A considered strategy

Published : Aug 19, 2000 00:00 IST

The Hizbul's offer of ceasefire came as part of a well coordinated move, but the Musharraf government had to back out on its support because it could ill-afford to antagonise the fundamentalist groups.

"The Pakistani armed forces number 500,000 while there are nearly 300,000 armed mujahideen (freedom fighters) in the country. These two sections of society would, inevitably, play the pivotal role in determining Pakistan's India policy."

- from Pakistan's English daily The News, dated July 9.

THESE were the opening lines of an article published in the newspaper, which was part of a special report on Kashmir.

There could be an element of exaggeration regarding the number of armed militants in Pakistan. Nevertheless, the report sums up fairly accurately the situation in the country vis-a-vis the Kashmir tangle. This perception of the situation in Pakist an is the most important factor that contributed to the collapse of the peace process, which started with the unexpected move by the Hizbul Mujahideen to declare a ceasefire and sit across the table with the Indian authorities for dialogue.

There is no way the government of General Pervez Musharraf could have allowed the Hizbul leadership to carry on with New Delhi a negotiation process which allows no role for Islamabad. It can ill-afford to ignore the cries of Pakistan-based militant org anisations and country's religious parties for jehad (holy war). It seriously believes that jehad is the only honourable way to "liberate Kashmir from the clutches of India". The very basis for the military coup against the Nawaz Sharif gov ernment in October last year was the supposed betrayal of the Kashmiri cause by the Sharif regime. One of the main charges against Mian Nawaz Sharif was that he recalled the troops from the Kargil heights under instructions from the White House. He could not be allowed to continue in office after the act of perfidy.

As India and Pakistan blame each other for the missed opportunity, a dispassionate look at the turn of events suggests that neither side can escape responsibility for the end result. India failed to grasp the intent and content of the Hizb declaration. S everal of the assumptions on the Indian side were proved wrong. The presumption that the Hizbul Mujahideen is a Kashmiri-dominated organisation and its ceasefire offer was the result of 'disgust' with the policy of Pakistan to use the Kashmir problem for political gains did not prove entirely correct. No doubt the Hizbul draws the majority of its cadre from Kashmir, but what is underestimated is the fact that it is entirely dependent on Pakistan for material support.

The Hizbul leadership is based in Pakistan and a number of Hizbul leaders have taken shelter in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK). The Hizbul leaders and cadres are not exactly happy with the 'big brother' attitude of Pakistan and Pakistan-based militant o rganisations, but they are for the integration of Kashmir with Pakistan. So the decision of the Hizbul leadership on the ceasefire could well have been at the behest of the Pakistan government.

Why should the Musharraf government encourage the most powerful militant group in Kashmir to declare a ceasefire? For several reasons. Pakistan is under tremendous pressure from the United States and other Western countries to respond to India's concerns about the subversive activities in the valley, with active support from across the border and create conditions conducive to a dialogue.

The government has been desperately looking for legitimacy from the Western bloc, particularly since Pakistan is faced with a serious financial crisis. Moreover, international financial organisations have linked the bailout package to the restoration of democracy and a reduction of tension in South Asia.

The U.S. has been pressuring Pakistan to demonstrate its sincerity to resume negotiations with India. Pressure has also mounted on the government to reciprocate the gestures by India, particularly after the release of important leaders of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC). This is the backdrop against which the Hizbul announcement came.

All said and done, the Hizbul leadership is under the command of the Pakistani establishment, and there are indications that its ceasefire offer had Pakistan's blessings. Perhaps Musharraf calculated that the announcement would ease the pressure on his g overnment and put the ball in India's court. It could have been part of a considered strategy to convey to the rest of the world that the Kashmir militancy was an indigenous movement, and not one sponsored by Pakistan. After all, Pakistan paid a heavy pr ice for the Kargil misadventure, with virtually the whole world turning against it. It is upset about the world opinion on the Kargil conflict and might have seen the Hizbul offer as a counter-move.

THE 15-day ceasefire period witnessed brilliant coordination between the Pakistan government and the Hizbul leadership in Islamabad. Exactly 26 hours after the declaration, Hizbul supremo Syed Salahuddin addressed a news conference, owning up the initiat ive. Simultaneously, two leading lights of the government - Information Minister Javed Jabbar and military spokesman Maj. Gen. Rashid Quereshi - maintained that India should seize the opportunity. There were no conditions attached.

There were numerous reports in the press suggesting that the Musharraf government had initiated a series of confidence-building measures in preparation for the summit meeting between Gen. Musharraf and Vajpayee when both would be in New York for the mill ennium meet at the U.N. in September. But there was a distinct change in the tone and tenor of the Pakistan government and the Hizbul leaders in the days that followed.

What could have caused this? To begin with the ceasefire led to a furore in Pakistan with the fundamentalist groups denouncing it as a betrayal of the cause of Kashmiris. The United Jehadi Council, an umbrella organisation of Pakistan-based organisations , removed Syed Salahuddin as its chairman and the Hizbul Mujahideen from its membership. The chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Quazi Ahmed Hussain, cut short his visit to the U.S. in order to counter the impression that the ceasefire was the result of his me etings with State Department officials. The Hizbul Mujahideen is considered the military wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami, and the consensus in the Pakistani press was that there was no way it could have taken the important decision without the approval of it s parent organisation. But Quazi dismissed it as propaganda by rival groups and accused the government of having engineered the ceasefire to please the U.S. The fundamentalist groups even warned the Musharraf government that it would meet the same fate a s Nawaz Sharif if it harmed the "interests of Kashmiris".

Thus began a series of statements from the government, the refrain being that there could be no solution to the Kashmir problem without the involvement of Pakistan. In an interview to BBC Online, Musharraf listed a number of steps Pakistan expected India to take for a "meaningful and result-oriented dialogue" on the Kashmir issue.

Simultaneously, the Hizbul stepped up its the offensive. Word to word, paragraph to paragraph, and nuance to nuance, it echoed the sentiments of the Pakistan Foreign Office. The brutal killing of 100 civilians on August 1 and 2 in Kashmir sealed the pros pects of any immediate progress towards peace. The ceasefire was over for all practical purposes on August 2 when Hizbul leaders set the deadline of 5 p.m., August 8 for India to accept the conditions of tripartite talks outside the framework of the Indi an Constitution. The press conference of Syed Salahuddin at the stroke of 5 p.m. (Indian Standard Time) - Pakistan time is half an hour behind IST - was a mere ritual.

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