanjappa reports.

Former external affairs minister Jaswant Singh made a startling revelation when he told The Indian Express on Sunday that he knew for a fact that Pakistani terrorist Mast Gul, who spearheaded the siege of the Chrar-e-Sharief shrine in Kashmir in 1995, was 'escorted to the Line of Control' after he had 'vacated the dargah.'

The revelation came after The Indian Express journalists asked Singh, the Opposition candidate for the vice-presidency of India, if India was paying the price for the National Democratic Alliance government freeing three dreaded terrorists to release the passengers and crew of Indian Airlines flight IC-814 on December 31, 1999.

Singh personally escorted the three terrorists to Kandahar in Afghanistan where the hijackers had taken the Indian Airlines Airbus.

Mast Gul led a large group of terrorists into the Chrar-e-Sharief shrine which led to a stand-off with the Indian Army for nearly two months.

In the end, the shrine burnt down under mysterious circumstances. The debate on whether the army was involved in the arson or whether the terrorists burnt the shrine down continues 17 years later.

The army maintains that the terrorists burnt down the shrine; the terrorists claim the army started the fire to flush them out. Twenty terrorists died in the incident.

Although Jaswant Singh does not elaborate who led Gul to the Line of Control and why this was done, individuals who were part of that operation insist no deal was struck to escort Gul out of the country.

A former army officer involved in the operation says Gul escaped during the battle and crossed the border without the Indian establishment's help.

"If someone helped him cross over, then it had to be the local police," the retired army officer says, speaking on condition that he would not be identified by name for this report.

"Militants always cross the border with ease," he adds. "We have seen for ourselves how militants enjoyed the support of the local police."

"It did surprise us how Gul escaped. Unless there was some local help in Kashmir, he could not have escaped so easily," he points out. "During the interrogation, it took us some time to identify him as most of the persons (the terrorists) were in disguise and looked like the locals."

"Jaswant Singh's statement does not point at a deal that the Indian establishment may have struck, hence it was a case of Gul using his local contacts to cross over," adds the army officer.

C D Sahay, former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing, India's external intelligence agency, who was posted in Kashmir during the Chrar-e-Sharief stand-off, points out that Kashmir was under President's rule at that time. The state administration was under the governor's control.

"Gul had taken siege of the dargah while the army had positioned itself around the shrine," Sahay recalls. "The army could not go close as the militants were threatening to burn the place down."

"Gul's escape has always been a mystery," he adds, "and the belief is that he got into one of the water tankers and gave the security forces the slip."

"It did surprise us how Gul escaped and if anyone would know how, it would be the local police," says Sahay. "I have no recollection of any deal struck with Gul at that time."

Sources in the Intelligence Bureau point out that there was no sense in striking a deal with Gul. His siege had lasted nearly two months and the revered shrine was burnt down completely.

What occurred at Chrar-e-Sharief, Sahay says, was not like the siege at Hazratbal in October 1993 where negotiations saved that shrine.

"In the case of Mast Gul, there was never any deal," Sahay insists. "The core group I was part of at that time was not aware of any deal being struck with Gul."

The former army officer points out that there was no benefit in striking a deal with Gul. "It was a time when the Hizbul Mujahideen was at its peak and we had no reason to believe that its activities would come down if a deal was struck," he says.

There is another aspect to the incident. India was desperate to hold elections in Jammu and Kashmir. Having Mast Gul around in Kashmir at that time would have derailed the process as he had become a powerful figure in the azaadi campaign in the valley.

Indian agencies were also aware that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate no longer saw any utility in Gul staying on in Kashmir. It was around this time that the ISI decided to stop investing in the Hizbul Mujahideen since its had too many locals, who it felt were being won over by Indian intelligence and security agencies.

The ISI instead nurtured the Lashkar-e-Tayiba -- a full-fledged Pakistani group -- for its proxy battle in Kashmir.

Sahay feels Jaswant Singh would need to explain his claim. The former R&AW chief insists that none of the government agencies involved in the incident were aware of any such deal to escort Gul to the border.

"By entering into negotiations with Gul we were not going to achieve peace in the valley," adds Sahay. "More importantly, Gul burnt down the shrine and there was nothing we could salvage in that particular operation."

Also see: Nightmare on Flight 814

Vicky Nanjappa in Bengaluru