The hurdles ahead

Published : Jan 30, 2004 00:00 IST

For the first time in decades, there is hope about the prospect of durable peace in the Kashmir Valley. But evidence on the ground indicates that the Pakistani establishment is keeping its options open.

in Srinagar

"[India-Pakistan talks are] nothing but paperwork. We have seen dozens of such announcements and agreements in the past but unfortunately India never honoured a single one. It seems India wants to gain time, during which it would employ every possible resource to crush the freedom struggle in the occupied territory."

- Hizbul Mujahideen supreme commander Mohammad Yusuf Shah

We will continue our jehad in Kashmir and urge other groups to increase their activities to force India out of Kashmir.

- Jamait-ul-Mujahideen chief Sheikh Abdul Basit

SIGNS and omens have a central role in Jammu and Kashmir's mystic Sufi culture. As Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee met General Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad, the sun was shining down on the Valley at the peak of winter. Musharraf's commitment to down the shutters on the state-run jehad that he has nurtured for so many years, has opened up, for the first time in decades, the prospect of a negotiated peace in Jammu and Kashmir. However, very real dangers lie ahead, not the least of which is the shared aspiration of Pakistan's military and the Hindu Right for a communal partition of the State. Yet, the fact remains that the terms of engagement between the two countries have been profoundly altered. Pakistan now needs the kind of influence commanded by politicians, not Kalashnikovs. Faced with the prospect of having to secure its objectives in Jammu and Kashmir without a jehadi army, Pakistan's military establishment is seeking to engage with transfigured times.

In the next few days or weeks, All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) chairman Maulvi Abbas Ansari ought to receive a sparsely worded invitation to hold direct talks with Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani. Opinion is divided within the APHC on whether it should seek clarifications on the terms of reference of the proposed talks before visiting New Delhi. But few people doubt that a dialogue will begin sooner rather than later. No one, including the APHC, expects a rapid breakthrough, but the fact that talks are taking place at all will put considerable pressure on terrorist groups to hold their fire.

Unsurprisingly, the Hizbul Mujahideen leadership has brought considerable pressure to bear upon centrist politicians to scupper, or at least slow down, the dialogue process. South Kashmir religious leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Democratic Freedom Party leader Shabbir Shah have been among the targets of these efforts. But so far none of them has showed signs of being cowed down.

Anticipating what some in their ranks see as the inevitable, elements within the Hizbul Mujahideen have been attempting to make peace with the political system. Its central division commander Abdul Rashid Pir is believed to have held at least one round of talks with People's Democratic Party (PDP) leader Mehbooba Mufti. According to informed sources, Pir had also met a senior National Conference (N.C.) leader from central Kashmir with substantial support among the Gujjar community. While the content of these talks is not known, it is clear that they do not involve the issue of immunity. Pir is a major target of ongoing intelligence-led operations. A senior Border Security Force (BSF) official said that his elimination maybe "just days or weeks away". Pir's political forays may be intended to give the Hizbul Mujahideen some post-terrorism leverage; political parties hope, in turn, to use its cadre in a post-dialogue election.

On the ground, minor Hizbul Mujahideen figures are making investments for their own future. Several sub-contractors engaged in construction work on the Baramulla-Qazigund stretch of the new trans-Jammu and Kashmir railway are known to have made protection payments to local Hizbul Mujahideen units. In one incident last month, Rajendra Kumar, a resident of Andhra Pradesh, working as a bulldozer operator in Bijbehara, was briefly put to work by terrorists who sought to demolish the home of a village official. Widespread extortion has been reported from several south Kashmir areas, notably Tral. The traffic is not one way - in at least two recent incidents, police troopers surrendered their weapons to Hizbul Mujahideen cadre without a fight - but the fact remains that the jehad in Jammu and Kashmir seems more fluid and disorganised than at any time in the recent past.

Source: Union Ministry of Home Affairs.

WITH its guns spiked, what course might the jehad take? Some evidence exists that Pakistan is attempting to envision a credible political, rather than military, end-game in Jammu and Kashmir. Top Hizbul Mujahideen commander Ghulam Rasool Dar, who operates under the nom de guerre Riyaz Rasool, was charged with drumming up support for the pro-Pakistan Islamist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Given that Dar's predecessor as Kashmir Valley chief, Ghulam Rasool Khan, was eliminated, partly because of being exposed while making contact with top leaders within the PDP, the fact that he was entrusted with the task illustrates that the Hizbul Mujahideen was willing to take considerable risks to bring pressure on the Jamaat-e-Islami. Dar's key objective was to persuade the Jamaat-e-Islami, at one time considered the patron political front of the Hizbul Mujahideen, to back Geelani's stance rejecting imminent talks between the APHC and the Indian government. However, Dar's mission met with little success - a proof of the fact that traditional pro-Pakistan forces in Jammu and Kashmir are starting to defy Islamabad's fiat.

In early December, Geelani's protege Ashraf Sehrai had launched a campaign to garner the Jamaat-e-Islami's support for the Islamist leader, who has rejected the mainstream APHC's efforts at starting a dialogue with India. Sehrai's public support for Geelani led to his removal as the Jamaat-e-Islami's Naib Amir, or deputy chief. The decision to sack Sehrai was taken by the Jamaat-e-Islami chief (the Amir) Syed Nazi Ahmad Kashani, a moderate long opposed to the ongoing violence in Jammu and Kashmir. Pressure from the Hizbul Mujahideen then forced the organisation's leadership to summon a meeting of its highest decision-making body, the Markazi Majlis-e-Shoora (the central consultative committee), on December 29. To their surprise, hardliners within the Jamaat-e-Islami found themselves marginalised. Sehrai was made head of the Jamaat-e-Islami's political wing, a post that was held by Geelani - but was told in no uncertain terms to toe the official Jamaat-e-Islami line.

Sehrai, backed by the Hizbul Mujahideen, launched a fresh offensive on January 6, telling a rally in Sopore that Geelani "was headed in the right direction". The very next day, however, the Jamaat-e-Islami forced Sehrai to deny that he had said any such thing. As things stand, the Jamaat-e-Islami seems determined to keep itself studiously out of the Islamist-centrist power struggle. On January 1, the Markazi Majlis-e-Shoora, reiterated its traditional stand, calling for either the implementation of the United Nations resolutions on Jammu and Kashmir or a three-way dialogue between India, Pakistan and representatives of the State's people. Notably, however, the Jamaat-e-Islami went public with its commitment to a "democratic and constitutional struggle", an indication of its willingness to operate within the four corners of the Indian political system. Article 5 of the Jamaat-e-Islami's constitution obliges it to use such means, and to desist from those that "may contribute to the strife on earth".

Kashani's stand is the outcome of a five-year long ideological debate within the organisation. In 1997, the Jamaat-e-Islami's Amir G.M. Bhat took charge of the organisation after being released from prison. In an interview he gave soon after, Bhat distanced the Jamaat-e-Islami from the Hizbul Mujahideen, and called for an end to "gun culture". Matters came to a head in May last year, when Bhat announced that Geelani would no longer represent the organisation in the APHC. The decision was taken at a point when relations between Islamists and centrists reached breaking point, and Geelani stopped attending APHC meetings. Hizbul Mujahideen spokesperson Salim Hashmi described Bhat's action as helping an "Indian plot of derailing the freedom movement", and demanded that the Jamaat-e-Islami endorse Geelani's "principled stand" to "save the freedom movement from disintegration at this crucial juncture". Now, the failure of Dar's high-risk covert visit to the Valley suggests that the Hizbul Mujahideen has few friends left, even among its one-time mentors.

Source: Union Ministry of Home Affairs.

THE message to Pakistan's policy establishment is clear: its flock knows the sheep dog is muzzled, and is starting to rebel. Nevertheless, the dog is still very much on the loose.

Although it is true that December 2003 was the most peaceful month in years, Union Ministry of Home Affairs data obtained by Frontline points to the need for caution. First, levels of violence are essentially similar to those seen prior to the 1999 Kargil war; it is not at the zero-level as suggested by some of the more enthusiastic media commentary. Jammu and Kashmir saw 808 civilian fatalities in 2003, down from 967 in 2002, and somewhat lower than 877 in 1998 or 840 in 1997. Casualties among the security force personnel also saw a sharp decline compared to recent years: 381 security personnel - troops, police, special police officers, and pro-India militia members - died in 2003, down from 521 the year before. These losses were, however, similar to the 413 deaths registered in 1998, and 355 in 1997. Significantly, killings of terrorists by security forces in 2003 were at a higher level than the 1997-1998 period. At least 1,526 terrorists, 554 of them believed to be foreign nationals, were killed in 2003, as against the 1,111 militants shot dead in 1998 and 1,262 in 1997. However, the 2003 figure is lower than the figure for 2002, when 1,747 terrorists were killed.

Similarly, the acts of terrorist violence involving security forces in 2003 were actually higher than the number of cases in 1998. It was 1,407 in 2003; 1,211 in 1998; and 1,116 in 1997. This suggests that at least part of the reason for lowered civilian casualties through last year was the sustained pressure exerted by the security forces on terrorist groups. Indeed, 2003 saw terrorist groups lose a number of top-command leaders, including the Jaish-e-Mohammad's Shahbaz Khan and his second-in-command, known only by his code-name Tango 4, the Lashkar-e-Toiba's Zahid Chaudhuri, and the Hizbul Mujahideen's Ghulam Hassan Khan, code-named Saif-ul-Islam

Could the reduction of violence also be the consequence of reduced infiltration? And could a reduction in the numbers of terrorist cadre present in Jammu and Kashmir be responsible for the lowered violence? It is impossible to verify Indian intelligence estimates of cross-border movement, but most analysts agree that infiltration fell to negligible levels in December 2003, after a ceasefire came into force along the Line of Control (LoC). According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, last year 2,841 incidents of firing occurred across the LoC, down from the 5,767 cases in 2002 and the 4,134 cases in 2001. Last year saw no sharp spikes in firing across the LoC during the summer, and into the autumn. Whereas 1,352 incidents of border fire were reported in June 2002, only 392 were reported in June 2003. In October 2001, there were 848 fire exchanges across the LoC; last October there were just 265. Given that most LoC exchanges are triggered by covering fire from the Pakistani side in order to protect infiltrating groups, the figures suggest scaled-back infiltration for much of the year.

However, the fact is that jehadi groups did not loose as many cadre in 2003 as in past years, and therefore did not require much replenishment. Informed sources told Frontline that there was no hard intelligence to suggest that there was any panic among terrorist groups in Jammu and Kashmir, and there was little evidence to indicate that field leaders are demanding more personnel. Although there has been some shortage of fund among jehadi groups, it seems to be a result of the dislocation caused by the elimination of top leaders, rather than a closure of the pipeline from Pakistan. Nor is there evidence, as yet, that the Pakistani intelligence establishment has actually closed down terror camps on any significant scale. Evidence of Pakistan's intentions in Jammu and Kashmir will be known only this summer, when it will become clear whether a de-escalation of its state-run jehad is in fact under way or whether December's events were only a tactical move to placate the United States of America, and get dialogue going.

The venomous response to the peace process from the Hizbul Mujahideen and the Jamait-ul-Mujahideen, both closely allied to the Pakistani military establishment, suggests that the country is keeping its options open. There is little sign, either, that Musharraf's recent ban on jehadi activities is being implemented. The January 8 issue of the Lashkar-e-Toiba-affiliated journal Ghazwa, for example, carries an epic-style fiction in which a Pakistani child at the Wagah border asks his father how to identify Indian soldiers. "The soldier who is patting your cheeks loves you," the father replies, "he is good. He is a Pakistani soldier. The others, who are dark-skinned midgets, are the Hindu soldiers that you have to kill after receiving jehad training." Indian officials are keeping their fingers crossed, but would do well to also keep their powder dry.

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