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The missing peace dividend

Print edition : Mar 31, 2001 T+T-

With ceaseless terrorist violence, mounting protests against the security forces, a marked growth of the religious-chauvinist constituency and a dialogue process delayed, the Ramzan ceasefire seems to be backfiring in Jammu and Kashmir.

From reliable sources I come to know that I have been elected unopposed punch (sic.) for SR-80 Sangam Srinagar. The fact is that I have not filled up any form or fulfilled any formality requires under rules in that respect. Before man and God I take an oath that all this has been done only to revenge against me. I am simply an illiterate farmer and I have nothing to do with such a job.

- English language advertisement inserted in a Srinagar newspaper by Muhammad Ashraf Dar, March 3, 2001.

THE news of real import in Jammu and Kashmir these days is not what appears on the front pages. A burnt temple; civilians massacred by terrorists; protesters shot by the police: all these just punctuate a far larger story.

Ishtehar-e-Latalukat, or announcements advertising disassociation from political or elected office, have filled the paid columns of Urdu and English newspapers this past month. On March 13, the Lashkar-e-Toiba announced that it would execute anyone who t ook up contract work for the Military Engineering Service (MES) or the Army Supply Corps (ASC). The next morning, newspapers carried an advertisement sponsored by MES and ASC contractors, who said that severing their work would cause "indescribable troub le, in consequence of which their dependent families and those of others whose men are connected with them shall have to undergo sufferings and starvation". "ASC contractors and suppliers", it begged, "earnestly and sanguinely appeal to the Lashkar-e-Toi ba to spare them".

Most other people have not even picked up the courage to beg. Abdul Salam Wani and Ghulam Nabi Dar, unlike Mohammad Ashraf Dar, did not wait to get elected. On February 26, they paid for an advertisement which recorded that they had "no interest in these things (and) nor are we ready for such things". Official records show that eight people who had filed nomination papers or had taken office in the State's since-aborted local body elections have been shot dead since January 11. Although the elections we re held on a non-party basis, almost all of them had some past affiliation with the ruling National Conference (N.C.). The party has lost over 30 cadre since Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's Ramzan ceasefire came into force on November 28, and 42 pe ople who had, or were believed to have, association with security organisations have been executed.

Newspaper advertisements of this kind have been something of a barometer of the balance of power in Jammu and Kashmir. Thousands of N.C. workers, hit by executions and kidnappings in the early 1990s, put out declarations of disassociation with their part y. From 1995, when the pro-India militia of Mohammad Yusuf Parrey decimated the Hizbul Mujahideen in much of the Kashmir Valley, Jamaat-e-Islami cadre scrambled to buy space. Now, things seem to have come full circle. From January 12 to March 10, State i ntelligence records show, the valley saw at least 31 major rural and urban protests against Indian rule. Thousands of people came out to join these protests, numbers unprecedented since 1990. Some of those protests were in support of far Right terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba, which is a wholly new development.

One key objective of the Ramzan ceasefire was to isolate the far Right and allow the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) centrists to gain ground. The ceasefire has not quite blown up in anyone's face, but the backfiring noises are starting to get ala rmingly loud.

IT HAS LARGELY escaped notice that the string of protests through the month of March has, for the first time in Jammu and Kashmir's recent history, been firmly placed within the four walls of pan-India communal conflict. Speaking in Hardwar on March 8, R ashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief K.S. Sudershan called for what he described as the "Indianisation of Islam", and asked that Muslims sever their relationship with Mecca. His remarks came in the midst of a welter of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP)-led a nti-Muslim mobilisations, masquerading as protests against the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in Afghanistan. A copy of the Koran was allegedly set on fire by Hindu fundamentalists in New Delhi on March 3, provoking deep resentment thro ugh Jammu and Kashmir. News of the riots that broke out in Kanpur provoked further concern.

Right-wing leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani gave shape to this disquiet, calling on March 13 for protests against the VHP's "irresponsible and derogatory statements against Islam". Geelani's motives for making the call were transparent. His conflicts with th e APHC, and his own Jamaat-e-Islami, had come to a head that morning. No invitation was issued to Geelani to attend a meeting of the APHC executive, called to discuss Union Home Minister L.K. Advani's apparent rejection of any proposal for a dialogue wit h the organisation. Shifting the focus away from his embarrassing political isolation paid dividends. Protests on March 17 led to violent showdowns with the police in several areas, notably in downtown Srinagar and Sopore. The far Right leader emerged as the principal representative of these protests, securing political space for himself outside the Jamaat and the APHC.

Arrested that evening, Geelani spent the night in jail with several party functionaries. The next morning, all of them were released except Mohammad Yusuf "Mujahid", a former Hizbul Mujahideen terrorist and one of Geelani's principal aides. Police offici als claimed that Yusuf was wanted in connection with other offences. Geelani, however, refused to leave jail without Yusuf. This led to a fracas, following which the leader was dumped out of a police jeep next to his home in Rawalpora. Geelani, who has c ardiac problems, had himself admitted in the Sher-i-Kashmir Medical Institute's intensive care unit, while his supporters claimed that he had been subjected to a "murderous assault". Rumours of his demise spread through the city, leading to renewed excha nges with the police in some neighbourhoods.

Doctors at the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute seem less than convinced that Geelani had any serious problem. His discharge summary, in Frontline's possession, states that his vital parameters were near-normal, and that there was no evidence of any myoca rdial infarction. The summary, issued on the letterhead of Dr. Khurshid Iqbal and Dr. Nisar Trumboo and signed by a senior resident, shows that he was prescribed antibiotics and analgesics as well as medication for chronic bronchitis. Geelani's cause, ho wever, was served. Hizbul Mujahideen chief Mohammad Yusuf Shah, better known by his alias Syed Salahuddin, bypassed the APHC for the first time and directly called for a general strike to protest the supposed assault. The Lashkar-e-Toiba, which has had l ittle to do with Hizb's actions in past years, endorsed the call.

HAS Geelani been reborn a hero? Despite his success in this instance in shutting down the Kashmir Valley, the evidence is mixed. One weakness lies in the larger politics of the Hizbul Mujahideen itself. Salahuddin, who has allied himself with Geelani in order to marginalise the Hizb's most important pro-peace leader, Abdul Majid Dar, faces dissension within the ranks. Sources say that the Hizb chief was shouted down by his audience at a March 10 address to his cadre at the organisation's largest camp, J ungle, near Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Other signs of trouble surfaced in late February when surrendered Hizb cadre led by Rauf Rasool forcibly occupied Geelani's home and locked up his offices. Rasool claimed that since the house had bee n paid for with Hizb funds, the organisation's former cadre, some of them desperately poor, had first right to live there.

Geelani's problems within the APHC are only too evident. Early during the ceasefire, he had attacked the APHC mainstream's supposed secularism, and described the movement in Jammu and Kashmir as being essentially religious in character. The centrists, wh o outnumber Geelani six to one on the APHC executive, responded by writing an irate protest note to Jamaat-e-Islami Amir (chief) G.M. Bhat. The letter asked that the Jamaat be represented in the APHC executive by its Amir, as all other organisations were . Geelani responded by attempting to force a showdown in the Jamaat's central council, its Majlis-e-Shoura. Again, he found himself outmanoeuvred. After a meeting on March 10 the Majlis declared that although "there is no issue in which Islam does not of fer appropriate and practical guidance", the Kashmir issue was "human and political because alongside the majority community, the minority was also affected."

It is no surprise then that in recent months Geelani has been seeking to distance himself from the Jamaat. Press releases now routinely describe him as a member of the Saudi Arabia-based World Islamic League, rather than as the political head of the Jama at-e-Islami. Salahuddin's support, along with that of Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan, has allowed him to build a constituency among the 1,000-odd Hizb cadre released after their arrest. Mohammad Yusuf's arrest, and the earlier detention of youth leader Masrat Alam, have however left in limbo any plans to build a new formation. Geelani's sole major associate now is the Islamic Students League's Shakeel Bakshi. Without the patronage of the mainstream Jamaat-e-Islami, Geelani could find that he has funds and ter rorist patronage but no real mass political support.

At least, that is what the APHC centrists are banking on. The executive's decision not to call him to the March 11 meeting or any subsequent gathering was a pointed snub, and could not have been delivered without at least the tacit consent of the Jamaat- e-Islami's leadership. "We could have thrown him out if we wished," says an APHC leader close to leading moderate Abdul Ghani Lone, "but we all felt he was better inside the APHC and Jamaat, rather than outside it".

The fact remains, however, that if the APHC's dialogue process with the Indian government does not begin soon, it could find itself wholly marginalised. Aggressive security measures, like cordon and search operations, have been resumed through the Kashmi r Valley in the wake of continued terrorist violence. That means most ordinary people have yet to see anything resembling a peace dividend.

Without tangible results the APHC could find itself, and not Geelani, isolated. The organisation has placed great hopes on Vajpayee's March 12 announcement that his government would soon "have talks with all the parties, and make efforts to find a soluti on to the Kashmir problem". The Prime Minister argued that the Union government was not responsible for the problems that had emerged. The real reason for the failure of a dialogue with the APHC appears to be a bitter campaign of resistance mounted by Ad vani and Defence Minister Jaswant Singh. One idea now being floated in order to bypass the objections is to initiate two levels of dialogue, one with the APHC and another with other groupings. No one in the APHC seems to have any real ideas what to do sh ould a dialogue fail to materialise. At a recent seminar in Boston APHC leader Yasin Malik asked for U.S. intervention - a tired position which has failed to yield dividends.

Indian officials believe that the recent developments will force the APHC to accept some kind of minimalist settlement in a future dialogue. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan's refusal to meet APHC representatives during his visit to New Delhi (see separate story) is being interpreted in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) as a sign of waning international interest in Jammu and Kashmir. Annan's assertion that the U.N. could not mediate the India-Pakistan conflict, and his call for a resumption o f dialogue based on the Shimla and Lahore agreements, also created considerable enthusiasm among Indian officials managing Jammu and Kashmir policy. Advocates of the repeated extension of the ceasefire claim that it has generated international goodwill, and that it has persuaded the administration of U.S. President George Bush that India is serious about searching for peace.

Should a two-level dialogue begin, just who is included in its political fallout could prove interesting. Informed analysts believe that Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah is securing his flanks by seeking influence among the anti-India constituency in Jammu and Kashmir. Srinagar's political circuit is abuzz about a rapprochement between Abdullah and his uncle G.M. Shah, who in alliance with the Congress(I) brought down an N.C. government in 1984. The Chief Minister, the story goes, has agreed to rehabilita te Shah's son Muzaffar Shah in return for his uncle accepting Union Minister Omar Abdullah as the State's Chief Minister. Significantly, G.M. Shah has proclaimed his commitment to independence for Jammu and Kashmir, and recently sought to organise a semi nar involving leaders from both sides of the Line of Control (LoC). As such he threatens the APHC's exclusive representation of secession.

What is not clear is whether high politics will have any tangible impact on the ground. Levels of violence and infiltration across the LoC continue to rise, and many Jammu and Kashmir security officials are predicting an especially violent summer. More i mportant, Pakistan's military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, signalled at the start of his March 22 visit to the U.S. that he was in no position to end the activities of fundamentalist groups without some major concession by India on Jammu and Kashmir. And worst of all, there is a marked growth of the religious-chauvinist constituency in much of Jammu and Kashmir. Newspapers reflect the growing influence of communal ideology. On March 23 one Srinagar newspaper carried a mindless edit page assault on t he theory of evolution, while another attacked Hindu fundamentalism by claiming that corruption was an organic outcome of the religion.

News of the alleged March 23 desecration of the Koran in Amritsar and Patiala spread through Jammu and Kashmir, and this along with reports of other provocative acts set off mass anger. Chauvinist forces could not have asked for anything better. A mob in Baramulla promptly burned down the Ram Ghat temple, while at least one person was killed in the inevitable police firing that followed. Communal war is not unknown in Jammu and Kashmir, but its intensity in Baramulla startled many people. And in many ot her parts of India Hindu chauvinists moved to cash in on events they did not a little to bring about. The ugly forces born of the intimate embrace between the Islamic Right and the VHP seem set to undo the work of all the Prime Minister's men.