February 14, 2001


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The Rediff Interview/JKDLF Chief Hashim Qureshi The Rediff Interview/Jammu and Kashmir Democratic Liberation Front Chief Hashim Qureshi
'I came here to tell people that this is not the way to ask for freedom'

The boy who commanded India's first hijacking is a greying man today.

After 30 years in exile, more than nine of which were spent in Pakistani jails, Hashim Qureshi has returned -- to, in his words, "correct the wrong path of the Kashmir struggle."

Currently in judicial custody charged with hijacking, he says he is "a changed man." A "peace preacher," he calls himself, who sees civil disobedience as the way out.

Qureshi, chief of the Jammu and Kashmir Democratic Liberation Front, denies reports that Indian intelligence agencies masterminded his return.

For this exclusive two-part interview to Assistant Editor Chindu Sreedharan, Qureshi speaks in English, a language he is not comfortable with, hitting out at Pakistan-sponsored militancy and India's security excesses.

He also touches upon torture in Pakistan, his mentor Maqbool Bhat, his differences with Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front leader Amanullah Khan, his hopes for peace…

After a long exile, you have returned to Kashmir.

Yes. It is nice. I feel I am in the womb of my mother. I have wanted this for the last 30 years. Yeah, I feel nice and calm. My health is very nice here... because I feel I am in my motherland.

Could you recap for us what happened after you arrived in Delhi?

They arrested me. They treated me very badly. They didn't even give me kameez-shalwar [to change into]. I was in a three-piece suit and I had to sleep in that.

They put me in a cell in Tihar jail that had five people. I was sleeping on the outside, it was raining and the water was coming in and I was trying to escape it.

I am now recognised as a peace preacher. I am advocating for peace. But they treated me like a criminal. They didn't even give me my medicine. (Qureshi has a cardiac condition.) So I was sick and my heart rate was only 39. They had to shift me to Deen Dayal hospital.

Then I came here [to Srinagar]. Here the people know me and I am treated well.

Were you interrogated in Delhi?

Yes, they just asked me and I told them everything. There is nothing to hide. I have already written books about it. They needn't even have interrogated me because everything is there in my books. It was okay, it wasn't third-degree interrogation.

Did you expect the treatment you received from the central authorities? Or did you feel let down?

I never think they would treat me like a criminal. It was inhuman. I was crying that I was a heart patient, give me my medicine... they didn't even hand over my medicine! I became sick because I didn't take medicine for four days.

For 30 years India tried to catch me. And they never catch me. They protest with Britain, they protest in Holland, but they never catch me. I came here myself. It was my wish [to return]. I knew they cannot punish me twice for the same crime. I have already been punished in Pakistan. I came here to tell the people that this [by the gun] is not the way to ask for freedom now.

You were just 17 years and three months when you hijacked the Ganga in 1971. What were the circumstances that led you to take that step?

The Indian politicians and establishment, they did not treat Kashmiris as equals. They always treated us like slaves. It was Sheikh Abdullah who changed history. The state was Muslim-dominated and all the Muslims were crying 'We want [to join] Pakistan.' Jinnah wanted that too. But Sheikh Abdullah stood up and said, No, where is your secularism?

Sheikh Abdullah was then arrested. We became convinced that we are not Indians, we are Kashmiris. There were always demonstrations and stone-throwing. I used to participate in that. We were reading and listening to political developments, and becoming convinced that we were not part of India. There were a lot of Kashmiris wanting Pakistan. I also wanted it that time.

Then Maqbool Bhat met me in 1969 in Peshawar. I joined his Jammu and Kashmir National Liberation Front. I came back here and started making underground cells. I went back again.

One day in 1970 we were all sitting at the dining table. There was a news flash about Eriterian commandos firing on an Ethiopian plane in Karachi. And Maqbool Bhat thinks, 'Oh, why don't we do something like that so that we can introduce our independence struggle to the world?'

He asked me if I would do a hijacking and I said I was ready. And then an ex-pilot, he taught me how to read the compass, maps etc so that the pilots cannot fool me.

And arms training?

Yeah. They gave me arms training with pistols, grenades, stengun, how to make bombs... for about four months.

Ashraf [the second hijacker] was also trained there?

No, I was alone. He was my cousin. I gave him training here [in Srinagar]. When I came back, I was with gun and grenade. I was arrested by the BSF on the Jammu border.

Maqbool Bhat had told me if they arrest you, tell them why you are here. Just tell them that you have come for hijacking. Also tell them that there are two others, who have also been trained.

Why was that?

'In 1985, the ISI came to me. They wanted me to join hands with them.'
I asked Maqbool Bhat the same question. He said, 'If they charge you for hijacking our goal will be achieved. We will get publicity. If they don't hold you, they can kill you. But if you tell them there are two others, then they won't kill you. They will try to get you to identify those others.'

It happened precisely that way. I was arrested, I told them the story. They said, you can work with us, just point out those two at the airport. I agreed. They released me. They gave me a fake appointment letter that said I was a sub-inspector in BSF battalion 102, based in Bangalore.

It was a chess game. I used to visit the airport every day. I was living at my home. For three months I checked out how the hijacking can be done. Then there were no searches at airports as we have today. You just walked to the aircraft and boarded it.

I bought a ticket for Ashraf Qureshi and he bought one for me, under the name of Mohammed Hussain. I knew that if they saw my name on the passenger list they wouldn't let me go.

That day I arrived at the airport, Ashraf was already there. There was a Kashmiri policeman, a havildar, who asked me, 'Where are you going.' I told him there was a meeting and showed for proof a poster that we had written ourselves to distribute everywhere, asking people to rise in armed struggle.

I told him, 'There is a meeting in Jammu on this subject.' The policeman say, 'I want coffee,' and I order him a cup. As he starts on it, I go inside! [Chuckles.]

And then?

Ashraf had a briefcase, with a dummy grenade, which we had made ourselves, and a .22 pistol. There was an army major on the plane, he never recognise it was a dummy.

On the plane Ashraf and I sit together. When the air hostess announced that we are reaching Jammu, I got up and went straight to the cockpit. I put the gun on the pilot's neck. I told him to go straight. We were on the Wazirabad border. He was very worried. I told him, I will not harm you or the passengers.

There was an [army] captain. He asked Ashraf, what kind of grenade is this? Ashraf made as if to throw and told him, I will throw it and you can see. He put up his hands and said sorry.

We reached Lahore. After half-an-hour we freed the passengers. I left the airplane and entered the lounge in Lahore. The passengers were there and I told them, 'I am so sorry. I didn't want to harm you. What I had to do was unfortunate. Please forgive me. I am not your enemy. I am fighting for my freedom.'

There were ISI, Pakistani army. From January 30 to February 2, that means 80 hours, we were inside the airplane. Every officer was there. If we were Indian agents, we wouldn't have delayed burning the airplane so much. We would have done it immediately.

They could have arrested us any time. I had gone into the lounge twice, and Ashraf was alone in the plane. They could have taken him anytime. The Pakistani police, the Pakistani intelligence told us to burn it.

And you and Ashraf burnt it?

Yeah. They gave us petrol. Mr Sardar Wakil was SSP there. There is a statement of K H Hurshid, it is on my web site, Hurshid was the private secretary of Mr Jinnah. He told in court that in his presence Mr Wakil asked us to burn the plane. They gave us petrol and we put it all inside the plane and we burnt it. I think the Pakistanis had put petrol on the outside of the plane too.

Who started the fire? You or Ashraf?

Together. We lit the matchbox together.

What are the impressions that are still with you about that flight?

The scared faces of the people. I think I did wrong. Even that day I told them sorry. In this 30 years, I have read a lot, experienced a lot. I now understand the bullshit of all this politics. After reading Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Mother Teresa and witnessing the happenings in Afghanistan, South Africa and Palestine, I have learnt one thing: don't harm innocent people. If I say sorry for anything today, I say that for scaring those innocent people. But we treated them very well and I asked their forgiveness within half-an-hour.

What happened after the plane was burnt?

They arrested us all. More than 200 people from the NLF and Plebiscite Front in PoK, including Maqbool Bhat were arrested. They took me to the notorious interrogation centre in Lahore Fort.

They tortured us, every kind of torture. They put me on ice, they beat me with rubber batons. They wouldn't let me sleep for 13 days. Whenever I nodded off they would probe me awake with electric current. They did it for more than one month and 15 days.

They wanted us to sign a statement in front of the magistrate that the hijacking was planned by the Indians. They were so foolish that they wrote that Mr Swaran Singh, then foreign minister, took me to Indira Gandhi, who told me 'Good luck boy, go to the service of your country'!

Just imagine! If India had planned it, it would have entrusted it to somebody senior, an inspector-level officer or a DySP. Not two boys. It was so stupid of them. I told them, don't write it, they won't accept it in the court! [Laughs] I was telling them that!

You signed that statement?

Yes, we signed it. Even Maqbool Bhat signed it. All of us were tortured. We were not allowed to meet each other, but we were all there and we could all listen to each other's cries.

And then?

You were interrogated in Delhi?

When they killed the Indian diplomat and Maqbool Bhat was hanged, I beat Amanullah Khan. I said, I told you, don't do, don't do these things.
Then they made a special court to try us. My colleagues including Bhat were there. One of the charges was that we were raising the slogan of independence for Kashmir on behalf of the Indian agencies. Another was of treason as we were saying that Gilgit, Baltistan is part of Kashmir. Then they charged me under Official Secrets Act. Then they charged me with burning the aircraft and wrong confinement of the people. All together they sentenced me to 19 years in jail.

As for the rest, they adjusted the time they had spent as undertrials and released them. Even my cousin was released. The charges were same against Ashraf and me, but they released him. It was an international case and they wanted a scapegoat to satisfy the whole world. They chose me.

What do you think was the reason for their choosing you and not Ashraf who was elder?

Because I was the commander of that operation. I was there for training, I was the first man to be trained.

Do you think you would have fared better if, as India wanted, you were tried here?

I don't think so because they are all same. The people are same, the police are same. Yeah, I agree the justice system is better in India. I won't say it is better in Kashmir. I had applied to the chief magistrate to meet my aunt, she was dying of cancer. She hadn't seen me for 30 years. But they kept delaying it and she is dead now.

The justice system is better in India but I don't think I would have fared better because it was a political case. Look what happened to Maqbool Bhat. It was a total abortion of the Indian justice system.

Can you tell us about your time in Pakistan jails?

I was always fighting with them. If they were torturing someone, I would ask them why they were torturing. Then they would torture me. They put me in solitary cells... torture, always torture.

Once I remember I was sick and there was blood coming in the toilet. I asked for medical treatment but for three days nobody came. And then a dispenser came. I slapped him. Why you didn't come for three days? And then, in that sickness they tortured me. Too much. They put me in solitary confinement for one-and-half months.

I fought, yeah… I fought. But then, you can see, they beat me too much. They beat me with sticks and threw cold water on me. Those were nights, very cold nights. And I was crying always with the pain. Yeah...

Then they wouldn't take my appeal to the Supreme Court for seven long years. And even then, I wasn't given a fair ruling. If Pakistan had not made that conspiracy against us at that time, in 1971, by now Kashmir would have been a free nation.

Why do you say that?

Because every Kashmiri would have woken up. They would have realised that this is the way. That time, armed struggle was the answer of the era. And we would have succeeded.

Pakistan conspired against us because we asked for independent Kashmir, not accession to Pakistan. You can see today, 80,000 people are in their graves, but Pakistan, he has not recognised independent Kashmir as the solution. Because if he accepts that, he must also leave Gilgit, Baltistan and PoK. And he doesn't want to do that.

When were you released?

After nine years and one month. They released me in 1980. When I came out, Maqbool Bhat was in jail. Then I started my business and went to Holland.

How did that come about?

I am also the co-founder of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front. In 77, Amanullah Khan, Abdul Ansari, Jabbar Patel they made JKLF. Everybody says that Maqbool Bhat is the founder of JKLF, but that is wrong. Maqbool Bhat founded JKNLF. Ashraf Qureshi and I are the only students of Maqbool Bhat now. We were with him two-and-a-half years in prison. He taught us, he trained us.

Many say they are followers of Maqbool Bhat, but they are sitting in the womb of ISI. Their people get paid every month. If you see in JKLF, in both Yaseen group and the other, their people are getting pay in Pakistan. I know names.

Maqbool Bhat was a real freedom fighter, for the whole, five units of Kashmir -- that is, Gilgit-Baltistan, Jammu, Ladakh, Valley and Poonch.

You were about to tell us how you decided to leave Pakistan.

Yeah, I was also the co-founder of JKLF. Because JKNFL was the armed wing of the Plebiscite Front, and PF was banned. So we formed JKLF in Pakistan. It was already existing in London.

In 1984 January, I traveled to London on a Pakistani passport. I was there when Amanullah kidnapped the Indian diplomat. When I came to know about it, I fought with him. I was there to organise another hijack to free Maqbool Bhat. If there was no Maqbool Bhat, I wouldn't have planned that wrong.

But what Amanullah did, he got hold of that poor innocent man, Mr [Ravindra] Mhatre. When they killed him and Maqbool Bhat was hanged, I slapped Amanullah. I beat Amanullah. I said, what you did? I told you, don't do, don't do these things.

That was the start of my differences with Amanullah. I was arrested but the high court released me as I was not involved.

I returned to Pakistan. In 1985, the ISI came to me. They wanted me to join hands with them. They wanted to get people from here [Kashmir], young people, for training. They offered me money, land, other things. I discussed it with them for four months, and then I said no. I told them, you are also occupier. You have occupied Gilgit- Baltistan and PoK, where there is no democracy.

And they started hunting me. They wanted to kill me. They asked me to withdraw my identity card, passport. They said I was not a Pakistani. They gave me a letter saying, your children are Indian, you are Indian. They wanted to arrest me. Because there were other people like Amanullah who wanted me to be send to prison or killed because they wanted to join hands with ISI. My friends all advised me to flee Pakistan.

And you managed to escape with your family.

No, I escaped alone. I got a fake Pakistani passport and managed to get a visa through a link in the embassy. At the immigration, I gave Rs 10,000 and he just stamped my passport. That was how I left Pakistan.

My wife, who was then pregnant, and our two children, I had to leave them there. They joined me after four months with help from the Amnesty International etc. One of my links in Pakistan, he just got them through the immigration and put them on the plane.

Can you share with us some details about your family?

I got married in Pakistan after I was released. She is the daughter of my maternal uncle, settled in Pakistan.

We have four children. My elder son is 18, my daughters Sana and Laila, they are 15 and 13 and my youngest son will be eight years on February 16.

About your life in Holland...

I applied for political asylum. But they said, no, we can't give you political asylum. Their intelligence told me that they had a one-and-a-half billion dollar contract with India to clean River Ganga! [Laughs]

But they let me stay there and gave me a passport within four years. My whole family has Dutch passports. Yeah... my life story, I have one friend who says he can make a film out of it! [Laughs again.]

Photograph: Chindu Sreedharan, Design: Dominic Xavier

Part -- II: 'We are on the edge of destruction. Don't kill anymore of us'


'I hope every Kashmiri will support me in my efforts to bring peace to Kashmir'
Qureshi handed over to Kashmir police
J&K police gets transit remand for Hashim Qureshi
The Kashmir ceasefire: The complete coverage

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