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Print edition : Aug 19, 2000 T+T-

Contrary to the general perception, and despite the government's flawed and hasty management of the process, the brief dialogue with the Hizbul Mujahideen could just prove to be the beginning of a genuine political process on the Kashmir issue.

JAMMU AND KASHMIR Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah's turboprop twin engine executive plane took off from New Delhi at 8-30 a.m. on August 8. Some 45 minutes out of the Indira Gandhi International Airport, at some 15,000 feet above the Punjab plains, its pi lot received an urgent summons to turn back. Union Defence Minister George Fernandes was waiting for Abdullah in New Delhi. Talks with the Hizbul Mujahideen, Fernandes told the Chief Minister, had broken down. Abdullah, those present say, was unperturbed . "I knew that last night," he told one confidant after finally landing in Srinagar at 12-30 p.m., "I knew right from the beginning this would happen."

It was not until 5:30 that evening that the Hizbul Mujahideen's supreme commander, Mohammad Yusuf Shah, who prefers the nom de guerre Syed Salahuddin, let the rest of the world know what had happened. But contrary to the general perception, and de spite the Union government's disgraceful management of the talks, the brief dialogue with the Hizbul Mujahideen could just prove to be the beginning of a genuine political process on the Kashmir issue, rather than its end.

It seems in retrospect that one important problem with the talks is that they went public too soon, and proceeded too fast. Signal intercepts, to which Frontline has had access, suggest that things were not quite in place on July 25, the day after the Hizbul Mujahideen organising chief Abdul Majid Dar announced the ceasefire in Srinagar. The next morning, Ghulam Nabi Khan, the Hizbul Mujahideen's deputy chief who uses the code-name Khalid Saifullah, issued a joint call to field units for an escal ation of the jehad, along with the head of the organisation's Pir Panjal Regiment, code-named Nasr-ul-Islam. The call followed a transmission from the Lashkar-e-Taiba's senior commander, code-named al-Kama, to a field chief code-named Muslim Zarar , demanding surveillance on security installations.

Hours after Khan's wireless announcement, he was preparing for talks with Union government interlocutors. Hizbul Mujahideen control transmitted signals to its field stations D2 and 93 announcing a unilateral ceasefire. Yet, just three days later, station 14, which services the Hizbul Mujahideen's field units in the Rajouri-Poonch belt, told its field units that some 1,000 sathis (helpers, cadre) would be sent across the Line of Control (LoC) soon. Shah, on his part, issued a public proclamation t hat infiltration across the LoC would continue, creating an unstable military situation. Soon afterwards, Hizbul Mujahideen operative Feroz Moulvi was shot dead when he opened fire on an Army patrol. This illustrated just how difficult it would be to ens ure an effective ceasefire without the Hizbul Mujahideen cadre relocated in fixed, agreed locations.

Worst of all, the Hizbul Mujahideen rank and file was taken by surprise. Abdul Majid Dar, the Hizbul Mujahideen chief organiser who initiated the ceasefire, had met both the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) leadership and his senior commanders befo re announcing the ceasefire. But lower level cadre of the organisation were not consulted, and several of them were distinctly unhappy with the turn of events. In Anantnag, Hizb leaders Shabbir Bhaduri and Mohiuddin Ahanger made clear that they did not i ntend to respect a cessation of hostilities. State intelligence learned the Srinagar operative Sayyid Mir, released on bail in November 1999, attempted to buy a second-hand car to plant a bomb in on August 2. And Bashir Mir, the Bandipore District Comman der of the Hizbul Mujahideen, was involved in an attack on an Army camp, one that was publicly attributed to the Lashkar.

After the August 1 massacres, it became clear that the first issue to be addressed were the mechanics of the ceasefire itself. August 15 was not far away, and junior army officers told 15 Corps Commander J.R. Mukherjee that the cessation of operations ag ainst the Hizbul Mujahideen made securing the countryside near impossible. Informers rarely knew which groups they were bringing in information about, and in any case the Hizbul Mujahideen and other organisations often operated in groups. More important, the Hizbul Mujahideen had itself participated in the carnage, targeting the family of one-time pro-India militia member Mushtaq Ahmed Ganai. A system had to be found to make the ceasefire meaningful, but nobody seemed to agree on it.

POLITICAL developments after the ceasefire came into force were even more confused. Dar had flown into Srinagar through Kathmandu in the summer, and sounded out APHC chairman Abdul Gani Bhat, Abdul Gani Lone and Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Geelani was the onl y one of the three who appeared reluctant to go along with the ceasefire plan, but he eventually agreed to the idea. But once the ceasefire was in place, the APHC rapidly realised that it had been marginalised. Bhat, during one interaction with the media , described the talks held between representative of the Union Home Ministry and the Hizbul Mujahideen in Srinagar on August 3 as "directionless". APHC leaders made clear that the focus on the modalities of a ceasefire rather than on political issues and an eventual settlement, served no purpose.

Bhat and his colleagues had worries other than purely political ones. Dar's choice as interlocutor of his old colleague in the Tehreek Jihad-e-Islami, Fazl-ul-Haq Qureishi, had incensed the APHC leadership. Both Dar and Qureishi had their political roots in the People's League, not the Hizbul Mujahideen's parent, the Jamaat-e-Islami, and neither had any real connection with senior figures in the APHC. The choice of Qureishi had marginalised the APHC almost entirely, opening up the prospect that it would be left out of any eventual political settlement. Qureishi, a veteran of secessionist political movements in Jammu and Kashmir, had disassociated himself from armed struggle years earlier, and lives in a modest home in Srinagar's Soura area. In effect, his choice meant that the Hizbul Mujahideen no longer needed the APHC to represent its interests.

Newspapers in Srinagar, normally sympathetic to the APHC, now pilloried its politicians, accentuating the leaders' insecurities. Pakistan, meanwhile, was also concerned at the way events were proceeding. Although there is little doubt that the United Sta tes applied intense pressure to ensure that the ceasefire was realised, Pakistan's military establishment evidently felt that events were proceeding too fast. If a ceasefire was given shape before the political dialogue began, there was a chance that the Hizbul Mujahideen would enter into independent negotiations. That, in turn, would mean that Pakistan would find itself left out of a role in the Hizbul Mujahideen's negotiations with the Union government. Pakistani military strategists had simply not ex pected India to respond so fast to the August 24 ceasefire offer, and now the move threatened to backfire.

Home Secretary Kamal Pande met the Hizbul Mujahideen team against this background on August 3. The media noted that Dar did not attend the talks, but few people understood its import. The central advocate of the ceasefire had handed over responsibility t o his subordinates. Qureishi remained as the interlocutor, but the Hizbul Mujahideen team changed around. Ghulam Nabi Khan, Farooq Sheikh Mirchal, who used the code-name Feroz, Masood Tantrey, a long-time Hizb operative from Doda, and top commander Ghula m Rasool Dar, who uses the nom de guerre Riyaz Rasool, were left to run the show. The Hizbul Mujahideen team, sources told Frontline, was furious over the presence of the media when the talks began. "Don't shoot," a masked Rasool Dar shoute d to photographers, "my life is in danger".

LITTLE other than the modalities for a ceasefire were discussed in the fist meeting: the Hizbul Mujahideen's demands for the release of prisoners and cutbacks in search-and-cordon operations were only briefly considered. But even as teams were named that morning for further talks, Shah announced an August 8 deadline for the involvement of Pakistan in the negotiations. A political dialogue, he said, had to precede an end to hostilities. Qureishi responded by saying that he would do his best to get Shah t o extend that deadline, but his efforts turned out to be futile. Shah was just under too much pressure to agree to any compromise. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's post-Pahalgam declaration in Parliament, under pressure from the Right of his party, that talks could be held within the framework of the Constitution, was the final nail in the ceasefire's coffin.

Unsurprisingly, the second round of talks that was supposed to be held on August 7 was not held. The government's representative, Union Home Ministry Special Secretary M.B. Kaushal, was ostensibly busy with a meeting of Chief Ministers in New Delhi, but it is hard to believe that no substitute could be found, given the fact that the Hizbul Mujahideen deadline was the next day. Quiet dialogue between the Intelligence Bureau, the Research and Analysis Wing, Qureishi and Dar did take place for days, but to no avail. Dar, sources told Frontline, said he was not willing to risk acting independently. Despite Vajpayee's somewhat confused assertion that even issues outside the Constitution could be discussed, Shah had made up his mind. There was no way the Hizbul Mujahideen would risk alienating Pakistan, its loyal sponsor for almost a decade.

Just after 5-30 p.m. on August 8, even as Shah announced that the Hizbul Mujahideen would resume action against targets through India, signals intelligence began jamming six radio frequencies most frequently used by the Hizbul Mujahideen. Army and police personnel fanned out to prevent major violence in the build-up to August 15. Hizbul Mujahideen cadre, many of whom had been visiting their homes through the 11-day ceasefire, (on one occasion some of them even played cricket with villagers), began the t ask of preparing to return to their hideouts in the hills. APHC chairman Bhat announced that his stand had been vindicated, but most ordinary residents of Jammu and Kashmir appeared less delighted. "We want peace," said Srinagar resident Mohammad Shafi. "For a while, I thought we could get it."

Prophecies of doom notwithstanding, it just might happen. Most newspapers have attributed the terrible blast of August 10 which claimed ten lives, including that of The Hindustan Times photographer Pradeep Bhatia, to the Hizbul Mujahideen. But there are reasons to believe that the organisation was not in fact involved in it, and that the bulk of its cadre would support further dialogue. The first claim of responsibility for the attack in fact came from the Lashkar-e-Taiba, and representatives of the org anisation described in detail the car used to carry out the attack and the mode of its theft earlier. The Hizbul Mujahideen subsequently took responsibility, presumably under Pakistani pressure, while the Lashkar-e-Taiba condemned the action. It was the first time that the Lashkar had condemned such a terrorist strike, reason in itself for suspicion about the bomb's origin.

There are other, larger, events which give reason for optimism. At the July 28 meeting of the Majlis-e-Numaindgan, the 90-member lower house of the Jamaat-e-Islami, G.M. Bhat was re-elected Amir of the organisation. He defeated Geelani's nominee, Ashraf Sehrai. Just one member of the house voted for Geelani himself to be elevated from political chief of the organisation to its overall leader. Bhat has for the last two years been calling for an end to violence, and has gone on record to state that the Hi zbul Mujahideen's campaign is defeating the Jamaat's core political objective. Many people within the Jamaat, hard hit in the course of counter-terrorist operations directed at the Hizbul Mujahideen's overground representatives, are also furious with the APHC. Jamaat rukuns (cadre) believe that their organisation, which alone in the APHC has an effective armed wing, is providing a free ride to otherwise irrelevant politicians.

More important, there is little doubt of the existence of a genuine constituency for peace in Jammu and Kashmir today. Past peace initiatives, from elements within the People's League and the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front fold and former terrorists affiliated to the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen, have been greeted with deep scepticism. Often, terrorists who joined the political process were described as traitors. This time, Majid Dar's initiative received widespread support, and the APHC's attacks on it earn ed public fury. The core constituencies of the Islamic Right, lower-level government servants, shopkeepers and elements of the Bar, have also been more than a little disappointed by the collapse of the ceasefire. There is clearly room for further politic al initiatives.

Whether such initiatives come about or not is another question. Vajpayee's mutually-contradictory statements on the dialogue show that there is no consensus on the Hindu Right on Jammu and Kashmir policy. On August 9, Vishwa Hindu Parishad president Giri raj Kishore charged the National Democratic Alliance with harbouring Inter-Services Intelligence moles, a thinly veiled reference to Farooq Abdullah. The National Conference regime and the APHC, for their part, have little interest in pushing a dialogue that could end up making them irrelevant. And while a large-scale schism within the Hizbul Mujahideen hierarchy is unlikely, for it would serve little purpose, it is also clear that few people within the organisation are in a position to take on Pakista n's military establishment.

In key senses, Pakistan holds the key to how events unfold from here. Despite the involvement of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in securing the ceasefire, it is clear that the U.S. has no interest in bringing about a settlement that does not invol ve granting some concessions to Pakistan. Pakistan's military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, for his part, can simply cannot afford to end the violence in Jammu and Kashmir without securing at least a qualified victory, possibly in the form of the gran t of near-complete independence to the Kashmir Valley. How the Union government, which includes figures who have endorsed plans for a sundering of Jammu and Kashmir on communal lines, engages with these facts remains to be seen. At least some indicators should be available by September, when Vajpayee and Musharraf will both be in New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly session.

Meanwhile both troops and insurgents in Jammu and Kashmir will be getting back to business as usual. There is little doubt that the severe losses faced by the Hizbul Mujahideen have been at least in part responsible for the peace initiative, and restorin g counter-terrorist operations to the level of intensity seen earlier this year will take much hard work. And as the battle resumes once again, ordinary people will just have to hope that somebody finds the courage to break the deadlock in the not-too-di stant future.