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December 29, 1999


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The Rediff Interview/ Justice Moti Lal Bhat

'India should not accept the demands of militants'

Former chief justice of the Allahabad high court, Justice Moti Lal Bhat, who played a crucial role in Rubaiya Sayeed's release, is clear about one thing: No matter what, India should not bow to ransom demands.

Justice Bhat believes that Delhi's history of giving in to militants has encouraged insurgency in Kashmir.

"Five militants were released by V P Singh to ensure Rubaiya Sayeed's safety. Chandra Shekhar released three militants to buy the freedom of Nahida, the daughter of Saifuddin Soz. Narasimha Rao freed nine for the release of Indian Oil manager S Doraiswamy," Justice Bhat points out in an exclusive interview with Onkar Singh.

How did you come into the picture in the Rubaiya episode?

On December 8, 1989 I had come down to Delhi to attend a wedding. I returned to the Jammu & Kashmir house in the night and went to sleep. It was in the morning when I switched on the television that I came to know about the kidnapping.

When I went to see Mufti Mohmmad Sayeed [Rubaiya's father and then Union home minister] at 10 Abkar Road around 9 am, I found he was a shattered man. He broke down time and again while narrating the story. Since we were neighbours in the valley, the girl, "Baby" as we used to call her, used to come to our house frequently. She was doing her internship under my daughter who is a doctor at the Lalded hospital. Mufti asked me to visit my house if I was returning to Srinagar.

I reached Srinagar in the afternoon on December 9. A friend of mine, Mir Mustfa, then member of Jammu and Kashmir assembly, picked me up. Mir suggested we visit Mufti's house on our way. We went there and saw that the members of the family were in a bad condition.

I am telling you all these details because I would like to clarify under what circumstances I took up the assignment. When I was preparing to rest, a Central Reserve Police Force constable told me that Moosa Raza, the chief secretary of Jammu and Kashmir government, was there to see me.

What did Raza say?

I asked him why he had come. He told me he was passing by, saw the lights in my house and thought he would drop in. I did not find his reason convincing. I asked him to come straight. He told me he had come to seek my help in arranging the safe return of Rubaiya Sayeed.

He told me the Government of India in principle had agreed to release five militants in exchange for the girl. He wanted me to talk to three men who could be of help in this matter. These men had not been responding. The militants whom the government was willing to release included Ahmed Sheikh, Noor Mohammad Khalwal, Altaf Ahmed and Sher Khan. The fifth was either Bashir Shah or Altaf Ahmed.

Altaf's brother was teaching in the university and he used to come to my house before he became a militant. Noor was the district president of the Liberation Front in the valley, Ahmed Sheikh was a guide and belonged to the Poonch sector. He used to act as a link man between militants on this side and their mentors on the other side of the border.

You have still not specified what did Moosa Raza wanted from you?

He wanted the exchange to be smooth and simultaneous. He wanted that the militants should not increase the demand. He named three persons who could help the government in this matter. But they were not willing to meet government officials. Since I knew all of them, he said I should persuade them to meet him.

These people were Dr Abdul Goru, a cardiologist, Mir Mustfa, and Mian Abdul Qayoom, president of the Srinagar Bar Association who used to take up the cases of militants. Goru was the think tank of the militants -- I learnt this much later.

He asked my assistance in meeting them. He named four places -- the Srinagar club, state guesthouse, my house, or his own. Since Mir had told me he was going to the golf club, I called him up there and asked him to come to my house. The other two also joined us later at my request.

The general impression is that you were sympathetic to the cause of militants and that is why the government sought your help. Also, that you were instrumental in getting Rubaiya released. Moosa Raza told a news conference in the middle of the night that a senior respected citizen had agreed to help in negotiations. Was he not telling the truth?

I do not know what he meant by negotiations. He may have given you a different impression and told me something different. Who am I to release the militants? I was no longer a judge in the state. I have been a much maligned man without any reason. The militants were to be released by the government and I was only lending a helping hand in the entire thing.

The three named earlier had been talking to the militants and negotiating the mode of release. First they said the government should release the militants and they would release Baby 24 hours later. Then they reduced the time to 12 hours, then to six hours and ultimately to three hours. Moosa Raza wanted it simultaneous. But the militants did not agree.

Let my clarify my position. I am a much maligned man, but at no stage did I sympathise with the militants. I only upheld the rights of the Kashmiri citizens much to the annoyance of the state government.

What was Dr Farooq Abdullah's stand on the matter?

He said he was not going to release any militant.

Then what made him change his mind?

Maybe the arrival of two ministers from Delhi -- I K Gujral and Arif Mohammad Khan -- persuaded him to change his mind.

When did you get to know of it? Isn't it true that the militants were released from your house in Srinagar and the girl was also brought there?

At one stage Moosa Raza had announced that the talks had broken down. Later I learnt the government had opened another channel for negotiating with the kidnappers. On December 12, Moosa Raza came to my house in the middle of the night and told me the militants had agreed to release Rubaiya Sayeed, but the kidnappers wanted the militants to be released from my house and I should receive the girl from their custody. He told me since everyone concerned trusted me I should accept the job.

I asked him how could they release the militants without a court bail order. He told me that everything had been done in the case of the four militants who were under detention. The fifth had not been booked, so no bail order was required for him.

When were the militants released and when did Rubaiya Sayeed arrive at your house?

The militants were brought to Srinagar and kept at the Intelligence Bureau guesthouse for the night on December 12. They were brought to my house around one in the afternoon. At 2.30 Dr Goru took them away in a white Maruti and later they disappeared. The state had agreed not to chase them and to remove the police from all key routes which they had specified they would take.

They had kept Rubaiya in a village near Sopore and there was some delay in bringing her to my house. As the clock ticked away and the minutes passed there was anxiety in the government circles. When she finally arrived at my house at 6.30 there was a sigh of relief. The same night she left for New Delhi along with Gujral and Arif.

Do you think militancy received a major boost because of the release of the militants?

The rigging of elections in the state gave a major boost to militancy. As far as the release of militants is concerned, let me tell you this was not the first or last time militants have been released in exchange for hostages. When Nahida Soz, daughter of Saifuddin Soz, was kidnapped Chandra Shekhar ordered the release of three militants to buy her freedom. Later Rao released nine militants to get Doriaswamy released.

Do you think it is a mistake to release militants for one man or one girl? Should the government release 35 militants in the Flight 814 hijacking case?

Of course, it was a mistake to release militants for the release of Rubaiya, Nahid or Doriaswamy. The Government of India should not accept the demands of the militants. This would give a major boost to militancy in the valley.

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