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Print edition : Jun 09, 2001 T+T-

Gen. Musharraf's visit to New Delhi and India's decision to talk to Pakistan are in themselves unexceptionable. The problem is the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government's lack of conceptual clarity on the issues at stake.

UNION Home Minister L.K. Advani had just one sentence for journalists when he emerged from the Unified Command Headquarters in Srinagar on May 19: "Inputs that we have received today have been very valuable and these would enable the Government of India to take its decision correctly and in a manner so as to ensure that both our objectives, namely peace as well as security, are subserved."

In the strange lingo spoken by the inhabitants of North Block, that meant the Ramzan ceasefire in Jammu and Kashmir was over.

No one at the Unified Headquarters had explicitly articulated the security establishment's disquiet over events, but the figures spoke for themselves. More Indian security personnel had been killed during the ceasefire months than during the same period in any single year in the recent past. In the matter of killings of civilians, there was an even more dramatic escalation. While terrorist groups had mounted record numbers of attacks on the Army, the police and the paramilitary forces, the casualties that the latter groups could claim had declined (see charts). The only good word for the ceasefire came from the Army, which claimed on the basis of signals intercepts that transborder infiltration had declined. Only some 232 terrorists had entered the Kashmir zone across the Line of Control since January, these estimates suggested, and another 100-odd through Jammu. Others at the meeting at the Unified Headquarters, however, argued that these figures were unrealistically low.

Even more disturbing, the ceasefire had failed to secure its stated political objective, and instead ended up strengthening centrist figures within the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) and the Hizbul Mujahideen. The actual balance of forces in Jammu and Kashmir was underlined two days later, at a meeting to commemorate the 1990 murder of Srinagar religious leader Maulana Muhammad Farooq. Farooq is believed to have been assassinated by a Hizbul hit-squad to prevent him from engaging in a political dialogue with the Indian government. This year, however, the Islamic Right hijacked the commemoration. Armed men gathered around the rostrum, and APHC chairman Abdul Ghani Bhat, a perceived centrist, was shouted down. "Haath mein haath do, Lashkar ko saath do" (walk hand in hand with the Lashkar-e-Toiba), went the slogans, "Hurriyat mein rahna hoga to Pakistan kehna hoga" (all those in the APHC must support accession to Pakistan).

Most important of all, there were no signs of any official engagement with the APHC moderates. Having turned down the proposal for a dialogue with the Union government's official envoy, K.C. Pant, the APHC had repeatedly made clear that it regarded the grant of permission for its team to visit Pakistan as a precondition for further progress. That permission had been promised when the Ramzan ceasefire was put in place last year, only to be withdrawn when the APHC insisted that Jamaat-e-Islami leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani would be part of its delegation. Advani had, early on in that process, objected to the Far Right politician's presence in the APHC team. External Affairs and Defence Minister Jaswant Singh had, in turn, argued that allowing such a delegation to visit Pakistan would undermine India's historic opposition to anything other than bilateral dialogue. Failure to secure the visit to Pakistan ended up undermining the centrists' influence over the APHC.

The triad running Jammu and Kashmir policy in New Delhi did its best to put off the inevitable. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra, and former Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) chief A.S. Dulat, now Officer on Special Duty in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), had all made heavy political investments in the ceasefire. Its failure would, in important senses, be a personal defeat for the members of the group. Newspapers were briefed that the extension of the ceasefire was inevitable, a step that was necessary to give the Pant initiative time to succeed. But, with figures and organisations as disparate as Advani, Jaswant Singh, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and much of the Bharatiya Janata Party hierarchy ranged against them, the ceasefire's architects stood little chance. On May 23, it took the Cabinet Committee on Security just over two hours to end Vajpayee's second major initiative on Jammu and Kashmir.

PAKISTAN'S Chief Executive Pervez Musharraf's visit takes Vajpayee's Jammu and Kashmir policy back to where it was left off in February 1999, just before the Kargil war. Now, as then, there are signs that policy is being driven by intense diplomatic pressure from the United States. On May 15, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell announced that the Republican administration saw a "new opportunity to encourage the sides to find a peaceful and just solution to the problem of Kashmir." "I think there is a role we can play," the General added, noting that "the progress we have seen over the last several years in relations between the United States and India, especially, give us a new entree." Powell suggested that the larger objective of such a dialogue would be to ensure that the "nuclear genie doesn't get any further out of the bottle than it already is", a concern that several U.S. policy institutions have also pointed to. Pakistan and the APHC have repeatedly suggested that Jammu and Kashmir is a "nuclear flashpoint".

Signs of what Musharraf will expect when he arrives in New Delhi are already evident. In a May 24 interview to the British Broadcasting Corporation, Pakistan Army spokesperson Major-General Rashid Qureshi demanded that the "Hurriyat Conference, which represents the Muslims of Kashmir in Indian-occupied Kashmir, should be part of the dialogue process". What was remarkable was not that Pakistan wished the APHC to be involved in a three-way dialogue, its traditional position, but that it now regards the APHC not as a representative of all the peoples of Jammu and Kashmir, but of one ethnic-religious group. Qureshi's formulation has deep continuities with policies fleshed out in early 1999, notably then-Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz's call for a district-wise referendum in Jammu & Kashmir. A welter of forces have, since then, on occasion thrown their weight behind a communal-ethnic division of the State. These range from Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah's government to the U.S.-based Kashmir Studies Group, and the RSS itself.

Almost unnoticed, ethnic-communal issues have once again come to the fore in Jammu and Kashmir politics. Pant's visit in late May to the State attracted attention mainly because of his meeting with Democratic Freedom Party leader Shabir Shah. His interactions with other minor leaders from outside the Kashmir region could, however, prove to be of more real consequence. The Planning Commission chairman told journalists that he had found "unanimous" support in Buddhist-dominated Leh for the sundering of Ladakh from Jammu and Kashmir. In Muslim-dominated Kargil, however, Pant found leaders hostile to the idea, and committed to the unity of the State. During his visit, delegations of Hindu and Buddhist chauvinist leaders repeatedly raised demands for their regions to be separated from Jammu and Kashmir. Although Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah opposes such demands, elements within the National Conference (N.C.) have been supportive of an ethnic-communal division of the State. General Qureshi's statement has obvious significance in this context.

Interestingly enough, even the APHC in Jammu appears to be bracing for some such outcome. Early this year, influential APHC leaders from Jammu broke with the organisation to set up the Jammu and Kashmir Freedom Movement, claiming that it did not represent the interests of the region's Muslims. The Jamaat-e-Islami's Doda based Sayidullah Tantrey, the Muslim Conference's Mohammad Sharif Sartaj from Jammu, Bhaderwah Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front representative Ali Mohammad Haib Khatib, and Kishtwar-area leader Iqbal Agoo, split pointing to Geelani's suggestion that a partition of Jammu and Kashmir would be acceptable to the APHC. Should such a partition come about, the Freedom Movement argues, the interests of Muslims in Jammu would be undermined. The Liberation Front is now demanding that two seats on the APHC executive be set apart for Jammu in order to ensure the region receives adequate representation in any final status dialogue.

IT is unlikely that any Indian government would be able to agree to a partition of Jammu and Kashmir, however packaged, in the foreseeable future. What is almost certain is that some arrangement along these lines is the least Musharraf will hope to secure through the process he will engage with in New Delhi. The Pakistan newspaper Dawn had reported during the Kargil war that Musharraf had sought to make the withdrawal of Pakistan troops and irregulars from Kargil contingent on Indian acceptance of "a settlement on the lines of the Owen Dixon plan". That plan, authored in 1950 by the United Nations mediator on Jammu and Kashmir, had envisaged the application of the principles of partition to the State. The Muslim-majority provinces of Jammu would, along with the Kashmir Valley, go to Pakistan, while Hindu-majority areas of Jammu and Buddhist-majority Ladakh would become part of India.

For the General to accept anything less would bring about a potentially disastrous confrontation with the Islamic Far Right in Pakistan. Groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammadi have condemned Musharraf's decision to visit New Delhi. Musharraf's efforts to curtail the operations of such armed organisations within Pakistan have so far met with little success. Plans to disarm cadre operating within that country had to be shelved in May, and reports suggest that the Pakistan Army has been consulting jehadi organisations on Musharraf's agenda in New Delhi. Indian intelligence officials believe that terrorist organisations could use violence to undermine the dialogue. The May 31 standoff between the security forces and three Lashkar cadre at a mosque near Pulwama in south Kashmir is believed to have been intended to provoke just such a crisis, and informed sources say that Army Headquarters in New Delhi ordered the local troops not to allow a siege situation to develop.

Another major factor in the coming months could be the N.C.'s own efforts to secure its political flanks. Member of Parliament from Srinagar and Union Minister of State for Commerce Omar Abdullah has chosen to spend the summer in his constituency, and has asked party workers to be ready for elections. His father, Farooq Abdullah, announced early in May that the future of the State's politics would be shaped by soon-to-be-held Assembly elections. Omar Abdullah, who is known to have opposed the N.C.'s call for autonomy, is believed to be pressing the party to forge a short-term, development-oriented agenda that it could realise before going into elections. He has also been calling, in private, for the replacement of top bureaucrats and politicians who have had a long-term association with the Chief Minister to be replaced with younger, more professional figures. "There are several issues we need to worry about now," Omar Abdullah told Frontline. "We cannot wait until the Kashmir problem is solved to address the issues the WTO (World Trade Organisation) regime will raise for us or the need to improve our fruit processing industry, or to improve our information technology infrastructure."

General Musharraf's visit to New Delhi, and the Union government's decision to talk to Pakistan, are in themselves unexceptionable. There is no dispute that a meaningful dialogue between India and Pakistan is necessary both to secure a solution to violence in Jammu and Kashmir and to bring about an abiding peace in south Asia. The problem is that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Union government's lack of conceptual clarity has ensured that neither objective is likely to be secured in the coming months. Having first insisted that no dialogue was possible until all cross-border terrorism ended, the Union government has now exposed its lack of commitment to principle, and vulnerability to pressure tactics. As important, the conflict between the PMO and the Ministries of Home, External Affairs and Defence on Jammu and Kashmir policy has ensured that no cogent set of policy objectives can be defined and executed.

Each of the past grand policy initiatives of the National Democratic Alliance - from the nuclear tests at Pokhran to its supposedly pro-active military policy; from Prime Minister Vajpayee's bus ride to Lahore to the spectacular mismanagement of the war in Kargil - have had terrible consequences for Jammu and Kashmir. One can only hope that the events set in play by the Ramzan ceasefire do not end with some new calamity.