Kashmir at a crossroads

Print edition : June 20, 1998

Pokhran and the subsequent pronouncements of the BJP-led Government have had a significant political fallout in Kashmir.

WHAT Pakistan's Kashmir strategists could not achieve in 50 years, the Bharatiya Janata Party Government-led has come close to doing for them in the five weeks since India's Pokhran tests. The Government's course of action on this front, resembling nothing so much as that of a drunken driver speeding on a narrow mountain road, has opened up the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir to international intervention. The Joint Communique of the five Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council issued on June 4 marked the body's first major engagement with Kashmir in decades. Paragraph 5 of the communique describes Kashmir as being among the "root causes of the tension" between India and Pakistan - a semantic construction that rejects the core positions of Indian diplomacy. Disquieting assertions that Jammu and Kashmir is now a subject of international consideration have come also from key United States policy figures.

In this process, secessionist formations in Kashmir that are grouped around the All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC), which was marginalised on the State's political stage by democratic politics, have also been saved from oblivion by the Hindu right wing.

In key senses, the BJP-led coalition has no one to blame for the brewing crisis in Kashmir other than itself. On May 18, shortly after the Government's first major policy meeting on Jammu and Kashmir, Home Minister L.K. Advani made explicit a linkage between the Pokhran tests and India's strategic position. The Minister argued that India's "decisive step to become a nuclear weapon state has brought about a qualitative new state in India-Pakistan relations, particularly in finding a lasting solution to the Kashmir problem" (emphasis added). "Islamabad," he said, "has to realise the change in the geo-strategic situation in the region and the world."

Even more disturbingly, Advani raised the possibility that nuclear weapons might be used to address Pakistan's offensive in Jammu and Kashmir. Although "we adhere to the no-first-strike principle," Advani said, "India is resolved to deal firmly with Pakistan's hostile activities."

In Srinagar, Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah too endorsed the Pokhran tests, arguing that India's status as a nuclear power would compel Pakistan to end its offensive in Kashmir. Shortly afterwards, he accompanied Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to Pokhran.

THIS ill-conceived polemic soon collapsed. Pakistan's first five nuclear tests followed at Chagai on May 28, and the APHC promptly went on the offensive. At a Juma prayer congregation in Sopore the next day, APHC chairman and the Jamaat-e-Islami's political chief Syed Ali Shah Geelani said that the tests marked "the beginning of a nuclear race." Pakistan's tests, he said, were the outcome of India's hawkish post-Pokhran rhetoric. "Kashmir's people," he continued, "are living in a war-like environment." The answer was for "the international community to force India and Pakistan to solve the Kashmir issue, rather than impose sanctions."

Former APHC chairman and religious leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq said that his organisation had always "expressed its apprehensions of a nuclear arms race because of Kashmir, but some quarters had accused us of exaggeration." "International attention must be focussed on Kashmir," he said, "otherwise a nuclear war will destroy the entire subcontinent."

Former APHC figure Shabbir Shah, who broke ranks to form the Democratic Freedom Party (DFP) last month, also described Kashmir as the "core reason" for the tests. Minor APHC figures such as Javed Mir and Ghulam Nabi Sumji also joined the chorus.

The APHC's position was, of course, meaningless: Pakistan's low-intensity war in Kashmir was just one of the fictions authored by the BJP-led Government to legitimise its nuclear policy, along with China's supposed designs on India and "no particular country". But what was significant was that the foundations for the APHC argument were laid by Advani himself. The APHC and other secessionist figures rapidly seized the opportunity to regain their status as credible political players.

One significant sign of the changed political landscape was Shabbir Shah's decision to back down on his condemnation of terrorist violence, which had earned him a sharp warning from the Harkat-ul-Ansar days earlier, as well as his offer to engage in a dialogue with the Indian Government. Both these dramatic statements were made on May 25, before Pakistan's nuclear tests, but at a June 2 press conference Shah executed a volte-face. The DFP leader now said that he had never offered to engage in anything other than a multilateral dialogue on Kashmir. Other than to condemn "bloodshed" in general terms, Shah refused to answer questions on Pakistan's role in Kashmir, or the legitimacy of non-Kashmiri terrorists, notably those of the Harkat-ul-Ansar.

The excitement generated in the APHC ranks grew as the June 4 meeting of the five Permanent Members of the Security Council neared. Umar Farooq, for example, demanded that "the Big 5 should resolve the problem, and also send a fact-finding mission to ascertain the state of human rights in Kashmir."

Public reaction was, however, muted. Shortly after the second round of Chagai tests on May 30, a small group of activists staged a demonstration in Maisuma, a fundamentalist-dominated area of Srinagar. The far-right Dukhtaran-e-Millat, whose leader Asiya Andrabi is best known for her assertion that the fitting role of women is to bear sons for the jihad, distributed sweets.

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah and others at the Pokhran site on May 20.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

THE limited visibility of such displays, however, masked a broader and more disturbing reality. "Since 1996," says Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami, "most people had come to believe that there was no going back on the road towards peace and a future within India. But now, the internationalisation of the issue has again raised the possibility that the APHC might just be able to secure its objectives, that road might not be one-way after all."

If the APHC leaders were disappointed that the June 4 Joint Communique did not make explicit references to the need for international mediation of the Kashmir conflict, or for Kashmiri representation in the India-Pakistan dialogue, they kept their reservations to themselves. Instead, emphasis was given to suggestions by U.S. diplomats that Kashmir had de facto become a subject of international attention. After the release of the communique, for example, U.S. Defence Secretary William Cohen suggested that a multilateral discussion on India was necessary, despite the fact that "India has strongly objected to any kind of international consideration of that issue."

A week after Geelani's first post-Chagai Juma address in Sopore, he spoke at the Jamia Masjid in Srinagar, a traditional APHC platform. "Whenever there was international pressure on it," he argued, "New Delhi agreed to bilateral talks." But when these were held, New Delhi made these exercises meaningless by repeating that Kashmir is an integral part of India." He added: "Now that there are apprehensions of a nuclear war, the world powers must intervene."

PRESSURE was mounting on the National Conference, and signs of trouble were evident within the party. Articles in New Delhi newspapers attacking the N.C.'s association with the BJP were, accurately or otherwise, widely attributed to the Member of Parliament from Baramulla and former Union Minister Saifuddin Soz, who had opposed both the association and the party's stand on the Pokhran tests. The N.C.'s position on the post-Pokhran situation was finally outlined in a resolution released on June 8. It consisted of a frontal assault on Pakistan and its "imperialist-expansionist" sponsors. The party's endorsement of the Pokhran tests, the resolution said, had to be read in the context of "Pakistan's association with SEATO (South-East Asia Treaty Organisation) and CENTO (Central Treaty Organisation) in the game plan of Cold War strategies (which) led to an acute arms race since the 1950s." "Egged on by imperialist powers, the chosen path of bilateralism was forsaken by Pakistan and instead the use of force was sought to be resorted to, to forcefully annex Kashmir." "If India's cry against proxy war and terrorism exported by neighbouring countries was heeded in time," the resolution concluded, "neither war clouds nor threat of war would have been seen anywhere around our country."

How does one account for the N.C.'s position on the Pokhran blasts, despite the evident fact that they have complicated a resolution of the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir? It is unlikely that its position has emerged from a coherent world view, for even as Abdullah warned his audience at a meeting in Leh that tensions may lead to a nuclear war with China, in Srinagar the general secretary of his party was describing that country as a "good neighbour".

A pro-Pakistan demonstration in Srinagar in the second week of June. Secessionist organisations in the Kashmir Valley, which had been marginalised by democratic politics, have been revitalised by the de facto internationalisation of the Kashmir issue.-NISSAR AHMAD

de facto

Several political explanations of the party's stand are possible. The first is that losses suffered by its party cadre in terrorist attacks have made any conciliatory rhetoric near-impossible. The resolution of June 8 itself notes that the N.C. has had to "dip its flag many times to honour those who fell victim to assassins' bullet." As important, the N.C. has little to gain by seeking to engage with the APHC platform, as the secessionist group's constituency is in any case hostile to the party. In this sense, the N.C.'s political raison d'tre in Jammu and Kashmir is the persistence of India-Pakistan tension, which negates the possibility of alternative arrangements of power in the State.

BUT the most critical of all may be the need to maintain a functional relationship with whichever political formation that holds power in New Delhi. Over the past months, the rise of Anantnag MP and former Union Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed in the politics of the Kashmir Valley has made it clear to the N.C. leadership that its principal enemy is the Congress(I). Sayeed has capitalised on discontent with the corruption and inefficiency of the Abdullah regime and appropriated sections of the APHC constituency by appealing for a state dialogue with terrorist groups. In the wake of the Pokhran explosions, Sayeed endorsed the tests but proceeded to argue that the core cause of tension was the N.C.'s willingness to negotiate with armed groups. Although the Sonia Gandhi-led dispensation in the party leadership has been less than supportive of Sayeed, the N.C. sees him as a long-term regional threat who could coalesce with so-far peripheral forces, including figures such as Muzaffar Baig who almost defeated Soz in Baramulla in the elections last year. As such, its affiliation with the BJP involves few short-term political costs.

What shape Abdullah's alliance with the BJP will take in the months to come is unclear. Some of the more perceptive political observers suggest that his room for manoeuvre is greater than most people assume, since he can always regain lost ground by deserting the BJP on an issue like Ayodhya, or for failing to grant Jammu and Kashmir greater autonomy. In the absence of a meaningful political opposition, and given the APHC's own lack of credibility in the wake of internal fissures and charges of corruption, it would be a mistake to assume that the N.C.'s historic domination of Kashmir politics is on the verge of collapsing in the foreseeable future.

Managing the broader crisis that the BJP has plunged Kashmir into could be less easy. It is far from clear just how the Union Government intends to engage with the crisis provoked by Advani, and address the international pressures that have been brought to bear on India's position in Jammu and Kashmir. Aggressive counter-terrorist strategies, which have proved successful since 1995, could now be discredited by means of international human rights calls, and Pakistan could attempt to escalate tension in an effort to render direct international intervention imperative.

If the revitalisation of the APHC constituency, and the limitation of India's efforts to fight terrorism, are marginal political concerns for the N.C., they are not for those concerned about the future of Jammu and Kashmir, and of India. The BJP Government's sole response to Western calls for an international dialogue on Jammu and Kashmir has been to proclaim that it will never accept such proposals. Tragically, the prospect of the BJP's aggressive polemic transforming itself into an unceremonious retreat is all too real.

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