The Pant mission

Print edition : April 28, 2001

Marking the latest phase in the government's strategy to bring peace to Jammu and Kashmir, K.C. Pant, as its envoy, starts a fresh dialogue process, but the imponderables ahead are enormous.

ALTHOUGH the obituaries have yet to be published, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's Ramzan ceasefire has been given a quiet burial. Sadly, it is not clear whether the Union government's next enterprise with regard to the Jammu and Kashmir imbroglio will prove any less short-lived.

Planning Commission Deputy Chairman K.C. Pant's appointment as its official envoy on Jammu and Kashmir marks the beginning of a new phase in the Union government's strategy to bring peace to the State. Most observers have seen Pant's appointment as being part of the peace process set rolling in November 2000, when the Prime Minister put the ceasefire in place. In fact, the discontinuities represented by Pant's appointment are more interesting than the much-advertised continuities. The most significant of these is the unequivocal declaration, in the official April 4 communique announcing the Pant-led dialogue, that "security forces have been directed to vigorously conduct operations against those who disturb the peace and (who) victimise the innocent people of Jammu and Kashmir".

K.C. Pant with Syed Mir Qasim in New Delhi on April 15.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

What transpired in Pant's first dialogue in the process, a 20-minute encounter with former Chief Minister Syed Mir Qasim on April 15, is still not known. The veteran Congress(I) politician had resigned from office in 1974, to make way for the installation of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah in the wake of the National Conference (N.C.) leader's agreement with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Qasim spent the next quarter century in political hibernation. Then, last April, in the run-up to the Hizbul Mujahideen's brief unilateral ceasefire, he was hauled out of retirement, and asked to help build a coalition within the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) against its then chairman, Jamaat-e-Islami political chief Syed Ali Shah Geelani. The key player in this coalition, APHC executive member Abdul Gani Lone, had been Education Minister in Qasim's Cabinet.

Qasim's long-standing personal affiliation with Lone, however, does little to obscure the fact that he wields little ground-level influence in Jammu and Kashmir today. In a sense, the meeting picks up a strand of politics abandoned when the ceasefire project began last summer. On April 28, 2000, Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah and former Union Defence Minister George Fernandes had met Qasim. Sources say that the meeting, which came just a month after former U.S. President Bill Clinton urged India to have a dialogue on Jammu and Kashmir, centered on the prospect of Qasim using his influence with Lone. The Chief Minister had offered Qasim a Rajya Sabha membership nomination in 1996, but he declined it. As such, Abdullah hoped to use Qasim's offices to ensure that he remained relevant to any future dialogue. Although Lone did indeed succeed in building an alliance against Geelani in the APHC, Qasim's mediation had little to do with its coming into being.

Indeed, the April 4 declaration makes clear that exclusive engagement with the APHC is not Pant's mandate. "It is expected that beside(s) the Jammu and Kashmir government", the communique notes, "all political parties, non-government organisations, trade unions, social and religious bodies from all the regions of the State will participate." Along with this, mention is made of "Kashmiri organisations which are currently engaged in militancy in the state, but are desirous of peace". On the APHC's claim to being the sole representative of Jammu and Kashmir's people, the communique is dismissive. "The government notes that the APHC," it argues tartly, "has all along taken the position that talks should be unconditional. Now that the government has agreed to hold talks in the interest of early restoration of peace, it is for the APHC to consider whether it would not be inconsistent for them to set preconditions for the dialogue."

The Ramzan ceasefire: An overview

Jammu & Kashmir Before Phase I Phase II Phase III Phase IV Total killed 611 211 203 235 189Security forces 119 56 44 45 52Terrorists 341 59 76 93 65Civilians 151 96 83 97 72Total injured 289 291 299 175 194Security forces 136 128 78 76 88Civilians 153 163 221 99 106

Three weeks into the fourth phase of the ceasefire, the ratio of security forces killed to terrorists killed stands at 1:1.25

The best ratio of security forces killed to terrorists killed was obtained in the third phase, peaking at 1:2.06

One month after the ceasefire was declared, the ratio of security forces killed to terrorists killed stood at 1:1.05

During the first seven months of 2000, until July 27, the ratio of security forces killed to militants killed averaged 1:3.04. This was comparable to the ratio in 1999, at 1:3.05. In 1998, the same ratio stood at 1:4.1.

Source: The Institute of Conflict Management, New Delhi

Unsurprisingly, the APHC is not biting. Speaking to reporters in Islamabad on April 18, APHC executive member Sheikh Abdul Aziz bluntly said that "attempts by New Delhi to set into motion a peace process without entering into meaningful talks with the Kashmiri leadership and Pakistan are useless". Aziz, one of the six-to-one majority on the APHC executive opposed to Geelani, is in Pakistan on a personal visit. His statement is, however, being vested with significance, for he had been nominated to lead an APHC delegation to Pakistan, a visit many in the organisation believe must be a precondition to talks. Aziz' dismissive remarks had been anticipated, three days earlier, by the APHC chairman Abdul Ghani Bhat. Bhat, without saying whether he was speaking for himself or the APHC, asserted that no dialogue was possible without a delegation first being allowed to visit Pakistan.

Bhat's calls of alarm point to the reasons for growing apprehension among the APHC's moderate majority. During his press conference, the APHC chairman claimed that the Union government's actions were placing the moderates "in a precarious position". This, he said, was because Indian officials cared only for their "welfare, without being concerned about our safety". Put simply, Bhat believes that participation in dialogue without the involvement of Pakistan would invite terrorist reprisals. Major organisations like the Lashkar-e-Toiba and Hizbul Mujahideen have rejected calls for talks, and threatened those who engage in them with elimination. Some APHC leaders like Lone, however, believe that rejecting dialogue with Pant would enable India to represent the organisation as an unreasonable one. This position, however, is countered by the claim that participation would only lead to the APHC moderates being seen by their constituencies as traitors to the cause.

Many of these arguments figured in the inconclusive APHC meeting held on April 17, and have been referred to the organisation's working committee and general council. The working committee has 35 members, five from each party represented in the executive, and the general council has another 32, one from each constituent. Pro-Pakistan organisations, among whom Geelani has considerable influence, make up the majority on the general council. The APHC moderates have sought, without success, to make the Jamaat-e-Islami withdraw Geelani from the executive. Since January they have not sent invitations for executive meetings to the Jamaat leader.

It is hard to predict just how the power struggle within the APHC will play itself out, but the signs during these past weeks have not been encouraging. The Islamic Far Right has succeeded in generating more than a little support, particularly among the urban middle and lower middle class. Rights violations by the Indian security forces have had some role in propelling recent mobilisations of the Right, but larger forces have also been at work. Much ultra -Right protest, including demonstrations in support of the Lashkar-e-Toiba, have been driven by a growing climate of anti-Muslim violence in some parts of India. Mob violence in several areas of Jammu and Kashmir in March was, for example, the outcome of communal outrages in Punjab and New Delhi. Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh aggression in Jammu region has fuelled Muslim anxieties in both that area and Kashmir. In such a fraught environment, the room for manoeuvre for APHC centrists is increasingly limited.

MANY observers believe that guns, not the Pant dialogue, will shape events this summer. Building on the operational mandate in the April 4 communique, sources say that the security forces have been instructed to launch increasingly wide-area operations. Through the earlier phases of the Ramzan ceasefire, operations were largely restricted to engagements of chance, or those based on information about the presence of terrorists in specific built-up areas. Much of the renewed fighting has come in the border districts of Jammu province, where troops and police personnel have renewed aggressive search operations in forest areas. Seven terrorists were killed in Kathua on August 17, for example, and another eight were eliminated in Rajouri and Poonch six days earlier. The valley, relatively quiet since protests against alleged security force atrocities began in January, has also seen an increasing number of encounters.

The renewed armed conflict is not a particularly surprising phenomenon. Analysts had for months been warning that the ratio of security force losses to those of terrorist groups had become unacceptably high. The police, the paramilitary forces and the Army were among them losing almost one trooper for each terrorist eliminated, the worst ratio since the outbreak of violence in the State. Although, as officials pointed out, overall numbers of security force casualties declined, killings of terrorist cadre fell even more steeply. With the mountain passes leading from Pakistan now open after the winter, and with no signs of infiltration levels declining in any significant way, there was intense pressure on the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) to allow a de facto resumption of offensive operations. Although a ceasefire is still in force, it is significant that the April 4 communique makes no demand that the security forces refrain from initiating combat operations in Jammu and Kashmir.

Pant's dialogue in Jammu and Kashmir, then, is certain to be punctuated by violence. Just how meaningful such a dialogue will be remains to be seen. Abdullah has been among the few leaders in the State to react positively to the Union government's announcement. At a recent meeting the Chief Minister promised to put forward proposals for a "final resolution" of the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir. These, he said, would remain "secret, so as to enable free discussion". It is possible that the N.C. will use the Pant dialogue to push its demands for regional autonomy, and for the internal re-division of Jammu & Kashmir along its ethnic-communal lines. So far there are no signs that anti-autonomy groupings, like Hindu chauvinist groups in Jammu, will join in the dialogue. State Congress(I) leaders have expressed their willingness to participate in a dialogue, but expressed caution about negotiating with the APHC.

Much will, of course, depend on just how serious the Union government is about creating some meaningful political space in the matter of the dialogue. It has been lost on no one that Pant has little real authority, and, perhaps, was chosen for that very reason. That the Ramzan ceasefire created friction between Union Home Minister L.K. Advani and External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh on the one hand, and the PMO on the other, is no secret. Pant will doubtless spend the next several months listening to voices from across Jammu and Kashmir. Whether this will constitute a dialogue, or just remain a cacophonic exercise, remains to be seen.

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