Volte-face in Kashmir

Print edition : March 02, 2002

Massacres executed by Kashmir-based militants continue as APHC leaders move on the idea of conducting elections as the first step towards a communal division of the troubled State.

"PLEASE don't kill the children," 40-year-old Jatti Devi begged the armed men who had entered her home, "they've done no harm to anyone."

A few minutes later, she and seven other members of her family lay dead inside their house at the village of Bhambal Majra, near Rajouri. Five of those killed were children between the ages of one and 13. Seven others, all members of the twin homes of brothers Suran Chand and Nathu Ram, were injured in that February 17 massacre, believed to have been carried out by a local unit of the Lashkar-e-Toiba.

Such massacres are not new in rural Jammu. Last February, 15 Muslims of Kot Charwal village, a two-hour walk from Bhambal Majra were killed, after they set up a village defence group to protect their homes from terrorist attacks. On another front, the political project represented by such massacres - the sundering of Jammu and Kashmir along communal lines - is gathering renewed momentum.

APHC leaders Yasin Malik, Moulana Umar Farooq, Abdul Ghani Bhat, Sheikh Abdul Aziz, Moulana Abbas Ansari and Abdul Ghani Lone at a meeting in Srinagar, a December 2000 file picture. The top leadership is divided on the issue of holding an APHC-sponsored election in Jammu and Kashmir.-FAYAZ KABLI/REUTERS

In late January, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) announced that it would hold elections to establish its claim as the sole representative of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. APHC chairman Abdul Ghani Bhat told journalists that while its leaders were "representatives of the people like Yasser Arafat, Nelson Mandela and Mohandas Gandhi", they felt the need for an election since "in the changed world scenario, some quarters challenged our representative character". Five days before the Bhambal Majra massacre, the APHC made public the names of its election commissioners. Kathmandu-based human rights activist Tapan Bose and former Pakistan Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah are to lead it. A Jammu-based newspaper editor Ved Bhasin, Srinagar-based academic Zafar Mehdi, Ladakh academic Siddiq Wahid, and former judge Raja Khursheed, who is a resident of Kotli in Pakistan-held Kashmir, are its other members.

This decision needs to be read in the context of another key decision, this time one the APHC chose not to make. For the first time since 1996, the organisation did not call for a boycott of an Indian-administered election - the February 21 byelection for the Jammu Lok Sabha seat. Terrorist groups, by contrast, were doing their best to disrupt the election. They fired 107-mm rockets into the middle of Rajouri town on February 21, and burned down homes once used to accommodate soldiers in the Buffliaz and Surankote areas of Poonch. In effect, the APHC was signalling that it was willing to surrender political space in Jammu to the Indian state. A similar concession was made to Pakistan. While each of the commission members was chosen to represent a region of undivided Jammu and Kashmir, there was no representative from Gilgit and Baltistan, which Pakistan has annexed.

No one in the APHC has as yet spoken of the mechanics of an election, and it is improbable that any will ever be held. The APHC simply does not have the logistical capability for such an exercise, even if the Indian state allowed it to go ahead. And, as Tapan Bose himself pointed out, any such exercise was predicated on the unlikely prospect of an end to violence and the cooperation of both India and Pakistan. But, interestingly, the organisation has spoken of the possibility of holding elections in phases across different regions. More than the actual realisation of the prospect, what is important are the signals it convey. Any regional election would lead to varied results. The Hindu-majority areas of Jammu and the mainly Buddhist Leh would, without dispute, reject the APHC, which would at best secure support in parts of the six districts of the Kashmir Valley. Such an exercise would mirror proposals for a district-wise referendum in the Kashmir Valley put out by former Pakistan Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz in the wake of the Lahore Summit between Prime Ministers Atal Behari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif. In effect, the referendum would have led to a final division of Jammu and Kashmir along ethnic-communal lines.

Leaders like the Jamaat-e-Islami's Syed Ali Shah Geelani have backed the partition idea in the past. This time, however, the Islamist Right does not seem to be pulling the strings. In late 2000, top APHC leader Yasin Malik had met a key United States-based supporter of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, Usman Rahim, who was granted a visa to visit India. The meeting led to an extended tour of the U.S. by Malik last summer, during which he met diplomats, academics and bureaucrats dealing with the Jammu and Kashmir issue. Among the major ideas floated during the visit was one of creating a support base within the U.S. for pro-independence organisations, and displacing the mainly Pakistan-affiliated group of Ghulam Nabi Fai. Malik also met academics affiliated with the Kashmir Study Group. The KSG has long advocated the proposal that the Line of Control (LoC) be converted into a formal border, but with the caveat that the Muslim-majority areas of Indian Jammu and Kashmir acquire quasi-sovereign status. In April 2001, the KSG's founder and sponsor, Farooq Kathwari, played a key role in the Bush administration's first major Kashmir policy conference.

On his return to India, Malik found the APHC transformed by the events of September 11. By late January, APHC leaders Abdul Ghani Lone and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq were considering the prospect of participating in the coming Assembly elections, subject to the caveat that they would do so to establish their credentials, not to govern the state. Figures close to Lone and Farooq were also floating the prospect of backing independent candidates, who would commit themselves not to take their seats in the Assembly. The idea was resisted by the Right in the APHC, notably Geelani. But it also posed a very real threat to centrists like Malik and Bhat, who have no independent political constituency of their own and little, therefore, to gain from participation in the elections. The three made common cause and forced the decision to have a separate APHC-administered election on January 28 on the APHC. Neither Lone or Farooq was present at the February 12 meeting.

What might Malik and Bhat hope to secure through the new election proposal? No one is certain just what Malik was told in the U.S. by his academic and official interlocutors, but recent public pronouncements from that country have been significant. On November 11, standing next to Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, President George Bush announced that he had "assured the Pakistan President that my country will do what we can to bring parties together to have good, meaningful discussion on Kashmir so that we can come up with a solution". Although the U.S. has repeatedly denied that it wishes to mediate on the issue, the term "we" is of obvious significance. A joint statement issued later reiterated the long-standing U.S. policy, and called on India and Pakistan to "resolve the Kashmir issue through diplomacy and dialogue in mutually acceptable ways that take into account the wishes of the people of Kashmir". Bush repeated the message during Musharraf's February visit, adding that he would "press" India for such talks.

Malik, then, may well have been told that U.S. support would follow if the APHC could prove that it did indeed represent the wishes of the people of Kashmir. Signs are that he has taken the message to heart. All the members of the APHC election commission, sources told Frontline, were chosen by the JKLF leader. Some are personal friends, notably Zafar Mehdi, who accompanied Malik through part of his journey through the U.S. Malik's main problem now will be to deal with dissent from within the APHC. Three days after the constitution of the election commission was announced, G.M. Bhat, a senior leader of the Farooq Abdullah-led Awami Action Committee, told a prayer congregation that "elections are an exercise in democracy and help in gauging the popularity of a party or organisation". "They are also," he added, in case the point had been missed, "a touchstone to test the people's confidence". Another secessionist leader outside the APHC, Shabbir Shah, also rejected the election proposal, saying that the organisation was "trying to make the situation complicated in order to please someone".

PAKISTAN has been maintaining a stoic silence on the issue. Some analysts believe that Pakistani officials may have expected India to arrest the top APHC leadership in the wake of the election commission announcement, and then use that to accuse New Delhi of intransigence. Meanwhile, Pakistan continues to use carefully calibrated violence as an instrument of policy in Jammu and Kashmir, exposing the widespread myth that Musharraf is serious about terminating the activities of the Islamist Right. While attacks on civilians and security force personnel have declined in the Kashmir zone after his January 12 address to his nation, levels of violence in the communally fragile Jammu region are at record levels. Killings of civilians and attacks on security forces reached an all-time high in the month after Musharraf's speech. By contrast, the Kashmir zone has not seen a single fidayeen (suicide squad) attack since an assault on the Brigade Headquarters at Trehgam on January 8. In general, levels of violence in the zone have declined to their levels before the 1999 Kargil war.

Two major explanations can be offered for this contrasting tactical pattern. First, high levels of violence in Jammu will help deepen of fissures between Hindus and Muslims, a necessary condition for any enterprise to cut apart Jammu and Kashmir. It also maintains military pressure on India, without which Pakistan understands that India is unlikely ever to be willing to engage in political dialogue on Jammu and Kashmir. At once, the decline in levels of violence in the high-profile Kashmir zone allows Musharraf to argue that he is indeed serious about restricting the activities of terrorist groups. In this enterprise he may have been helped by the weather. Intelligence estimates of infiltration across the LoC suggest that only some 30 terrorists moved into Jammu and Kashmir in all of January, followed by a similar number in the first fortnight of February. These figures, less than a quarter of the officially estimated normal infiltration levels, are however similar to those of 1999, the last time heavy snowfall was recorded along the LoC.

Come summer, Pakistan's military establishment will have the opportunity to bring about a significant escalation in hostilities. Musharraf, however, has two key considerations to bear in mind. First, with troops still massed along the LoC, any major terrorist attack on top political figures could provoke a military response from India. "Even an unauthorised assault which claimed the life of a senior Army officer," says one senior officer of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps, "could lead to at least localised hostilities." Although the absence of large-scale terrorist attacks in the Kashmir zone suggests that there is pressure on the Islamist Right to hold back, just how long the Pakistan military establishment can sustain this near-ceasefire is unclear. One reason the Pakistan Army may have chosen to remain on the LoC despite the near-certainty that a full-scale war will not break out, losing an opportunity to embarrass India internationally, is the prospect of localised retaliatory actions provoked by a major terrorist attack.

Just how events shape up depends not a little on whether the U.S. wishes to pressure Pakistan to de-escalate hostilities. Bush's ongoing romance with Musharraf makes it seem improbable that the General will be told to terminate terrorist movement across the LoC. "What does it take for a military dictator to get respect in Washington these days?" asked journalist Laura Flanders, in the web magazine "Working For Change", of Musharraf's recent visit to the U.S.? "The same thing it has always taken - a willingness to play along with the White House's game. The deadly game of our particular times is the 'war against terror'. Playing along with that can get you no end of respect and debt relief. It can get you called 'President' too. 'Military dictator' is a term reserved for U.S. foes, after all," she wrote.

America's war in Afghanistan, greeted so enthusiastically by the Hindu Right, has turned out to be a gift to Musharraf, as its last war in Afghanistan was for his predecessor, Zia-ul-Haq.

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