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A ceasefire in Kashmir

Print edition : Aug 05, 2000 T+T-

For the moment, both India and the Hizbul Mujahideen have an interest in making sure it works, but the real dangers lie further in the future.

FOR most ordinary people of Jammu and Kashmir, the Hizbul Mujahideen's announcement of a ceasefire has had immediate and tangible consequences. Buses from Srinagar are no longer stopped every few kilometres. There are fewer search operations, and farmers heading out to water their fields at night are discovering that their chances of ending up dead in the process have markedly declined. There is little doubt that the ceasefire announcement, and the Indian government's responses to it, have provoked more optimism than any other event since the Assembly elections which brought the National Conference (N.C.) to power last year. But it is also true no one is celebrating - at least not yet. Jammu and Kashmir has seen more than one sunset that was mistaken f or a dawn, and there are more than a few reasons to believe that peace is not just around the corner this time either.

ABDUL MAJID DAR, under intense pressure from the security forces, had left for Pakistan in 1997 and shown little inclination to return. He had little to return to. The Hizb's cadre in Jammu and Kashmir had been at the receiving end of a major onslaught i n the wake of the Kargil War. Pakistani cadre from the Harkat-ul-Ansar, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, and, most recently, the Jaish-e-Mohammadi, had increasingly displaced the Hizb's predominantly Kashmiri recruits, sometimes relegating them to humiliating roles as porters and guides. Some Hizb leaders had begun to consider their options. At least one of the top Kashmir valley commanders, Ghulam Nabi Khan, was rumoured early this year to be flirting with political factions in both the People's Democratic Party a nd the N.C.

To add to the Hizb's troubles, its leadership in Muzaffarabad was anything but united. As Frontline first reported earlier this year (March 31), rifts had started showing up within the once-monolithic Hizbul Mujahideen. The organisation's supreme commander, Mohammad Yusuf Shah, better known by his nom de guerre Syed Salahuddin, faced sustained flak from second-rung leaders Riyaz Rasool and Ghulam Nabi Nowshera. Nowshera and Rasool, sources say, complained that Shah was not committing comma nders close to him to the bloody conflict in Jammu and Kashmir, allowing them instead to hide in Muzaffarabad. Mirroring splits within the organisation's parent, the Jamaat-e-Islami, some believed that the armed struggle was a futile one. Disgusted by th ese feuds and unsure of the future, Dar repeatedly turned down Shah's efforts to send him back to Kashmir.

Early this year, top Hizb commanders sent out feelers through a United States-based Kashmiri to the Indian government, exploring the possibility of a ceasefire. The Prime Minister's Office responded some six months back, through Research and Analysis Win g (RAW) chief A.S. Dulat. An India-based intermediary was sent to Pakistan, where a covert dialogue began on ceasefire plans and the possibility of talks with the government. After months of discussion, Dar asked to return to India. He would, the Hizb co mmander told his interlocutor, sound out the field cadre in Jammu and Kashmir on what position they thought the organisation should take on a possible ceasefire. The Hizb commander arrived in India late this April, with guarantees of protection from the many units of the Army and police who had long awaited his return.

Dar rapidly discovered a large constituency within the Hizb which wanted peace. He found a powerful ally in its deputy chief for the Kashmir Valley, who operates under the code name Masood Tantrey. District level commanders were sounded out next, and all but the head of the Hizb's Pir Panjal regiment, who operates in the Rajouri-Poonch area, proved receptive to the idea of a ceasefire. Within the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), Abdul Ghani Bhatt and Abdul Ghani Lone enthusiastically endorsed Dar 's plans. The Jamaat-e-Islami's political chief, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, was less enthusiastic, but was finally pressured into accepting the emerging position. The stage had been set for Dar's announcements.

A small group of Srinagar-based journalists were invited to meet the Hizbul Mujahideen commander-in-chief of operations at a secluded safehouse on July 24. It was perhaps one of the most dramatic press conferences ever held through Jammu and Kashmir's decade of terror. The Hizb's unilateral three-month ceasefire, Dar argued, was necessary to allow the initiation of a political process. The Hizb, he said, had to "dispel Indian propaganda that we are terrorists, rather than a people fighting for our bi rthright - freedom". He laid down few preconditions. The ceasefire, Dar said, was subject to the cessation of Indian violence against civilians and political activists. Then, he said, the use of the ceasefire by India as a "tactical weapon" for propagand a would subvert its purpose.

Much of the proceedings of the press conference was used to spell out the Hizb's larger political strategy. The Union government's nascent offer of dialogue with the Hurriyat, Dar suggested, was a positive development. "Let them talk to anybody," he said . "The aim of the exercise should be to resolve the issue amicably, through a dialogue without preconditions." The Hizb, Dar continued, would encourage politicians from India and abroad to visit the State, and participate in a process of dialogue with it s people. Conscious of the reaction his statement was certain to provoke from Pakistan-based far-Right groups, Dar described their cadre "our brothers who have come to our help". "Once the problem is resolved amicably and peace is restored," Dar conclude d, "they will return peacefully."

Peace was not on minds of any of the Pakistan-based jehadi organisations. The next day, news of Dar's press conference and Shah's subsequent endorsement of his stand were both blacked out on Pakistani television. The United Jihad Council, a coalit ion of 14 Pakistan-based terrorist groups operating in Jammu and Kashmir, promptly removed Shah from his post as chief of the organisation, and demanded that the Hizb immediately withdraw its ceasefire offer. Shah was deemed a traitor to the cause, and w idely condemned. And on July 26, the Jaish-e-Mohammadi, the Jamaat-e-Mujahideen, and the al-Omar Mujahideen claimed credit for a series of six bomb blasts in Srinagar, which they said had been set off to protest against the ceasefire.

Caught off guard, the APHC promptly reneged on its earlier commitments to Dar. Bhatt, who had been elected chairman of the organisation on July 20, defeating Lone by one vote, failed to stand up for a deal he himself had endorsed. A press release put out by the organisation did not condemn the ceasefire in itself, but said that it was "a step taken in haste". "The Hizb leadership," it argued, "has also failed to perceive the Indian machinations and cunning behaviour that has always been there to divide Kashmiri opinion on issues like this." At once, however, the APHC insisted that the dispute on Kashmir "should be resolved through peaceful means, to ensure the prosperity of the region". Taken by surprise at the speed at which events had moved, the APHC was clearly nervous about being left out in a potential dialogue between the Hizb and the Indian government.

WHAT are the prospects of such dialogue taking place? Both Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Union Home Minister L.K. Advani, who had been briefed right through the covert dialogue with the Hizb, welcomed the ceasefire. Shah briefly sought to cover his flanks, saying that a dialogue within the framework of the Indian Constitution would be fruitless, but a wide spectrum of secessionist leaders appear to have reacted with some optimism to the Union government's declaration. None of this, however, ob scured the difficult questions that a possible dialogue with the Hizb has opened. What could the Union government eventually concede to the organisation? Would hawks on the Hindu Right allow even a deal built around autonomy to go through? And could the Hizb settle for a deal that falls short of near-independence?

One disturbing sign has come from the involvement of the United States, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in particular, in setting up the ceasefire. It has not passed unnoticed that the ceasefire came shortly after the head of Pakistan's Jamaat-e-Is lami, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, concluded a series of top-level meetings in Washington with State Department officials. The fact that Shah and Dar were allowed to conduct a ceasefire dialogue in the first place indicates that the CIA exerted all the influence at its command on Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).

This deepening U.S. involvement in Jammu and Kashmir could push India into conceding damaging solutions peddled by Washington-based figures, notably conceding autonomy to the Kashmir Valley while sundering it from Leh and Jammu. As Jammu and Kashmir Law Minister P.L. Handoo recently pointed out, Vajpayee has failed to respond to repeated calls to rule out publicly the prospect of a carving up of the state on communal lines.

Nor is it clear that the ISI will respond to the ceasefire by allowing a sustained reduction in the levels of violence. Following the July 25 deliberations of the United Jihad Council, fringe groups in Pakistan have begun scrambling to occupy the space v acated by the Hizbul Mujahideen, and competing for the funds available from the ISI. Mushtaq Aksari, the head of the al-Badr faction of the Hizb, made up of Pakistani cadre, proclaimed that his one-time Kashmiri comrades-in-arms would be "dealt with as o ther traitors are". The Harkat-ul-Ansar's Maulana Fazlul Rahman Khaleel, who has been under intense pressure applied by the U.S. through the ISI, in turn announced that Dar had been "bought by the Indians". The emerging lines of confrontation between the Hizb and other groups could lead to a sharp escalation of violence in the not-too-distant future.

For the moment, both India and the Hizb have a strong interest in making sure that the ceasefire works. Although sources say that there have been half a dozen minor skirmishes between troops and Hizb formations since July 25, 15 Corps Commander J.F. Mukh erjee has made it clear that he intends to respect the ceasefire. On at least three occasions, the Jammu and Kashmir Police's Special Operations Group units have chosen not to act on information received on the location of Hizb commanders. In the weeks t o come, sources say, the modalities for monitoring the ceasefire, which would probably involve Hizb cadre locating themselves at defined fixed locations, will be set in place.

The real dangers lie further in the future. If dialogue begins, or if it proves fruitless, India could be placed in an embarrassing position. If a U.S.-authored dialogue does go through, and it ends in a Bharatiya Janata Party-sponsored tearing apart of Jammu and Kashmir, it could be even worse.

THE changing contours of politics within Jammu and Kashmir constitute yet another layer of uncertainty over the shape of events to come. One important event is the election of the new chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Hizb's political wing. On July 28, t he 90-member Majlis-e-Numaindgan, the lower house of representatives of the Jamaat-e-Islami, began deliberations on the issue. Its choice, made through a process of discussion rather than formal candidature, could have a bearing on the Hizb's plans. The Jamaat's Amir, G.M. Bhatt, paved the way for the ceasefire over a year ago when he called for an end to the armed struggle, arguing that it had achieved nothing. His principal challenger this year, the schoolteacher-turned-politician Ashraf Sehrai, is al so believed to favour dialogue, but has been a long-time associate of the hawkish Geelani.

APHC leaders, meanwhile, appear increasingly confused over the prospects of their own proposed negotiations with the Union government. A spectrum of figures, ranging from one-time journalist R.K. Mishra to former Foreign Secretary M.K. Rasgotra, are beli eved to have been engaged in informal dialogue with the APHC leadership, but neither the content nor the contours of the discussions are known. The fact that the Union government has been willing to engage in a dialogue with secessionists but not with el ected representatives has, in turn, infuriated many within the N.C. Despite Vajpayee's conciliatory gestures to the party on the occasion of Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah's mother's funeral, the fact is that the bulk of the BJP leadership is arrayed aga inst any constitutional concessions of the kind he has demanded.

Many of these questions may acquire a sharper form after Prime Minister Vajpayee arrives in the U.S. on September 15. At least some observers believe that President Bill Clinton sees progress on Jammu and Kashmir as a kind of consolation prize after the breakdown of his initiatives on West Asia. The number of figures on the Hindu Right arguing for a cutting apart of Jammu and Leh from the Kashmir Valley in return for autonomy to the Valley is growing, which is a matter for disquiet. As important, it is unclear whether the Union government's initiatives to engage with the Hizb and the APHC are underpinned by any cogent vision of where it wishes a dialogue to lead to, and what it might be willing to concede. Except in the unlikely event that Vajpayee fin ds the resolve to move beyond covert initiatives, and initiates a genuine political debate on Jammu and Kashmir, it is hard to see the sound and fury signifying anything much very soon.