Unsuccessful strategy

Print edition : July 18, 1998

Farooq Abdullah has not been able to use his leverage at the Centre to secure concrete developmental gains for J&K; meanwhile, the space is widening for the Opposition forces in the State.

A STRANGE stillness prevails in Srinagar. The city appears untouched by the summer thunder of artillery along the Line of Control (LoC) and the gun battles between security forces and insurgents in the forests of Kupwara. Tens of thousands of pilgrims attended night-long prayers at the Hazratbal shrine to mark the birth anniversary of Prophet Mohammad on June 7, numbers unknown through Jammu and Kashmir's decade of carnage. Over 2,500 tourists are estimated to have visited the Kashmir Valley this year, and each weekend, massive crowds of holidayers gather at the Gulmarg cable car base, and the Shalimar and Nishat gardens. "Last week," noted a police official wryly, "we had the first drunken brawl in Srinagar since the trouble began. I suppose that is what you might call normalcy."

But this is a calm that it will take very little to shatter. International pressure on India in the wake of the Pokhran-II tests have opened space both for secessionist political formations, notably the All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC), and for terrorist groups. If the massing in Jammu of mercenaries imported from fundamentalist institutions throughout Pakistan predated the Pokhran tests, there are signs that Pakistan intends to escalate tensions further this autumn. Equally dangerous for the National Conference Government, a financial crisis, widespread allegations of corruption and an evident administrative collapse have contributed to a resurgence of legitimate Opposition forces. Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah's embrace of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition government at the Centre has led to an erosion of the National Conference's core ideological platforms: autonomy for the State, the revival of development and the bringing about of peace.

Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah.-SANDEEP SAXENA

The Abdullah Government's ideologues point to the State's dependence on New Delhi to legitimise their support for the BJP-led Government. As the recent emergency bail-out of the State's finances by the Union Government illustrated, Jammu and Kashmir's future is contingent on New Delhi's munificence. By early June, almost all infrastructure and public works in the State had come to a halt because the State Government did not have the funds to meet its debts. Unpaid bills of Rs.591 crores had reportedly piled up at the State treasury, and the Jammu and Kashmir Bank, of which the State Government is the major shareholder, refused to extend further credit after the legally mandated overdraft of Rs.545 crores was stretched to almost twice that amount. Sources told Frontline that there was a serious risk that the State would have to default on salaries, which, in the wake of the implementation of the Fifth Pay Commission's recommendations, would cost the State Government Rs.300 crores a year in addition to arrears of Rs.120 crores.

A series of increasingly desperate appeals for aid finally brought the Jammu and Kashmir Government an on-account release of Rs.250 crores, pending an eventual settlement of the State's demands with the Union Finance Ministry and the Planning Commission.

State Government officials argue that the roots of the crisis lie in the fact that the State has been left to meet its growing burden of security expenditure unaided. Since the rise of terrorism in 1989, State officials say, the Union Government has reimbursed Rs.887.30 crores of Rs.1,684 crores spent on security. The reimbursement of the remainder would help reduce the State's deficit, which is expected to rise from Rs.1,143 crores this March to Rs.1,544 crores next year. The quantum of Central loans quadrupled from Rs.554 crores in 1980-81 to Rs.2,250 crores in 1997-98, and their servicing burden as a percentage of outstandings rose from 10 per cent to 19 per cent over the period. Given the near-collapse of key industries such as tourism and the devastation of its infrastructure, Jammu and Kashmir's case for special assistance is clearly strong.

Yet, if the raison d'etre of Abdullah's support for the BJP-led Government was to secure such aid, it is evident that the strategy has not succeeded: the Rs.250-crore bail-out is just a drop in the ocean, and no firm commitments on long-term aid have been made. The BJP has in fact been considerably more tight-fisted on Jammu and Kashmir than the United Front governments of Prime Ministers H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral, both of whom had made available funds for long-term infrastructure redevelopment. Finance Ministry officials have made no secret of their unhappiness with Jammu and Kashmir's financial claims, arguing that the roots of the crisis lie in the profligacy of the Abdullah Government. While this argument is at best one-sided, it does illustrate the BJP establishment's ambivalence on the National Coinference. The commitments that the BJP made have not been honoured. A sum of Rs.200 crores promised for modernising and upgrading the strength of the police force in the wake of the Chapnari massacre, for one, is yet to materialise.

ABDULLAH'S inability to translate his affiliation with the BJP into developmental benefits for the State, its stated purpose, has begun to erode his political base. Former Chief Minister Ghulam Mohammad Shah's decision to reappear on Kashmir's political landscape illustrates the widening opposition space in the State. Shah, best known for the infamous 1984 palace coup in which he replaced his brother-in-law, Farooq Abdullah, had for the past several months been attempting a rapprochement with the National Conference, but to little effect. On July 6, he finally made public his re-emergence as a political entity, charging the BJP with having engineered the Chapnari massacre and the Chief Minister with being a "yes-man of the Centre". Shah singled out the Rashtriya Rifles and the State police's Special Operations Group (SOG) as examples of Abdullah's failures. "Even the aged and respectable people, children and womenfolk are not spared by these vultures and have been subjected to the worst kind of humiliation in the name of crackdowns, search operations and fake encounters," he said.

While Shah's presence in the State's politics is at best peripheral, his choice of polemical strategy builds on the evident success of the strategy deployed by former Union Home Minister and now Congress(I) member of Parliament from Anantnag Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. Sayeed's victory from Anantnag in this year's Lok Sabha elections was built on winning over large sections of the pro-APHC constituency through attacks on Abdullah and the security establishment he presides over. On June 26, Congress(I) leaders, including Sayeed's daughter and member of the Legislative Assembly Mehbooba Mufti and former State Minister Ghulam Hassan Mir, made public a letter they wrote to the Governor attacking what they described as the National Conference's "bullet for bullet policy". Far from bringing about a reconciliation, they argued, the National Conference's term in office had created "more serious estrangement". Sayeed, in line with his political position since 1996, argued that the sole solution lay in "a broad-based dialogue with various segments of public and political opinion", a formulation interpreted in the past to include factions of the APHC and members of terrorist groups.

This emerging oppositional platform not only threatens the National Conference, but has whittled away the APHC constituency. Mehbooba Mufti's recent claims that over 900 women had been molested by the SOG in the Brangi area, for example, were clearly targeted at the APHC's anti-National Conference ranks. While APHC chairman and Jamaat-e-Islami political chief Syed Ali Shah Geelani has repeatedly called for a role for his organisation in the dialogue on Jammu and Kashmir's future, the absence of a mass base for the organisation has become evident. The APHC's suspension of Shabbir Shah after he floated the Democratic Freedom Party (DFP) in May was not followed by his expulsion, despite demands from terrorist groups and rumours that he was flirting with Sayeed, Muzaffar Baig, who unsuccessfully contested the Lok Sabha elections from Baramullah, and G.M. Shah. The Hizbul Mujahideen, for example, had charged Shah with wanting to "build castles on the graves of martyrs", while the far right Dukhtaran-e-Millat women's organisation claimed that after having "started his career as a pro-Pakistan activist", the DFP chief had "ended up joining hands with India".

HOW does one account for the APHC's failure to translate international support for an India-Pakistan dialogue on Kashmir into popular endorsement for its own stand? The answers are not difficult to find. For one, the rise of politicians such as Sayeed and G.M. Shah has created democratic platforms for its one-time constituents, eroding its authority. Then, there is more than a little dissension within the organisation's ranks. The Jamaat-e-Islami's Amir (supreme leader), G.M. Bhatt, has repeatedly described the armed struggle as being redundant in the current political context, placing his notional deputy Geelani in an embarrassing position. Perhaps most important of all, APHC leaders are far from certain that an India-Pakistan dialogue on Kashmir, even one imposed by the West, would serve their interests in any meaningful way. In June 1997, for example, APHC leader Abdul Gani Lone had attacked the creation of a joint working group on Kashmir, claiming that Prime Ministers I.K. Gujral and Nawaz Sharif shared the "colonial attitude" that the State's people could be "sold like cabbages in the bazaar".

Yet, it would be incorrect to believe that the political marginalisation of the APHC means that its significance as a platform for legitimising violence has come to an end. In key senses, the APHC's political power rested on the influence of armed terrorist groups, and should violence escalate in the Kashmir Valley, the formation could again acquire importance.

At least two developments are of particular significance. The recovery by the SOG on July 7 of a record quantity of 13 assault rifles, three universal machine guns, three rocket launchers and a dozen remote control devices used to trigger explosives illustrated that considerable caches of arms and explosives remain in Srinagar. Just a week before this recovery, over a quintal of explosive materials were found stored, along with assault rifles, in a place located less than 200 metres from the State Secretariat. Then, Army troops shot dead 27 terrorists in the Nowgam sector of Kupwara in an exchange of fire, trying to stop the first major infiltration attempt after 10 days of shelling along the LoC. "The guns are there, the explosives are there," says Superintendent of Police (Operations) Manohar Singh. "If we fail to check infiltration, what we have achieved in Srinagar could soon be undone."

It is precisely this realisation that the National Conference no longer appears to have. Political issues like greater autonomy for the State have been relegated to the drawer in deference to the BJP's position on Article 370, and promises of development have been subverted by corruption and nepotism. Security policy appears equally confused and unfocussed. In early July, Farooq Abdullah publicly promised promotions for four officers of the SOG and then publicly went back on this promise owing to factional political considerations. Army and paramilitary officials make no bones about their irritation with what they believe is an unsupportive government. And within the National Conference itself, there are not-so-muted murmurs of rebellion, provoked by Abdullah's decision to appoint his son and Srinagar MP Umar Abdullah as the head of the party's youth wing, signalling his status as heir-apparent.

Jammu and Kashmir's ship of state, it is evident, still floats. But it does not move: not for want of oarsmen, but because their paddles are flapping several feet above water, in pointless frenzy.

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