War in the rebel camp

Published : May 01, 2002 00:00 IST

The looming Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir trigger a war between the centrists and the rejectionist coalition in the All Parties Hurriyat Conference.

IN some ways, it is just another pre-election spat. What makes the running feud in the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) different is that none of its constituents is planning to fight the coming Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir. However, the war between the secessionist organisation's centrists and its rejectionist coalition has indeed been sparked off by the looming shadow of those elections. If the factional struggle crystallises before September, when the elections are expected to take place, the centrists might just put up proxy candidates as part of a wider anti-National Conference alliance.

The war of words in the APHC began in mid-April, when the Union government quietly granted centrist leaders Abdul Gani Lone and Umar Farooq permission to travel abroad. The stated reason for granting Lone his passport, which had been withdrawn in 2000, was that that would enable him to travel to the United States for medical treatment. Both Lone and Farooq stopped over in Sharjah for an extended meeting with Sardar Abdul Qayoom Khan, the head of the Kashmir Committee set up by Pakistan's military ruler and President, General Pervez Musharraf. The meeting was the first in several years between major political figures from both sides of the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir.

Lone offered little insight into what was discussed with Khan at the April 17 meeting. "We will go back and take the ideas we discussed here to our respective governments so that the violence can end," he said. "If the (Indian) government is not ready to allow self-determination" Lone continued, "the alternative is that it should be ready to settle the dispute through a meaningful dialogue involving all parties concerned."

This itself was of a piece with stated APHC policy. What was significant was that Lone did not join Abdul Qayoom Khan in attacking India's human rights record in Jammu and Kashmir the previous day. Even more important, in a subsequent interview, he demanded that jehadi groups "leave us alone", as they were defaming the 'freedom movement'.

Such language is not new for Lone. At his son's wedding to the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) leader Amanullah Khan's daughter two years ago, he had launched a similar broadside, while being in Pakistan itself. His anti-terrorist declarations there created something of a sensation.

Subsequently, on December 28, 2000, the Union government conceded the APHC's demands that its members be allowed to travel to Pakistan for dialogue with leaders there. It, however, insisted that the hard-line Jamaat-e-Islami leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, did not travel with the rest of the APHC. This effectively scuppered the APHC's travel plans. Geelani let it be known that he believed his colleagues were engaged in cutting a private deal with the Union government and complained of "a lack of trust in the (APHC) leadership".

APHC chairman Abdul Gani Bhat responded a week later, making it clear that the organisation was not "taken into confidence and hence won't be bound by any decision taken at the meeting". He said the statements made by Lone and Farooq had "caused misgivings" in the organisation, and described their meeting as a "sponsored conclave". A few days later, Geelani joined in, strongly attacking Lone's anti-jehad position and insisting that the APHC would not participate in any elections. With Lone away, Farooq was left to carry the torch for the centrists. "If some of our senior leaders with greater experience have any doubts," he told a Friday congregation in downtown Srinagar on April 26, "they should talk to us rather than creating confusion amongst the masses."

Geelani was under fire from another quarter that afternoon: his own organisation. A meeting of the Jamaat-e-Islami chaired by its Amir (supreme leader) Ghulam Mohammad Bhat said Geelani's pro-jehad statements were made "in a personal capacity". The Jamaat reiterated its long-standing formal position that it wanted "peaceful tripartite political talks". It supported the "conciliatory and anti-jehad stance adopted by Umar Farooq and Abdul Gani Lone". Amir-e-Jamaat Bhat and Geelani have never made any real secret of their dislike for each other ever since the Jamaat-e-Islami chief said the organisation had nothing to do with Hizbul Mujahideen, and subsequently backed the dissident, pro-peace leadership of Abdul Majid Dar.

As things stand, the rejectionist platform in the APHC stands at a crossroads. It has friends in the powerful Pakistan-based terrorist groups, which proclaimed Geelani to be their sole representative in the wake of the Sharjah-inspired spat. Some overseas Kashmiri leaders, notably United Kingdom-based Ayub Thakur, have also backed Geelani. "The political weight of the APHC leaders," a press release issued by Thakur reads, "is only because of jehad, which they had waged a few years ago and which thousands of Kashmiri youth are waging." It continues: "Neither Lone nor Umar (Farooq) is doing jehad, nor Sardar Qayoom. They cannot decide about stopping jehad, as only the Mujahideen could decide about it and they have not authorised anybody to decide about it on their behalf."

With permission or otherwise, though, the rejectionist front knows that its time is running out. With Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah set to win the September elections, they understand that he will be in a credible position to block any Union government-inspired dialogue on the State's future. Bhat has therefore been speaking of a secret plan for dialogue, although he has repeatedly refused to make clear its contours. Key rejectionist leaders have also floated the idea of parallel elections and set up an independent 'Election Commission'. But the centrists, too, face similar obstacles.

Given the APHC leaders' limited spheres of influence, there is no real guarantee that they will be able to win an election. Farooq's religious status notwithstanding, the long-standing joke in Srinagar is that his political influence extends only as far as a stone may be thrown in any direction from the top of the Jama Masjid.

Amarjit Singh Dulat, officer on special duty in the Prime Minister's Office and former Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) chief, visited Srinagar in end-April to see what could be salvaged from the situation. The ground reality, however, is bleak. The centrists had pinned their hopes on Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee guaranteeing them a dialogue on the State's future after they proved their representative status. Given the hawkish mood in his party post-Gujarat, Vajpayee does not appear to be in any position to make such a declaration. The sole prospect that remains is that the APHC centrists may put up some proxy candidates to test the waters. These candidates may join in a broad anti-National Conference formation.

That anti-National Conference sentiment will be enough to buttress the legitimacy of the centrists seems unlikely. What direction the rejectionists will take after the elections is also unclear. For all the froth, there is little ground movement in Jammu and Kashmir politics. The Sharjah meeting, like so many initiatives of the past, could yet turn out to be much ado about nothing.

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