Machinations in Kashmir

Print edition : February 02, 2002

Despite President Pervez Musharraf's professed seriousness about de-escalating the levels of violence, the ground realities in terror-torn Jammu and Kashmir seem hardly likely to change.

THE young Jammu and Kashmir police officer just could not believe it. On the evening of January 25, he had sat down at his typewriter to prepare the usual list of the day's violent incidents to be faxed to his headquarters in Jammu. But the voice on the telephone line was telling him there were no killings, no shootouts, not even a bomb blast. Nothing at all. "Are you sure," the officer asked incredulously, "absolutely sure?"

On January 23, the bodies of two civilians who were killed in an Army encounter with militants at Manjarkot block in Rajouri district.-RAJEEV BHATT

What police officials call no-incident days are not really an index of the impact of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's January 12 speech. But in a State desperately short of good news, it is easy to find people who have willed themselves to believe that Musharraf is serious about de-escalating levels of violence. In the Kashmir region, that claim is borne out by figures. The Valley saw 106 terrorism-related violence incidents up to January 24, down from 193 during the whole month in 2001. The levels of violence from January 13 to 24, too, were lower than in the previous 12 days. In the Jammu region, too, the period after Musharraf's speech has seen a slight decline in terrorist violence compared to the first 12 days of the month, although it remains higher than the figures for the corresponding period in 2001.

Such statistics, however, are less important than the actual form Pakistan's military campaign in Jammu and Kashmir will now take. At least some disturbing signs are evident. For one, the Prime Minister of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, Sikandar Hayat Khan, has made it clear that members of groups such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) are free to operate from the region. "If members belonging to these groups live peacefully and don't indulge in criminal activities," he told Associated Press on January 21, "we won't take any action against them." "We do not recognise the Line of Control," he added emphatically, "and no one can block Kashmiris from crossing it." While the LeT and the JeM have faced state actions, groups such as the Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen and the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen continue to have offices running in Islamabad and Lahore. Most important, training camps along the LoC have not been closed, though signboards and glow-signs have been removed.

Clearly, Musharraf intends to give terrorist groups in Jammu and Kashmir a presentable ethnic-Kashmiri face. The Hizbul Mujahideen, and the other 14 constituents of the still active United Jihad Council would, most likely, be at the cutting edge of such an enterprise. The council was set up after a February 5, 2000, speech by Musharraf calling on disparate groups to unite. Many analysts believe that Pakistan's intelligence establishment could seek to funnel much of the LeT and JeM cadre into the Hizbul Mujahideen, as well as other near-defunct organisations in the council, such as the Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen and Mushtaq Ahmad Zargar's al-Umar. The proposition receives at least some credibility from Musharraf's energetic efforts to market the Hizb as an exclusively ethnic-Kashmiri group. The assertion is fiction, at least in part. The Hizb's military second-in-command in Jammu and Kashmir, Saif-ur-Rahman Bajwa, is, for one, from the Pakistan province of Punjab.

But an enterprise to place the Hizb at the head of armed conflict in Jammu and Kashmir could prove difficult to execute. Bar the district command of Kupwara, and deputy commanders Bajwa and Umar Javed, most of the Hizb's field leaders are sympathetic to their sacked head, Abdul Majid Dar, who favours initiating a dialogue with the Indian government. The authority of the new Hizb chief, Inamullah Khan, has also been undermined by a series of successful Indian intelligence operations targeting his flow of funds, the most recent being the arrest of Sopore-based Tariq Antoo with a large sum of money on January 24. New Delhi-based All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) representative G.M. Bhat, who Indian intelligence officials say was a key conduit in reaching funds from the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi to terrorist cadre in Srinagar, has also been arrested.

WITH the Assembly elections scheduled to be held before September, Pakistan has been seeking to put a fresh political offensive in place. The official National Kashmir Committee led by Sardar Abdul Qayoom has announced that it shall seek to visit India, to speak to politicians in both New Delhi and Srinagar. While India is quite likely to grant permission for such a visit, the committee will doubtless advertise the denial as an example of Indian "intransigence". Musharraf himself has been seeking to step up the pressure, saying he is even willing to consider independence for all of Jammu and Kashmir if India recognises the right of people on its side of the LoC to determine their own political future. Secure in the knowledge that India will not do so, the General hopes to show the world just how "unreasonable" it is.

Another key component of Pakistan's strategy is to revitalise the moribund APHC. In early January, Pakistan ensured that hardline Jamaat-e-Islami leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who had been boycotting meetings of the APHC executive since November, participated in a three-member committee set up to meet the heads of foreign missions in New Delhi. The mechanics of this unity move were conveyed to Geelani by Bhat during his December 26 visit to Srinagar, which ended with his arrest two days later. Bhat, sources said, made two major points. First, he said, an APHC divided was an APHC discredited. Second, a united APHC had to push its cause to Western nations if it was to hope to have any role in future India-Pakistan dialogue. Without such a role, the APHC would find itself marginalised in any future peace initiative.

Geelani left for New Delhi on December 13 along with his most bitter detractors within the APHC, Yasin Malik and Abdul Ghani Lone. In the event, however, their appointments with the heads of the British High Commission and the United States Embassy were turned down. This, informed sources told Frontline, was largely the result of lobbying by the Ministry of External Affairs. All that the APHC could secure was a meeting with a First Secretary from the United States Embassy, who insisted on visiting them at the Kashmir Awareness Bureau office in New Delhi rather than inviting them to the mission. Deeply embarrassed, the APHC leadership issued a fresh press release, saying it was aborting its diplomatic foray because of the arrests of 50 of its cadre in Srinagar.

Just five APHC leaders had in fact been arrested, and more embarrassment was to follow. The press release was signed by G.M. Gulfam, who turned out to be a driver employed by the Kashmir Awareness Bureau. His signature, it turned out, was put on the press release because Bhat's second-in-command in New Delhi, Abdul Majid Bandey, was too scared by his boss' arrest to put pen to paper. The APHC delegation chose to stay on in New Delhi until January 18, rather than return sooner and face derision. Since then, figures such as Lone have talked in private of calling for a comprehensive ceasefire in Jammu and Kashmir. Terrorist groups, however, are unlikely to heed such a call. More important, an APHC call for a ceasefire would have little legitimacy, since it rejected New Delhi's termination of offensive operations from November 2000 to May 2001. Lone had backed the ceasefire, arguing that "the biggest danger now is from the (Islamic) extremists" who would "make serious efforts to undermine the ceasefire". He was, however, marginalised by Geelani, and other far-Right members of the APHC executive.

Lone and other centrists in the APHC seem to be considering the prospect of abandoning their irreparably leaky ship. Both he and Maulvi Abbas Ansari have, in recent weeks, issued statements that they might be willing to participate in the Assembly elections. Lone, party sources told Frontline, had two major preconditions for this. The first was that the Indian government would have to concede that the elections were being held not just to determine who would govern Jammu and Kashmir, but who represented its people. New Delhi has consistently disputed the APHC's claim to speak for the people of the State, and demanded that it put its claims to the test. The second condition was the Union government guarantee that it would engage the new government in a dialogue on the future status of Jammu and Kashmir.

Hurriyat leaders Ali Shah Geelani and Abdul Ghani Lone.-

Despite months of effort by the Prime Minister's Office top gun Brajesh Mishra, and former Research and Analysis Wing chief Amarjit Singh Dulat, Lone has shown no signs of backing down on his demands. But Pakistan, understandably, is responding by not taking the risk of putting all its political eggs in the APHC basket. On January 24, Democratic Freedom Party chief Shabbir Shah announced that he had won Sikandar Hayat Khan's support for the creation of a new party, by merging separate APHC constituents. "All the parties and groups joining the new alliance," he told journalists, "will cease to be individual entities and will operate under one banner, one flag and one leader." Shah had earlier been engaged in dialogue with the Mishra-Dulat team on possible participation in the elections, but his latest announcement suggests that their negotiations have collapsed.

Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah has reason to be delighted with this impasse. Without the threat of having to face an opposition platform made up of mainstream organisations such as the People's Democratic Party and APHC centrists, his National Conference is guaranteed a near-complete sweep of the Kashmir region in the elections. Party insiders are also hoping for gains in the Jammu region, which the results of the February byelection to the Jammu Lok Sabha seat could signal. Many Hindu voters are fed up with the Bharatiya Janata Party's failure to deliver on its promises to bring peace to the State, and the Union government's imposition of the Disturbed Areas Act has also caused considerable damage to the key pilgrim tourism business. A divided Hindu vote could allow the National Conference to make significant gains in Assembly segments it otherwise had little hope of taking.

When the passes to Pakistan open again this summer, the question of just how serious Musharraf is about de-escalating levels of violence in Jammu and Kashmir will be answered. Optimism on this account rests largely on the assumption that the U.S. reversed a decade-old foreign policy orientation and is now committed against the Islamic Right.

Those who think this is the case would do well to contemplate the contents of an interview Afghanistan's new U.S.-installed Chief Justice, Fazal Hadi Shinwari, gave the Afghan Islamic press on January 12. "A thief's hand will be cut off,' Shinwari made clear, "and alcoholics and others would be punished under Islamic laws. Adulterers would be stoned to death when either of them or both are married. A murderer would have to pay blood money or be executed in the manner in which the murder victim was killed." "Afghanistan," he concluded simply, 'is an Islamic country."

For all its hatred of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, the U.S. needs alliances with the Islamic Right for its core objectives: (the same reasons for which it backed the Taliban) control of the Central Asian oil pipelines, and the projection of its power through the region. And while Musharraf may want to rid Pakistan of the demons he and his predecessors unleashed, he needs the same forces to ensure that India is kept under pressure on Jammu and Kashmir. The first summer of a world supposedly transfigured by the events of September 11, might yet turn out to be very similar to the one before it.