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The view from the Valley

Print edition : Jul 21, 2001 T+T-

Recent political events in Jammu and Kashmir show just how difficult it will be to translate any fruits of the dialogue into political progress on the ground.

THERE is something curiously unreal about summit-time Srinagar. The city's hotels are packed with an assortment of visitors, bound together by the same sense of breathless anticipation as delegates at a UFO-watchers' convention. Pilgrims on their way to the shrine at Amarnath mingle with professional peace negotiators and seminar-circuit wanderers; journalists chat with casual tourists about the prospect of taking a bus from Srinagar to Muzaffarabad on their next vacation. On weekends, traffic snarls the boulevard along the Dal Lake, and it is almost impossible to find a quiet patch of grass to lounge on. Peace, all seem to be certain, is about to descend on the land that tourist brochures refer to as Paradise on Earth.

But this collective dream is a little like the balloons sold along the boulevard by migrant workers from Bihar and Madhya Pradesh: all it will take is one sharp prick to burst the hope.

Not two hours' drive from Srinagar, it becomes evident that the war in Jammu and Kashmir continues, oblivious to events in Agra. At the office of Kulgam Superintendent of Police Alok Kumar, the main subject of discussion is the withdrawal of troops from the Ahrabal-Shopian belt to guard the Amarnath yatris. That has meant terrorist cadre have been able to consolidate their position along the northern face of the Pir Panjal, provoking increasingly bitter fighting. The story is much the same through rural Jammu and Kashmir. In June, the figures show, an average of 7.2 terrorists died in fighting each day, along with 1.8 soldiers and 1.9 civilians who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The number of terrorists killed in the four weeks since the Ramzan ceasefire was withdrawn is the highest for any month since 1988.

If recent levels of engagement continue in areas like Poonch, July shall break even these record levels of violence, no matter how good a time Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and President Pervez Musharraf have in Agra. Part of the reason for the escalating violence is that the Indian security forces are working hard to reassert their presence in the post-ceasefire period. But, more important, Far Right groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba seem determined to assert their differences with a dialogue process from which they see no benefit to themselves. In the latest of a series of aggressive pronouncements, the Lashkar's supreme leader Hafiz Mohammed Sayeed warned on July 12 that his organisation rejected "any peace process other than that already being realised by jehad". "General Musharraf must decide beforehand," he continued, "whether his visit to India is meant to gain Allah's pleasure, or to please the United States."

Pressure from Pakistan's influential Islamic Right, many analysts believe, will ensure that Musharraf will be unable to secure a de-escalation of violence unless actual territorial gains on Jammu and Kashmir are realised. Much of the flexibility that Musharraf spoke of in recent weeks has given way to increasingly hawkish rhetoric. Former Pakistan Interior Minister Shujahat Husain, for example, recently called for the General to "negotiate handing over Jammu and Ladakh to India, retain Pakistan administered Kashmir (PAK), Gilgit and Baltistan and grant independent status to the Kashmir valley". Husain was seen as fronting for Musharraf, to gauge responses to these U.S-authored ideas for partitioning Kashmir. A June 30 meeting of Islamic clerics, however, flatly rejected these or any other ideas that would leave India in control of any part of the State. Musharraf promptly dropped all talk of independence.

WHAT, then, has optimism about the Agra dialogue founded itself on. Many ordinary people in Jammu and Kashmir are delighted by gestures like India's July 11 offer to open the Line of Control (LoC) at Ranbir Singh Pora in Jammu and Uri in Kashmir. Vajpayee appeared to suggest that all those crossing the LoC through these new points could bypass notoriously cumbersome visa formalities. Srinagar residents wishing to visit relatives across the LoC would, should the new regime be put in place, have to travel just 55 km to Baramulla, and another 46 to Uri, before negotiating the last 18 km to Kaman Post, India's last position on the LoC. From there, after crossing the now-demolished Red Bridge, Muzaffarabad lies just 18 km away.

Easy movement across the LoC would hold out obvious advantages. Data obtained by Frontline shows just 45 visitors from Pakistan were granted visas to visit friends and relatives in Jammu and Kashmir between January and June. Last year, the figure was 101, up from 69 in 1999, 48 in 1998, 61 in 1997 and just 14 in 1996. As things stand, visa requests in Pakistan are forwarded to the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) and the Criminal Investigation Department in Jammu and Kashmir for verification, a time-consuming procedure. As important, an easy visa regime would allow Kashmiri fruit farmers easy access to markets in Pakistan. But it is far from clear whether such free movement is imminent. Sources say the I.B. has already asked that the right of free movement be restricted to men above 65, women and children, and that adult men continue to be subject to proper verification on security grounds.

More important, Pakistan seems deeply uncomfortable at the thought of such free access. For one, the setting up of passport checkpoints on the LoC would give it at least some symbolic legitimacy as an international border, something Islamabad is unwilling to accept. More important, levels of human development in PAK are far lower than those on the Indian side of the LoC, something its regime clearly has little interest in advertising to residents of the Valley. There is also considerable political discontent in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, a fact illustrated by the decision to bar pro-independence candidates from contesting the July elections in the Azad Kashmir legislature. The Lashkar-e-Toiba, for its part, has said India has no right to allow or debar movement across the LoC, and has said it will use force to destroy any border checkpoints that are set up.

Musharraf's growing conviction that territorial settlement must precede any movement on reducing levels of violence is also founded on sound military sense. Should India be able to secure a significant de-escalation before final status negotiations, it would clearly be that much less willing to make concessions in Jammu and Kashmir. When right-wing Pakistani commentators point out that the jehad has been an effective instrument of policy, they are not merely engaging in wishful thinking. Most Indian intelligence estimates suggest that sustaining current levels of insurgent activity costs between Rs.250 crores and Rs.300 crores a year. At least part of this modest outlay comes not from Pakistan's defence budget, but narcotics revenues from Afghanistan and donations from Far Right organisations in West Asia. India, on the other hand, commits well over 10 times this level of expenditure on its conventional force in response to the covert offensive it is confronted with.

SHOULD Musharraf and Vajpayee succeed in overcoming these multiple obstacles, recent political events in the State show just how difficult it will be to translate their dialogue into political progress on the ground. While the right axis within the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) has expressed delight at the prospect of meeting Musharraf for tea and dialogue in New Delhi, others have been less delighted. The Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) has charged the APHC with failing to fight for real representation in the dialogue process. "We have not sacrificed 80,000 lives," JKLF's Yasin Malik said in London, "to have a cup of tea with General Musharraf." On July 13, Malik's deputy Javed Mir said his organisation would boycott the APHC's scheduled hour-long interaction with Musharraf.

Underlying the JKLF's position is the apprehension that it, and other pro-Independence organisations, would be marginalised by the APHC's Pakistan-backed right axis in any future dialogue. The fear is shared by other minor bodies within the APHC. On July 11, one APHC General Council member, Aga Syed Hassan, demanded a renewed discussion on APHC chairman Abdul Ghani Bhat's decision to reject a meeting with the Union government's official interlocutor on Jammu and Kashmir K.C. Pant. Hassan, who heads the Shia Anjuman-e-Sharie Shiyan, said Bhat had made a unilateral decision. The Shia leader is doubtless concerned about whether the interests of his community will be secured in the event of final status negotiations involving the APHC. Although Abdul Ghani Lone, one of the key centrists in the APHC, has on record supported interaction with Musharraf, he is understood to share the fears of the JKLF.

Political fissures within the APHC make it profoundly unlikely that any unified and focussed political process can emerge within Jammu and Kashmir, at least in the short term. In addition, most commentators have failed to notice that there exists within the State a democratically elected government, which is certain to insist that the APHC put its claims to represent political opinion in the State to some kind of test. In addition, political formations representing Jammu and Ladakh will insist that their interests be secured. While both Pakistan and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh may be delighted with a solution which sunders the six Muslim-majority districts of the Kashmir valley from the rest of the State, it is unlikely that such a solution would not be challenged by the secular Opposition through India, and the National Conference within the State. As these contesting forces play themselves out, violence shall almost certainly continue.

At least some critics believe that the assumption that Kashmir is the key to peace is misguided. "The error of those who seek a resolution of the conflict in Kashmir," wrote former Punjab Director General of Police K.P.S. Gill and security analyst Ajai Sahni in April, "is the inordinate focus on the transient geographical location of a conflict, to the exclusion of its ideological and material source, its strategic motivation and political intent." "The fact is that the core issue is not Kashmir," they continued. "It never was. It is the fundamentalist ideology, and the two-nation theory, that excludes the very possibility of people of different faiths, cultures or ways of life co-existing within a single political order. The core issue, consequently, goes to the very heart and basis of India's existence as it does of Pakistan's. The conflict between India and Pakistan is an irreducible conflict between democratic liberalism and a polity based on an exclusionary religious absolutism."

Both Musharraf and Vajpayee are children of the two-nation theory, and its principal beneficiaries. Pushed and prodded by the United States of America, which has shaped the terms and pace of the India-Pakistan engagement since the Kargil war, both now seek a settlement that would perpetuate the existence of their competing fundamentalisms. But history may well show itself unwilling to be written either at their hands, or that of Washington.