Published : Aug 03, 2002 00:00 IST

The Bharatiya Janata Party attempts one more high-risk gamble in the form of the Arun Jaitley mission in Jammu and Kashmir, where competing and clashing demands of the many players on the scene in an election year create formidable new hurdles to a solution.

TELEVISION news chose not to remember Vijay Divas this year, the official commemoration on July 26 of the end of the Kargil war. The amnesia, which extended to the very politicians who had energetically proclaimed victory over Pakistan in 1999, was not coincidental. This summer, India is on the edge of defeat in Jammu and Kashmir, a defeat that would be less spectacular but no less significant than the Kargil war. The troops massed on the western border have been exposed as an ineffective deterrent against cross-border terrorism; the Union government's efforts to secure a political rapprochement with secessionist groups have collapsed. The Hindu Right seems to have taken on the task of preparing India for this debacle-to-come: a cutting apart of Jammu and Kashmir along Hindu-Muslim lines.

Former Union Law Minister Arun Jaitley is now in charge of salvaging what he can for the Union government from the ruins of its post-1998 Jammu and Kashmir policy. On July 25, as the Centre's official mediator on the State's future, the latest in a long line of envoys, Jaitely met the National Conference's (N.C.) seniormost Minister, Ghulam Mohiuddin Shah, in New Delhi. He is charged with discussing the N.C's demands for greater federal autonomy. Little is known about the actual content of the meeting, which has been described by officials as a "warm-up" for further discussions. The meeting, by Shah's account, was not restricted just to the autonomy question, but "everything under the sun, from terrorism to the alienation of people". Shah, a key author of the 1999 State Autonomy Commission (SAC) Report, also says he was "impressed" by Jaitley's grasp of the issues at stake.

Perhaps more significant than the discussions themselves is the fact that they are taking place at all. A welter of Bharatiya Janata Party figures, including Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and his deputy L.K. Advani, had rejected the SAC Report. The BJP had also rubbished a subsequent Jammu and Kashmir Assembly resolution demanding implementation of the report. The report's demand that the State be freed of Union control except in the matters of Defence, External Affairs and Communications was criticised by several parties. But the BJP went one step further, rejecting outright calls to discuss State autonomy in principle. It thus reneged on promises made by Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda in the build-up to the 1996 Assembly elections. Deve Gowda had promised the N.C. that if it participated in the exercise, the Centre would negotiate the grant of "maximum autonomy".

After the end of the Kargil war, the BJP broadened this platform of rejection. Efforts to undermine the N.C's near-hegemony got under way, notably by engaging secessionist formations in dialogue. The project, which manifested itself expressly during the Ramzan Ceasefire of 2000, rested on three key assumptions. The first was that Pakistan's defeat in Kargil had demoralised hardliners both within the terrorist groups and the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC). The second was that Pakistan's leverage over ethnic-Kashmiri elements within terrorist groups had diminished, because of their realisation that a military victory against India was impossible. Both these factors, the third assumption posited, would mean that secessionist formations would now be willing to negotiate a settlement short of independence. In other words, autonomy was to be used to secure a final settlement with secessionists, not frittered away in a deal with the N.C.

NONE of these assumptions, experience shows, rested on strong foundations. APHC centrists, notably Abdul Gani Lone and Umar Farooq, proved unwilling to participate in elections without cast-iron guarantees that the Centre would then engage in final-status negotiations. This precondition the Union government was unable to concede. Covert negotiations dragged on desultorily until early this summer, when they were brought to a savage end by Lone's assassination. Nor did a schism between ethnic-Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri elements among terrorist groups ever come about. Pakistan's intelligence establishment was able to ensure the containment of the rebellion by dissident Hizbul Mujahideen commander Abdul Majid Dar. In a July 23 press release, Dar said that he would support "any serious political initiative", a statement that made clear he did not believe calls from New Delhi for secessionists to participate in elections to constitute one.

Left with no political options, it might appear, the Centre has finally moved to secure a deal with the political bird-in-hand, the N.C. The real picture is, however, more complicated. For one, much of the BJP leadership remains hostile to autonomy negotiations. Speaking just before the Jaitley-Shah meeting in New Delhi, party spokesperson Sunil Shastri insisted that they would discuss "devolution, not autonomy". Just what the distinction might be is unclear, but one indication of why the BJP might be uncomfortable came even as Jaitley's appointment was announced. Speaking in Jammu, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) president Ashok Singhal lashed out at the BJP. "Instead of keeping a check on the anti-national activities of Farooq Abdullah," he said, "the Union government has been succumbing to his pressure tactics." "The BJP," he said, "has been enjoying power only owing to the support of Hindu samaj (society) and we can throw them out when we wish."

Singhal's polemic needs to be read against the emerging posture of the Hindu Right on Jammu and Kashmir. On June 29, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's Akhil Bharatiya Karyakari Mandal (All-India Leaders' Committee) passed a resolution demanding that the region of Jammu be made a separate State, and Ladakh a Union Territory. The demand endorsed an ongoing campaign calling for such restructuring by the Jammu and Kashmir National Democratic Front, a local organisation led by RSS State unit head Indresh Kumar and former BJP State president Tilak Raj Gupta. The Kurukshetra resolution was preceded on June 23 by a similar resolution of the VHP. This resolution described the regime of Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah as a "Muslim sultanate", and demanded that the "five Hindu-dominated districts of Jammu should be made a separate State, a Union Territory be carved out of areas northeast of the Jhelum river in the Kashmir Valley for settling Hindus there and Ladakh be given the status of a Union Territory."

Such demands are not new: since the days of Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, the Hindu Right has argued that the destiny of Hindu-majority Jammu must be separated from Muslim-majority Kashmir. Nor is there any obvious reason for the RSS-VHP to have passed formal resolutions on the issue now. As early as October 2, 2000, the RSS had formally made a demand for the division of Jammu and Kashmir along its constituent ethnic-communal lines. The demand was voiced repeatedly over the years. Advani had rejected these demands, as he has done now. One plausible explanation might be that the RSS and the VHP are now acting not against the grain of the BJP's objectives, but in their support. Opposition from the Hindu Right could be used by the BJP to push the N.C. to minimise its specific autonomy demands. In the event that a larger concession had to be made, the BJP could then use the RSS-VHP stand to leverage gains for Jammu, thus placating its Hindu chauvinist constituency.

AT LEAST that is how politicians within the State seem to be reading events. The State BJP, with RSS backing, has begun calling for the creation of a Jammu regional development council, which would give the province some control over development expenditure. Supporters of the idea cite the example of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, created by the government of P.V. Narasimha Rao in the wake of Buddhist-Muslim communal violence . The Council has, however, done little to bring about rapid economic development in Ladakh, and even less to heal the fissures between ethnic Kashmiris and Ladakhis. Parallel to the BJP demands, several N.C. leaders, with the support of elements in the State Bahujan Samaj Party, have started demanding a Chenab hill development council, which would give the Muslim-majority districts of Rajouri and Poonch a political identity distinct from that of Hindu-dominated Jammu.

Ideas of this kind, interestingly, were first put out by the N.C. in its Regional Autonomy Commission Report, published along with the SAC Report. The RAC Report had advocated the creation of several new provinces along ethnic-communal lines, closely mirroring in their geographical contours proposals put out by the United States-based Kashmir Study Group. The group had advocated the creation of a quasi-independent state from the Muslim-majority areas of Jammu and Kashmir. Several establishment figures in Pakistan, notably its former Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz, claim that such a partition was close to realisation. As early as September 2000, just a month before the RSS first made formal calls for a trifurcation, columnist Shaheen Sehbai claimed that a three-stage plan existed to bring about partition. In the first stage, Sehbai wrote, terrorist groups would resort to cross-border terrorism. Kashmiri political groups would then engage in dialogue with both the Indian and Pakistan governments. Finally, Sehbai said, the dialogue process would lead to the division of Jammu and Kashmir between India and Pakistan, with a portion of the State being granted quasi-independent status.

How probable is such an outcome? Advani, for one, has condemned the RSS-VHP partition plan, arguing that it would strengthen Pakistan. The N.C., too, has gone some distance in scaling down its autonomy demand to levels the BJP ought to be willing to accept. Shah now says he inadvertently included in the SAC Report references to the pre-1953 status of Jammu and Kashmir, which would leave the Union in charge of only Defence, External Affairs and Communications, and exclude the State from the control of the Election Commission and the Supreme Court. The claim seems evasive - the SAC Report explicitly pegs its demands around 1953, excluding even a passing mention of the subsequent 1975 Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah-Indira Gandhi Accord - but the signs of moderation are heartening. Yet, even with this scaling down of the N.C. demand, the BJP still seems unwilling to acknowledge expressly its willingness to negotiate. Just how much progress the Jaitley initiative will be able to make in the face of stubborn resistance from the right flanks of the BJP remains to be seen.

Ironically, then, the real dangers in Jaitley's mission lie not in its prospect of failure, but its success. It seems clear that the RSS-VHP would demand the creation of a quasi-autonomous Hindu-majority zone in Jammu as a price for furthering autonomy in Kashmir. The N.C., whose political constituency lies in the Muslim-majority areas north of the Chenab and in the Kashmir Valley, might well acquiesce in such an enterprise. Several figures within the APHC, for their part, have at one time or the other spoken approvingly of the idea of a partition. Pakistan has already made it clear that it would be delighted with events moving in this direction, as part of a process designed to make the Muslim-majority areas of Jammu and Kashmir at least quasi-independent. Indeed, Pakistan's military establishment might just demand some such political progress in return for its having delivered on promises to the U.S. to scale back cross-border infiltration.

It seems unlikely that any Indian government would be willing to engineer the kind of communal transfiguration of Jammu and Kashmir that the Hindu Right seeks. But communal forces have, over the last decade, convincingly demonstrated their ability to seek and secure what has for long been considered inconceivable. Ever since the Pokhran-II nuclear tests, the BJP policy on Jammu and Kashmir has consisted of a series of high-risk gambles, none conspicuously successful. Jaitley's mission might just prove to be the last desperate bet before that final gesture all poker-players recognise: folding cards, and leaving the game in defeat.

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