A peace under pressure

Print edition : February 17, 2001

Will the peace process in Jammu and Kashmir survive the latest massacre of Sikhs in Srinagar?

JUST three months into Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's loudly advertised ceasefire, an end to the violence in Jammu and Kashmir seems as improbable as it was at any given point during the past decade. The February 3 massacre of six Sikh residents o f Mehjoor Nagar in Srinagar, and the rioting that followed it, shows just how fragile the peace process, or what passes for one, is. Deep communal fissures in Jammu and Kashmir, the continued offensive by the Islamic Right, the failure of centrist politi cians to make headway: these factors seem to have stretched the process to breaking point. The pressures are mounting on all the participants, and it is far from clear whether the dialogue will survive until the coming spring.

Mourning the Kashmiri Sikhs shot dead by militants on February 3.-FAYAZ KABLI/REUTERS

No one is certain who the three gunmen who picked off the Sikhs at Mehjoor Nagar were, but there is little doubt that they were terrorists of the Islamic Right. The group which has claimed responsibility for the killings, the till-now unknown al-Qasim, i s believed to be a front organisation, possibly for the Lashkar-e-Toiba or a breakaway unit of the Hizbul Mujahideen. Its victims, as in the case of those killed in earlier massacres, had done nothing other than to be in the wrong place at the wrong time . Seven other Sikhs, including two women, were injured in the attack. Shortly afterwards, young residents of the Mehjoor Nagar area threw stones at police pickets. For the first time in decades, curfew was imposed in some Srinagar neighbourhoods, while a dditional forces were deployed in Sikh-dominated pockets around Baramulla and Kupwara.

Sikh anger was even sharper in Jammu. As news of the killings reached the city on February 4, at least 10 Muslim-owned shops were ransacked, and 20 vehicles were set on fire. Violence on a wider scale would have followed had the Srinagar police not stop ped an enterprise to move the bodies of the dead to Jammu. The next day violence continued. A protestor, one of thousands of people who were on the streets to protest against the Mehjoor Nagar massacre, was shot dead by the police and three person were i njured in the course of a street battle. As officials tried to block access to a gurdwara, marchers smashed windows, burned government vehicles and threw stones, injuring at least a dozen police and paramilitary personnel. Similar rioting had take n place in Jammu in response to earlier communal massacres by terrorists.

It is not hard to comprehend the Sikh reaction. Since the March 2000 killing of 35 Sikhs in Chattisinghpora by the Lashkar-e-Toiba, the largest carnage of its kind in Jammu and Kashmir, the community has been under assault. Four Sikhs were among the five truck drivers who were shot dead near the Banihal tunnel on November 22, just days before the Ramzan ceasefire came into force. This massacre took place after Al Badr announced a stepping up of violence during the month of Ramzan. The Valley's tiny Sikh community had escaped communal attack through most of the past decade, but with Hindu areas in both Kashmir and Jammu now relatively well secured, it has become an easy target for terrorists. Indeed, in his last press conference in November as Jammu and Kashmir's Director-General of Police (DGP), Gurbachan Jagat, now the Border Security Force (BSF) chief, had specifically warned of possible ceasefire period attacks on Sikhs in Kashmir.

What provoked the Mehjoor Nagar massacre? All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) chairman Abdul Ghani Bhat has claimed that the killings were sparked by the March 1 killing of a Srinagar autorickshaw driver, Bilal Ahmed Khan. Khan, the APHC chief said, h ad been murdered by two Sikh officers of the Jammu and Kashmir Police's crack Special Operations Group (SOG), after a brawl over the fare he had charged them. The recovery of Khan's body had provoked three days of protests by the Srinagar Autorickshaw Dr ivers' Association and by residents of the Lal Chowk, Maisuma, Sarai Bala and Budshah Chowk areas. The SOG, however, denies that its officers were involved in the matter. Since Khan was not killed in public view, there is no way of settling the issue, bu t it is clear that the incident was used to generate generalised anti-Sikh communal feelings.

Two factors underpinned this friction. First, the State government has made no secret of its opposition to the current ceasefire, and the SOG has been active in recent weeks in eliminating terrorists. Several of the organisation's officers are Sikhs from Jammu. Although they, unlike Sikhs living in Kashmir, are Punjabi-speaking and have little to do with the social fabric of the Valley, Right-wing groups have in the past used their religious affiliation as a pretext to intimidate Sikhs. The visible pres ence of Sikhs in the Army, the BSF and the Central Reserve Police Force has been put to similar use. At the time of the Chattisinghpora massacre, the State DGP, the Inspector-General of Police in charge of operations, and several Superintendents of Polic e of the SOG were Sikh, a factor that fed and informed the consciousness of those who carried out the killings.

Reaction to the killings, however, illustrates one of the more disturbing political consequences of the dialogue process. Increasingly, political discourse is shaping itself along expressly communal lines. In a January 17 interview to The Tribune (of Chandigarh), for example, Union Fertilizer Minister Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa called for Sikhs, Kashmiri Pandits, and Ladakh's Buddhists to be represented in any dialogue conducted by New Delhi on the State's future. Four days earlier, the Jammu and Kash mir unit of the Shiromani Akali Dal had asked that Sikh refugees who came to the State after 1947 should be involved in any such dialogue. Local Sikh leaders Gurdev Singh Ishar and Sudershan Singh Wazir even called for reservation for Sikhs in the State Assembly, on the grounds that their co-religionists were the original inhabitants of those areas of Jammu and Kashmir now held by Pakistan.

Claims for political representation cast around Jammu and Kashmir's religious-ethnic fault-lines are not new, but the forces driving them appear to be gathering momentum. In this sense, then, the Islamic Right's mass massacres have achieved their objecti ve of sundering communities that have lived together for centuries with ties transcending their religious affiliation. Pakistan and elements in the APHC have been suggesting sotto voce that the eventual outcome of the dialogue process could be the cutting apart of Jammu and Kashmir, with its Muslim majority areas getting some kind of quasi-independence. Through recent months, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh chauvinist groups in Jammu and Ladakh have taken up the idea, and seem to be bracing themselves f or a partition. That Dhindsa could endorse demands for negotiations to be conducted not on political lines but by communal representatives says not a little about the mentality of the BJP-led Union government of which he is a part.

At a protest rally in Srinagar on February 5.-FAYAZ KABLI/REUTERS

Just as disturbing is the fact that sustained violence seems to be undermining the APHC centrists, around whom the peace process has been built. Although the centrists now control the APHC executive, it is increasingly clear that they are unable to contr ol the shape and pace of the political events. The Union government too appears to have decided not to allow the members of the APHC's executive body to travel to Pakistan - one of the principal demands of the organisation. The decision followed protests by External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, who argued that allowing the APHC representatives to travel to Pakistan would legitimise its untested claims to represent the people of Jammu and Kashmir. Bhat recently told journalists that the organisation h ad chosen not to press the issue immediately because of the earthquake in Gujarat - which shows a somewhat mystifying linkage.

In a startling interview published in the Srinagar-based Urdu magazine Chattan on January 28, the APHC centrists' key leader Abdul Ghani Lone appeared to suggest that representatives of the formation no longer wished to travel to Pakistan. "It is not," he said, "a matter of life and death for us. The decision to go to Pakistan was taken in my absence, as I was in Pakistan at that time. Once it was taken, I was supposed to toe the line. If I were at that meeting, I would have opposed it." The APHC leader added that he was "astonished on the approach adopted by some of our friends," a reference to the Jamaat-e-Islami's political chief Syed Ali Shah Geelani. "On the one hand," Lone said regarding the APHC's demand for passports, "we ask for a legal right that stands denied to us. But in the same breath we say, allow us to go to Pakistan, and when we reach there we will tell the Mujahideen to sharpen their weapons against India. I see no logic in it."

Neither, evidently, do the Mujahideen. Officials in New Delhi backing the ceasefire point to the drop in the number of security force casualties over the past weeks to suggest that there has, in fact, been a de-escalation of terrorist violence. This argu ment is, however, disingenuous. The ratio of terrorists killed to security force personnel killed, a more accurate index of the intensity of combat, has dipped substantially during the ceasefire period. Indian forces are suffering fewer fatalities, since they are not being committed in offensive operations, but the number of terrorist attacks has not declined significantly. The number of suicide attacks has actually increased, along with that of bomb explosions, a rise that is reflected in the sharp ups urge in the numbers of security force personnel injured as well as civilian.

In fairness to Vajpayee, the Prime Minister's Office seems to have considered these perils. It is just that the script does not seem to be working quite to plan. Some people in New Delhi suggest that the Prime Minister expects some kind of significant po litical breakthrough to take place in the foreseeable future. "People in Kashmir can no longer blame India for the violence they face," says one senior bureaucrat in the Ministry of Home, "and that will place both the Pakistan-based terrorist groups and the APHC under intense pressure. Eventually, the APHC will be compelled to disassociate itself from terrorism." But, recent events suggest, terrorist groups of the Islamic Right see little need for the APHC's endorsement. With the security apparatus back in the barracks, organisations like the Lashkar-e-Toiba have been able to assert their authority unchallenged, drowning out voices calling for peace.

Pakistan as usual observed February 5 as Kashmir Day: but for the first time it was an official event. Its military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, used the opportunity to unleash a violent polemical attack on India. The speech served to sweep aside any optimism generated by his conversation with Vajpayee just days earlier, ostensibly to express grief over the earthquake in Gujarat. It also illustrated the deep influence of the religious Right on Pakistan's Kashmir policy.

Vajpayee, for his part, is under increasing pressure from the Hindu Right, which sees the peace process as a surrender to Pakistan. "Kashmir," Lone told Chattan, "is the laboratory where he has been put to test." The Prime Minister, he said, could prove "a great hero and statesman, of the level of Gandhi, Jinnah, Mao and Nelson Mandela; otherwise he will be the most unsuccessful Prime Minister India has ever produced."

The experiment seems near its end, and the marks sheet should be out early this spring.

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