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In a sleepy Lahore village, Lashkar trains Kashmir's Mujahideen

In a sleepy Lahore village, Lashkar trains Kashmir's Mujahideen

Kamal Siddiqi
The Indian Express
April 27, 2000
Title: In a sleepy Lahore village, Lashkar trains Kashmir's Mujahideen
Author: Kamal Siddiqi
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: April 27 2000

MURIDKE (LAHORE), APRIL 26: ``It costs millions to make a tank but only a few rupees to defend against it,'' says the advertisement for the Mujahideen Lashkar-e-Toiba, which gave advertisements in Pakistan's leading newspapers earlier this year espousing Muslims to pay for the Mujahideen fighting in Kashmir and Chechnya. The advertisement concludes by commenting ``Remember! If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.'' The Lashkar-e-Toiba (Holy Regiment) is one of the most active groups working inside Kashmir. But its roots lie several hundred miles away, in a sleepy town 30 kilometres outside Lahore, Pakistan's second largest city. Here in Muridke stands the Markaz-e-toiba (Holy Centre), which is run by the Markaz Al-Dawah Wal Irshad (Centre For Religious Learning And Propagation), the umbrella organization of the Lashkar-e-Toiba. While a visit to the Lashkar-e-Toiba camps in Kashmir are out of the question, the next best thing to do is visit the complex in Muridke which is spread over 200 acres and houses teaching and residential facilities complete with its own farms, mosques, fish breeding ponds and stables. Students here learn both Islamic and Western education, aside from physical training, swimming, horse-riding and other sports. Some of the students from here end up fighting in Kashmir, but officials of the seminary are reluctant to give details. Over 800 students are enrolled here. The teachers insist that all are Pakistanis. There is a great reluctance to meet a member of the press. Photography is strictly prohibited of ``all living things,'' and visitors are frisked to see whether they have on them items like cigarettes or any addictive substance, which is also banned on the complex. Gun-toting guards keep inquisitive visitors out. Professor Zafar Iqbal, 45, the Vice-Chancellor of the centre only agrees to meet because he wants to dispel some of the ``wrong impressions cast about the organization.'' Iqbal, who also teaches at Lahore's University of Engineering and Technology, is the man behind the complex, which he started building in 1986 ``to promote Islamic learning and understanding.'' The professor looks older than his age. ``That is because he has 22 years teaching experience,'' informs his assistant, who follows the professor wherever he goes with a gun in his hand. The professor, obviously, has many enemies. The Muridke complex is not just restricted to the Markaz-e-Toiba. Around this seminary, the organization has bought land for supporters, who have built houses, shops and even more mosques and centers of Islamic learning. ``We want likeminded people to get together,'' says one resident. Education offered is from primary to university-level for both men and women. Women move around fully clad in burqas, most males sport beards. The situation reminds one of Afghanistan, but Zafar Iqbal quickly says that he is notimpressed by them: ``The Taliban are a group of misguided elements. We have higher ideals.'' While Zafar Iqbal says that he personally has no direct link with the Lashkar-e-Toiba as he runs the Muridke operations, he informs that the Laskhar is the ``jihad department'' of the organization and that it is the ``most dynamic of the militant groups in Kashmir.'' Many of his students go for ``training'' to Muzaffarabad, where a camp has been set up for this purpose. When asked, Muhammad Ibrahim, a student at the seminary says, ``Yes. I will go to Kashmir. I believe in this cause.'' Asked to comment on the situation in Kashmir, the bearded Zafar Iqbal says, ``We are fighting Indian repression there.'' He says that there has been no let-up in the activities of the Lashkar-e-Toiba and that the aim is to attain independence for Kashmir or absorption into Pakistan. ``Only then will the problem of Indian atrocities in Kashmir end,'' he argues. But Iqbal is quick to point out ``We don't fight in India.'' This seems a contradiction to his earlier statement: But then he clarifies this: ``Kashmir is not India. It is an integral part of Pakistan.'' Iqbal says that the Lashkar was active in Kargil. ``But we were shamed by Nawaz Sharif who made us withdraw.'' Iqbal says that India is not ready for a political situation in Kashmir. ``All indicators are pointing to war and we are prepared for this sacrifice,'' he comments. Asked whether he understands the full implications of a nuclear conflict on the sub-continent, Iqbal says that his organization ``will be on the forefront.'' The complex itself is humming with activity. New hostels are coming up, there are even plans of a medical college and computer faculty. Iqbal says that private donations are pouring in ``like never before'' and this has helped them greatly. Most of the donations come from local businessmen and overseas based Pakistanis. ``We do not get a single rupee from the government,'' clarifies Iqbal, adding that the centre also raises money from its fish farming operations and the sale of animal skins donated by sympathisers on the occasion of Eid-ul Azha, celebrated earlierthis month. Iqbal complains that his organization is getting a bad press. ``It is India that is the terrorist. We are the liberators,'' he says. He also claims that the Indian Hindus in Kashmir are also supported by his organization because they suffer equally under the armed forces. ``Write about the fact that this centre is becoming an international centre of learning,'' he reminds his visitor and says that Pakistanis from all over the world are now joining its faculty so that the students can get the best of all the world. He is also planning a visit to Europe to ``study Western education systems.'' The fish farms also help support the complex as in the winter season, its harvest is sold in the bazaars of Lahore. The Muridke complex, by most respects, is largely self-sufficient and is connected to the world through a chain of 200 schools spread all over the country as well as two religious universities. While the staff here make no bones about the involvement of the Lashkar-e-Toiba in operations in Kashmir, they are unwilling to give too many details. However, they do say that the fighters from Afghanistan started to move to Kashmir from 1991 after the war there was over. As the Muridke complex moves from strength to strength, a debate has begun in Pakistan over the permission by the government to allow religious groups to run their own complex, with large funding from abroad. Javed Jabbar, the de-facto minister of information, says: ``Since no law has been broken, we cannot take any action.'' Jabbar argues that most religious groups in Pakistan have their centres of activity, and ``that does not mean that theyare the springing board for some unlawful activity.'' At this stage, the Pakistan Government turns a blind eye. Many Pakistaniswonder at what cost this is being done.

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