A decade ago, Mushtaq Ahmad Zargar was known as the "terror of Srinagar," a young rebel commander whose men roared through this Kashmiri city on motorcycles, firing Kalashnikov rifles at police posts and racing off again. He was so audacious and violent that local security forces were said to avoid venturing onto his turf.
But Zargar was arrested in 1991 and spent most of the past decade in an Indian prison, fighting charges of murder and other crimes. Over time, his reputation and relevance faded as the Kashmiri separatist movement was gradually quashed by Indian counterinsurgency campaigns.
Then, two weeks ago, Zargar's name surfaced in connection with the hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight 814. The unidentified hijackers, who held 155 hostages on board for six days at an airport in Afghanistan, finally agreed to release them in exchange for Zargar and two other prisoners held by India.
Suddenly, a notorious figure most Kashmiris had long forgotten--and security forces thought they had put behind bars--was not only back in the headlines, but free again. As part of their deal with Indian authorities, the hijackers and the three prisoners were allowed to go free on New Year's Eve, and they vanished immediately.
One of the prisoners, Maulana Masood Azhar, a radical Islamic cleric who led a Kashmiri insurgent group, has resurfaced in his native Pakistan. But no one seems to know the whereabouts of Zargar, now in his thirties. His relatives say they have not heard from him, and they are nervous and apprehensive about his fate. The third prisoner, Omar Sheikh, a British citizen of Pakistani origin who was charged with kidnapping foreign tourists in Kashmir in 1996, is also at large.
"We were very happy when he was in jail," said Fayyaz Ahmad, Zargar's older brother, who runs a small photo shop here. "His mother and I could go visit him regularly, and we knew he was safe. Now we have no idea where or how he is. I don't know anything about the hijacking, and I don't know if my brother is happy to be out, but I can tell you it is not good for us."
As a teenager from a family of coppersmiths, Zargar helped start the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, an armed opposition group formed in the late 1980s to try to end Indian rule in Kashmir, a Himalayan border region claimed by both India and Pakistan. In 1990, he broke off and formed a rebel faction called Umar ul-Mujaheddin, quickly becoming feared and revered as a daring outlaw leader.
For many Kashmiris, Zargar's high-profile release has brought immediate and uneasy relevance to the hijacking, since the gunmen involved claimed to be seeking attention for the decade-long crusade for Kashmiri independence.
The three major insurgent groups now active in Kashmir, all of which operate from Pakistan, denounced the crime and denied any connection with the hijackers. But the hijackers' demand for Zargar's freedom, and his subsequent release by India, has added a troubling local connection to what otherwise seemed a distant, mysterious incident.
"This has publicized the Kashmir struggle, but it is publicity in the negative sense," said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the top Muslim cleric in Srinagar and acting chairman of its main opposition party, the All Parties Hurriyet Conference. "Mushtaq was once an important commander, but I don't see how the release of a couple of people can strengthen the morale or credibility of the movement. There is something fishy about the whole thing."
For Indian security forces here, the freeing of the three prisoners has come at an especially difficult moment.
In the past six months, several Pakistani-based Islamic insurgent groups have launched an aggressive campaign of bombings and assaults on Indian military installations, killing several hundred police officers, soldiers and border patrol members.
Some Kashmiri analysts say the hijacking and foreign Islamic militancy could further hurt a once local independence movement. Officials say few local Kashmiris have joined the revived insurgency, but there are increasing reports of Kashmiri youths becoming involved, and Zargar's potential return to action could add a volatile local element to the conflict.
In interviews this week, Kashmiris here recalled Zargar as both a "dangerous man" and a "heroic commander." Most said they did not approve of the hijacking, but several said they hope it will bring new international attention to their cause--especially since one of the freed prisoners was a former local insurgent leader.
"The hijacking was a bad thing, but then you must look at the thousands of Kashmiris who have been martyred by the Indian forces over the years," said a man named Rashid, who operates a long-distance telephone counter. "Because of the hijacking, the Kashmiri issue has been highlighted. We need our freedom, and anything that adds pressure helps us."