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As journalists dug up the Sheikh's past, the Pakistan People's Party spokesperson Farhatullah Babar confirmed Yasin's statement: Freedom House was a militant training camp. Subsequently, the PPP issued a statement saying, "In 1989, the PPP government had learnt that the ISI, without the government's clearance, had given to then Opposition member Sheikh Rashid hundreds of acres of land in the suburban areas of Rawalpindi. The PPP government had also learnt that this land was given to him to support the Kashmiri groups." He said the PPP government was, however, sceptical about the claim and did not buy this argument. "But, as the military was under the President, there was little the government of the day could do about it constitutionally".
Since only 20 acres of land was used to train militants, Babar has alleged that hundreds of acres of land were given to the Sheikh for some "collateral purposes". Claiming that the "training camp story was anything more than a decoy to divert state funds to favoured political leaders to overthrow democracy", the PPP has now demanded an inquiry into the Sheikh's role in training militants.
Confirmation has come from other quarters as well. Hamid Mir, of the Geo Television Network, says he talked to the interior minister of the Benazir government (1988-1990), Aitizaz Ahsan, on June 15, two days after Yasin tossed the bombshell at the Marriott Hotel. Mir quotes Ahsan as saying that Yasin was "100 per cent correct" in claiming that Freedom House used to be a training facility.
Sources say the ISI decided to shut Freedom House as the establishment chose to back armed Islamic groups, instead of secular groups like the JKLF. This was when the ISI put its formidable weight behind the Hizbul Mujahideen, the Jamaat-e-Islami's armed wing. Sheikh Rashid did not have good relations with the Jamaat, and Freedom House fell out of favour.
Those close to the Sheikh, however, say he has drastically altered his mindset since the Zia days. "There is a hell of a difference between the Sheikh of the early 1980s and the Sheikh of 2005," says a close friend. He says that as a Kashmiri from the Valley, Sheikh Rashid was an ardent supporter of the JKLF which had received an impetus under the military regime of Gen Zia-ul Haq.
The controversy couldn't have been more inopportune: he was planning to travel to India's Kashmir on the Muzaffarabad-Srinagar bus on June 30. There's much speculation here on whether or not the Sheikh will make the journey to Srinagar, from where his family had migrated decades back. Should he decide to not alter his travel plans, the other crucial question is: will the Indian government grant him permit to visit his 'homeland'?
Mir, however, feels the Indian government should allow the Sheikh to visit Kashmir. "No doubt the Sheikh believed in liberating Kashmir through an armed struggle. But, today, he believes in resolving the ever-lingering Kashmir dispute through bilateral dialogue."
Many here believe the Sheikh has a penchant to change his ideology and political affiliations. Earlier known as Farzand-e-Rawalpindi, or son of Rawalpindi, the Sheikh had served as information minister in the Nawaz Sharif government. He was elected to the National Assembly on the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) ticket in the 2003 election. Subsequently, though, he shifted his allegiance to the ruling PML(Q), and earned the sobriquet of Lota of Rawalpindi. A vessel used for ablution, lota is a derogatory term used for political chameleons.