Broadening the base

Print edition : June 05, 1999

Pakistan's intrusion into Kargil has taken place in a Muslim-dominated area which maintained a studious distance from terrorism and right-wing secessionist mobilisations.

THERE is a curious quality of stillness to the Kashmir Valley's political landscape, as if the thunder of war from the mountains to its west did not exist at all. On the third day of India's air strikes in Kargil, Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah spent sev eral hours ensconced in a meeting at the picturesque town of Gulmarg to discuss, improbably, the prospects of the State's tourism policy. And Srinagar's gossip circuit seems more engaged with the strange tale of just why a State Government helicopter tha t crashed recently was not insured than with the fire directed at Indian combat jets.

However, the brutal fighting in Kargil will almost certainly shape the terms of political discourse within Jammu and Kashmir in the near future. Coming just months before the Lok Sabha elections, Pakistan's Kargil campaign will have a profound impact not only on short-term election processes but on the State's broader political terrain.

Perhaps the most important fact about Pakistan's intrusion into Kargil is that it has taken place in a Muslim-dominated area which maintained a studious distance from both terrorism and right-wing secessionist mobilisations elsewhere in the State. The Zo ji-La pass, which separates Kargil from the Kashmir Valley, marked not only a geographic division, but a discontinuity in cultural and political space. At no point in the last 10 years did Kargil's largely Shia or Drass' predominantly Sunni community sup port Kashmir Valley-based secessionist groups. There was no terrorist activity west of the Zoji-La pass, and although Kargil has its share of Shia chauvinist groups their mobilisations centred principally around local issues.

Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah.

Should Pakistan now be able to sustain armed violence through the Kargil area over the coming months and years, much of that is likely to change. It, along with pro-Pakistan groups in the rest of Jammu and Kashmir, will be able to claim that anti-India i nsurgency has spread to all Muslim-dominated areas of the State. That, in turn, could lay the foundations for a new discourse on Jammu and Kashmir, built along its communal fault lines. The first phase of armed anti-India struggle in Jammu and Kashmir wa s routinely dismissed by strategists as a problem of four valley districts. Few anticipated its rise in the Muslim-dominated areas north of the Chenab in Rajouri and Poonch, or in Doda and Udhampur.

This broadening of the frontiers of anti-India insurgency comes at a time of curious political developments in the State. On April 13, the high-powered Regional Autonomy Commission (RAC) put out a report recommending the creation of eight new provinces, each with an elected provincial council. The stated reason for its recommendation was that "the prevailing classifications of provinces/divisions are hampering the processes of social/human development." In Kashmir, the RAC advocated the creation of thre e provinces, Kamraz province made up of the districts of Baramulla and Kupwara, Nundabad from Budgam and Srinagar and Maraz from Anantnag and Pulwama.

Other recommendations were less innocuous. The existing region of Ladakh, the RAC recommended, should be broken into two new provinces. These would consist of just one district each, those of predominantly Buddhist Leh and predominantly Muslim Kargil. Al ready sundered by the exclusion of Kargil from the Ladakh Autonomous Council which was set up in 1989, the transfiguration of the two districts into provinces would serve only to sharpen communal and ethnic boundaries. In the context of the recent develo pments in Kargil and their political implications, the creation of these new provinces would have obvious significance.

An Army convoy moves through Zoji-La pass, which separates Kargil from the Kashmir Valley. The fighting in Kargil is certain to shape the terms of political discourse within Jammu and Kashmir.

The most dramatic impact of the RAC recommendations would be on Jammu. The RAC report made no effort to hide its authors' motives. The district of Doda and the single Muslim-dominated tehsil of Mahore from the adjoining district of Udhampur would be made into a new Chenab Valley province. Largely Hindu Jammu, Kathua and Udhampur districts would become the Jammu province. Poonch and Rajouri districts, for their part, would form the Pir Panjal province. The existing province of Jammu would thus be turned into three provincial blocks divided along the fault lines of Hindu and Muslim communities in the region.

The RAC report, issued after its Chairman Balraj Puri was dismissed for his stubborn resistance to this communal enterprise, provoked little attention either inside or outside Jammu and Kashmir. It bore remarkable structural similarities to ideas put for ward by the United Nations mediator on Kashmir, Owen Dixon, in 1950. The Dixon Plan called for the international border to run broadly north of the Chenab river, cutting apart predominantly Muslim Doda, Rajouri and Poonch from Jammu, and joining them to the Kashmir Valley. Hindu-dominated Kathua and Jammu would have stayed with India. Shortly after Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's bus ride to the Wagah border, an influential United States-based think-tank, the Kashmir Studies Group, had put out a p aper calling in essence for a revival of the Dixon Plan.

Perhaps most important, according to the RAC report, subterranean political tendencies in the State appear overground. Since at least 1996, influential figures in the National Conference have been pushing hard to transform the character of Jammu, a commu nally diverse but culturally coherent region. Surankote MLA Mushtaq Ahmad Bukhari and Finance Minister Mohammad Shafi Uri, both members of the RAC, were among the key figures who called for such restructuring. Prominent Jammu business figure Ramesh Gupta , the brother of Udhampur's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member of Parliament Chaman Lal Gupta, had separately made clear his support for a sundering of Jammu from the Kashmir Valley, though for different reasons and on different terms. Jammu and Kashmir 's former princely ruler, Karan Singh, too had expressed support for such a division to senior political figures in the State.

CPI(M) State secretary and MLA Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami.

It takes little to see why Hindu chauvinists and communalists in the ruling National Conference (N.C.) arrived at essentially similar positions. But read in the context of this summer's events in Kargil, such political tendencies appear positively sinist er. While no Indian Government in the foreseeable future will be able to negotiate a territorial settlement on Jammu and Kashmir's future to Pakistan's advantage, the battle in Kargil will clearly create an impact on existing communal tendencies both ins ide and outside the State Government. In the absence of a strong, ideologically committed secular formation in Jammu and Kashmir, moves to carve up the State's people on communal lines will sadly face little real resistance.

Politicians of the All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC) are also certain to benefit from the events in Kargil. Pakistan's willingness to engage Indian troops and hold territory, as well as its success in bringing down two combat aircraft and a helicopter , have given right-wing Islamist organisations within the APHC more than a little reason for cheer. The APHC and its constituency had been profoundly concerned that support for secessionist activity in Jammu and Kashmir would be downscaled in the wake of the Lahore dialogue between Vajpayee and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Now, the direct involvement of the Pakistan Army in the Kargil intrusions has sent a larger signal of support to anti-India organisations in the Kashmir Valley.

A special session of the APHC's executive committee, held in Srinagar on May 27, attacked India's defensive operations in Kargil, claiming that its "unwarranted use of air and ground power has amplified the prospects that peace in this entire region will be put in peril," Interestingly, it suggested that insurgents of Kashmiri origin, rather than Pakistan irregulars and troops, were holding ground in Kargil. "Now that the air force too has been called in to supplement ground troops in order to crush Kas hmiri militants," the APHC statement read, "the Kashmir issue has assumed an ominous dimension in the context of peace and security of the South Asian region." The executive committee condemned the Indian Air Force's bombardment of uninhabited heights in the Kargil area but was predictably silent on Pakistan's shelling of Indian towns and villages.

Combat in Kargil appears to have helped cement the fissures within the APHC over its future political course, at least in the short term. On April 18, pro-Pakistan leader Abdul Gani had called for dialogue with mainstream political organisations, which w ould lead to a joint resolution on the future of Jammu and Kashmir. The basic thrust of this dialogue, Gani said, would be "the lasting resolution to the dispute in accordance with the aims and aspirations of the people." All sections of Kashmir's societ y, he argued, had to be involved in "initiating a genuine political activity." "If (former Chief Minister) Ghulam Mohammad Shah, Congress leaders Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and Mehbooba Sayeed, and for that matter even the Communist Party of India (Marxist)'s Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami and the N.C. are interested in the resolution of the dispute, we should rise to the occasion and address the issue," he said.

After the Army sealed the Srinagar airport, tourists stranded in the town look for alternative means of transport.

The APHC's recently re-elected chairman and Jamaat-e-Islami leader Sayyid Ali Shah Geelani had also shown signs of being under pressure from other APHC constituents in April. Shortly after Chief Minister Abdullah called for the APHC to participate in ele ctoral politics and prove its mass credentials, Geelani offered to do so "if seven lakh Indian soldiers are withdrawn from Kashmir." This was a marked departure from the APHC's historic stand that elections would only be relevant under United Nations sup ervision, and as part of a broader resolution of Jammu and Kashmir's future. At a May 5 rally, Geelani rapidly shifted back to his earlier stand, calling for a poll boycott. Although other APHC constituents went along with the call, there was more than a little muttering in the wings. The Kargil developments will help Geelani secure his flanks.

Mainstream political figures appear to have had nothing at all to say about the fighting in Kargil. Abdullah has, true to form, attacked Pakistan's aggression, but other N.C. figures have maintained a studied silence on recent events. No major political figure bar the Chief Minister has even sought to visit the combat zone, and there has been no effort to bring about a coherent political debate on what meaning this summer's events will have for the State. "The only phone calls I get from politicians," s ays one senior police official wryly, "are to ask just when the airport might reopen so they could fly out. They are all concerned the war might escalate, but only because they think their houses in Srinagar might just get bombed."

"Let's face it," says Tarigami, "no one here or anywhere else in India has taken events in Jammu and Kashmir with anything like the seriousness they deserve over the last two years: not politicians, not bureaucrats, not the Army, nor the press. There is a need for a larger dialogue on just where the State is headed, and what needs to be done. At the moment, no one is talking about it at all." When the fighting is over in Kargil, political issues will have to be engaged with, issues which cannot be resol ved in Army Operations Rooms or the corridors of the Ministry of Defence. If the impact that the Kargil war will have on politics in Jammu and Kashmir remains unaddressed, the price for this summer's events will have to be paid long after the last Paki stani post on the mountain heights is obliterated.

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