Another summer of terror and hope

Published : May 12, 2001 00:00 IST

Six months into the Ramzan ceasefire, even as the K.C. Pant mission continues, peace remains as elusive as ever in Jammu and Kashmir.

THE annual migration of the headquarters of the Jammu and Kashmir government to the summer capital of Srinagar shall be complete this year on May 8. For the last decade, the opening of government offices boarded up for the winter has represented more than a return to business as usual. The darbar move marks a reassertion of authority by the state apparatus. It is resisted, for that reason, by terrorist groups, now reinforced by new cadre who have made their way across the snow-free mountain passes from Pakistan. So, when Indian and Jammu and Kashmir flags are unfurled on the Srinagar Secretariat to signal that it is again the seat of state power, it serves a little like a declaration of war.

Summer, as the Union government-appointed mediator K.C. Pant is now discovering, is a particularly bad time to talk peace in Jammu and Kashmir. On April 26, the executive committee of the secessionist All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC) formally refused to enter into any dialogue with Pant, and reiterated its long-standing commitment to a three-way dialogue with both India and Pakistan. "Unless a comprehensive dialogue based on an honourable, judicious and everlasting solution of Kashmir is started," APHC chairman Abdul Ghani Bhat said after the meeting, "peace cannot be restored and any such process will be unrealistic." India, Bhat continued, "had to accept the basic facts and make way for a meaningful dialogue." One of the ways in which it could make way, he suggested, was by allowing an APHC team to visit Pakistan before initiating a dialogue with Pant.

It seems increasingly clear that APHC centrists pushing for a dialogue have been marginalised. The centrists led by Abdul Ghani Lone, who command a six-to-one majority in the executive, were forced to refer Pant's offer to the organisation's 21-member working committee, and then to its 23-member general council. In these larger forums the centrists found themselves isolated. One reason appears to have been fear of terrorist reprisal. Four people were injured when a grenade went off at an April 23 meeting of the general council, providing graphic illustration of the hostility of the terrorist groups to talks. All four of those injured were from centrist groups - the Awami Action Committee of Srinagar religious leader Umar Farooq and Bhat's Muslim Conference. APHC sources told Frontline that there was a consensus within the general council that the rejection by terrorist groups of the proposal for a dialogue made any engagement with Pant meaningless.

As important, events in New Delhi seem to have done not a little to undermine the centrists. Union External Affairs and Defence Minister Jaswant Singh, for one, dug his heels in, and refused to allow an APHC delegation to leave for Pakistan. The Ministry of External Affairs had earlier argued in a note that this would amount to recognising the organisation as the legitimate representative of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. Jaswant Singh had the support of Union Home Minister L.K. Advani, who insisted that the APHC delegation should not include far-right Jamaat-e-Islami leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Geelani, whose rejection of the peace process made him something of hero for terrorist groups, had argued from the outset of the Ramzan ceasefire in November last year that the Indian government was insincere about a dialogue. Jaswant Singh and Advani, as far as the APHC general council was concerned, proved him right.

PANT has, however, managed to make some inroads into more marginal figures on the political landscape of Jammu and Kashmir. One advocate of dialogue has been former Chief Minister G.M. Shah, who has in recent years positioned himself as an advocate of independence to the State. On more than one occasion Shah has called for a referendum to resolve the status of Jammu and Kashmir, appropriating a key component of both pro-independence and pro-Pakistan platforms in Jammu and Kashmir. At an April 28 press conference Shah called for the APHC to "come to the table for consensus". Its rejection of a dialogue with Pant, he continued, "means we have been left with no argument". Shah had, in March, sought to organise a conference of leaders from both sides of the Line of Control, but found that his prospective guests were denied visas by the Indian governments.

Shah's credentials, however, have little mass legitimacy. Many believe he is being used by his nephew, Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, to erode the APHC's position as the sole representative of secessionist opinion. Although Abdullah, deposed by his uncle in a 1985 Congress(I)-sponsored coup, for many years had little love lost for Shah, signs of a rapprochement have been evident in recent months. Shah's son, New Delhi-based businessman Muzaffar Shah, had lobbied against Abdullah from 1997, but has muted his campaign in recent months. Both G.M. Shah and Muzaffar Shah were present at the funeral rites of Abdullah's mother last year, an event that is believed to have opened the way for a family reconciliation. Among National Conference politicians it is widely believed that the central component of the reconciliation process is that Muzaffar Shah will accept Abdullah's son, Umar Abdullah, as the next Chief Minister, in return for rehabilitation and office.

THE other significant endorsement won by Pant is that of Democratic Freedom Party (DFP) chief Shabir Shah, who moved out of the APHC umbrella in 1996. Shabir Shah has written to Pant, offering to send a three-member team for talks subject to several conditions. In essence, Shabir Shah's letter has asked whether the dialogue will be confined to bringing peace to Jammu and Kashmir, and whether it will address the wider issue of its eventual political status. The DFP leader started off as an advocate of Jammu and Kashmir acceding to Pakistan, but has at various points in the last five years called for a dialogue. Pant discussed the contents of Shah's letter with Advani on May 1, but the contents of his response are not yet known. It is possible that some preliminary engagement may take place in coming months. Other non-APHC secessionist figures like Naim Khan, Azam Inquilabi, Ghulam Nabi Hangroo, Hashim Qureshi and Fazl-ul-Haq Qureshi could also join such a process.

But like his namesake, Shabir Shah has something of a credibility problem. In April 1998, he confessed to holding a staggering Rs. 60 lakhs in cash and Rs. 40 lakhs in the form of "four or five bungalows". The assets, Shah admitted, had come from donations from overseas Kashmiris for "the cause" - presumably his now-defunct terrorist group, the Muslim Janbaaz Force. He offered no explanation of why he had been holding on to cash instead of spending it for the purpose it was donated. Shah was forced to come clean with the disclosure of his assets after a one-time aide, Naim Khan, threatened to blow the whistle on the People's League's finances. Pushed to the wall, Shah responded by saying the money will be deposited in a trust to be used for rehabilitating those orphaned by militancy, and paying for the marriages of victims' children. There has been little word on the trust since, and the confession did little to dispel public outrage about Shah's financial misconduct.

Even if figures like the two Shahs join a dialogue, then, neither they nor other minor politicians appear to have the influence to shape events on the ground. Those who do have made clear their rejection of Pant in the most unequivocal possible way. The Jamaatul Mujahideen, for one, warned that the organisation will "not allow anyone in Kashmir to become another Yasser Arafat".

Al-Umar went even further. Its chief, Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, the terrorist released to secure the lives of the passengers of Indian Airlines Flight 814 held hostage in Kandahar in December 1999, asserted that "the only solution lies in jehad", and promised to use force against Shabir Shah. The Srinagar-based Dukhataran-e-Millat, a far-right women's organisation, even described Shah as an "infidel".

Sadly, it is clear that such communal venom has a growing constituency in the Kashmir Valley. For the past several months, religious themes and issues have become the principal mode of mass mobilisation, and this is a disquieting trend. In the latest such episode, mobs in Srinagar protested on April 21 after Time magazine reproduced a two-century old Turkish painting of the Prophet Muhammad with the angel Gabriel, now housed in a museum. Such iconographic representation is forbidden in orthodox Islam, and anger against the perceived blasphemy provoked rioting and clashes with the police. Several people were injured when teargas and baton charges were employed to disperse crowds.

New Delhi had been hoping that the U.S. government would be able to influence far right terrorist groups through the agency of Pakistan to allow the dialogue process to proceed. With the release of the U.S. State Department's annual report on global terrorism, those hopes are fading. The report does assert that General Pervez Musharraf's regime "continued the previous Pakistani government support of the Kashmir insurgency", and notes that "militant groups continued to operate in Pakistan, raising funds and recruiting cadre". It did not, however, designate the Lashkar-e-Toiba or the Harkatul Mujahideen, both international terrorist organisations.

Indian security forces have switched back to an aggressive operational mode, notwithstanding the fact that a ceasefire is still supposed to be in place. Security force personnel have now been ordered to take on terrorists where information exists that they may conduct acts of violence, a sharp departure from earlier ceasefire-period mandates not to initiate combat operations.

Guns, it would seem, will shape the course of events in Jammu and Kashmir this summer, as they have done every summer since 1989. Six months into the Ramzan ceasefire, peace is as elusive as ever.

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