Mujaddidi pioneered India’s Mujahideen ties

The Afghan Mujahideen leader and former president Professor Sibghatullah Mujaddidi died in Kabul on Monday at the age of 93. It marks the departure of one of the most moderate figures in the ‘Islamist’ camp. Mujaddidi was a Naqshbandi Sufi and more an Islamic scholar than an insurgent leader. 

Probably, the soft-spoken Mujahid with a meditative look and sad eyes never even held a Kalashnikov in his palms. But his spiritual halo was such that Pakistan found it expedient to allot to him the pride of place among the famous ‘Peshawar Seven’, the Peshawar-based Mujahideen groups who fought the Soviet Red Army in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Hamid Karzai was his protege. 

(Prof. Sibghatullah Mujaddidi at an Afghan refugee camp in Peshawar, circa 1986-87)

When the time came for Kabul to have a successor government to the communist regime under the Mujahideen banner in 1992, Mujaddidi was the natural choice as its leader. The then Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif took the squabbling Mujahideen leaders to Jeddah on a pilgrimage in a special aircraft to offer prayers and thereafter escorted them to Kabul to instal Mujaddidi as the head of the new government in April. As Sharif alighted from the plane, he was hailed as ‘Fateh Kabul’. 

As part of his complicated compromise formula, Mujaddidi (a blue-blooded Pashtun from Kandahar) was to be the first president for two months and thereafter make way for Burhanuddin Rabbani, the leader of Jamiat group, who would take over for a similar brief spell in the rotating presidency. 

Pakistan evidently hoped to play a game of musical chairs. Mojaddidi played by the unwritten rule, but the wily Tajik leader Rabbani refused to vacate office as earlier agreed and with the full confidence of the armed might of Ahmed Shah Massoud backing him, held on to the titular post for another four years until 1996 when the Taliban entered Kabul and evicted him.

But in those turbulent times, Mojaddidi made a profound contribution to Afghan-Indian relations when he sent word to our Mission in Islamabad through an emissary that he wished to visit India on a pilgrimage to pay homage to his ancestors who were buried in Sirhind, Punjab. (Mujaddidi traced his ancestry to Mujahid Ahmed Sirhindi, the prominent 16th century Islamic scholar.)  

(Remains of Sirhind) 

It involved a major policy decision in Delhi since that was the first time that an Afghan Mujahideen leader had overtly reached out to India and wanted to visit our country. At any rate, we not only granted visa to Mujaddidi but also extended  state hospitality to him and his entourage. It turned out to be quite a logistical nightmare to put together a 260-kilometre journey from Delhi on the highway to Lahore for a long convoy of vehicles taking a group of Mujahideen fighters under armed Indian escort, accompanied by an MEA official. 

Yet, that episode about a tall Mujahideen leader coming to claim his Indian ancestry in Sirhind, a remote town on the plains of Punjab, still holds some home truths about Afghans. The Pakistani security establishment who mentored the Mujahideen groups had scrupulously sequestered their leaders from contamination by the Islamabad-based Indian diplomats all through the 1980s. But no sooner than they left the Pakistani playpen in Peshawar and returned to their homeland in 1992 as free birds, they began wondering how to mend their broken ties with India.

Mujaddidi’s thought processes might have been influenced by Rabbani who directed his embassy in Islamabad circa late August in 1992 to put in a seemingly innocuous request to our Mission seeking permission for his presidential aircraft to land in Delhi for fuelling en route to Jakarta where the 10th summit meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement was taking place (September 1-6, 1992). 

We not only offered free fuel but opened the VIP Lounge for Rabbani and his delegation to rest and relax and have a meal with us. It was quite a piquant situation when the honoured guests chose to say ‘namaz’ before heading for the lavish banquet table. I am sure that the VIP Lounge in Delhi airport would never have witnessed such a sight again — a planeload of shabbily dressed Mujahideen leaders spreading their rugs on the carpeted floor and praying. 

And, yet, those were Afghans who until recently had been saying such atrocious things about Kashmir, raising the call of ‘jihad’. Of course, we had a great conversation in private with Rabbani, which in later years blossomed into a full-bodied working relationship and the reopening of the Indian embassy in Kabul. As he was departing for Jakarta, with the characteristic cheekiness of a Tajik from the Pamir, Rabbani put in a very modest request: whether on his return journey from Jakarta too he could have a stopover in Delhi to spend some more time with the Indian friends. 

The present times bear an uncanny resemblance when, once again, a transition is due in Kabul. Let us step back from promoting anyone as our proxy in Kabul, leave alone pretend to be ‘Fateh Kabul’. All in good time, as the Taliban are slouching toward Kabul. 

Read a fine obituary on Mujaddidi recapturing the man and his tumultuous times — From Sufi Sheikh to President: Historic mujahedin leader Mujaddedi passes away by Thomas Ritting at the Afghan Analysts Network.