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Cracks on the Right

Print edition : Sep 29, 2001 T+T-

A break between the far Right and the centre Right in Jammu and Kashmir politics appears imminent in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in the United States.

SHOPS and offices across Srinagar were shut down on September 21, marking another performance of the quasi-ritual protest strikes that punctuate urban life in Jammu and Kashmir. But this shut-down was, in key senses, unique. It originated not in some atrocity committed by the Indian state, real or imagined, but in the events unfolding in the United States and Afghanistan. The strike itself was called not by politicians, but by terrorist groups based in Pakistan. And, most important, it was held in defiance of the wishes of the self-proclaimed sole representative of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC).

It is impossible to miss the many ways in which the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have transfigured Jammu and Kashmir's political landscape. The attacks and their fallout have, for one, pitted the APHC against many of the terrorist groups on whose power its political influence is premised. Fissures have begun to emerge among political formations of the Islamic Right too, sundering those committed to the extreme positions represented by Osama bin Laden from the less ardent fanatics. However as events in Afghanistan and Pakistan play themselves out in the months to come, it appears probable that a fateful break could come about between the far Right and the centre Right of politics in Jammu and Kashmir.

At its September 20 meeting, the APHC executive committee specifically asked residents of Jammu and Kashmir not to support the strike called for September 21 by terrorist organisations, notably the Jaish-e-Mohammadi, the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and the Lashkar-e-Toiba. The strike was to express solidarity with the protests in Pakistan against General Pervez Musharraf's decision to collaborate with the U.S. in order to secure Osama bin Laden's arrest. Eight days earlier, the organisation's chairman, Abdul Ghani Bhat, had spoken for the APHC centrists, condemning the attacks and asserting the need to "learn to live as decent human beings". At its meeting, the APHC also expressed its support for Musharraf's "pragmatic conduct".

Terrorist organisations have not so far responded to the APHC's act of defiance. However, some confrontation seems imminent. After a September 14 meeting with other terrorist organisations based in Pakistan, the Lashkar expressed "grave concern'' over Musharraf's offer to the U.S. of cooperation in action against terrorists. The Hizbul-Mujahideen, generally supportive of Musharraf, condemned the terrorist attacks but noted that "America had been fully involved in all terrorist activity against Muslims all over the world". The Harkat, for its part, asserted that "any support to the Americans against terrorists would amount to supporting the Satanic forces". America, a Harkat spokesperson noted, "had reaped what it had sown in the past."

SHOULD a break come about between the centrists in the APHC and the extreme Right, it could have enormous consequences for mainstream politics in Jammu and Kashmir. This summer has seen steady progress in shaping political alignments for the next Assembly elections, which observers believe will be held early next summer. The National Conference (N.C.) has been seeking to secure its ranks by poaching on potential Opposition figures. On September 8, two top aides of former Union Home Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed joined the N.C. Ghulam Qadir Pardesi and Ghulam Nabi Mir, who have considerable influence in the Pulwama and Lasjan areas, claimed that Sayeed's People's Democratic Party (PDP) had "surrendered completely to the Hurriyat''. The leaders also took much of the PDP cadre in south Kashmir with them.

A weakened Sayeed has responded by initiating efforts to put together an anti-N.C. coalition. Efforts to build such a coalition were first initiated by Rajya Sabha member Saifuddin Soz, who had opposed the N.C.'s decision to join the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) State Secretary Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami. Initially, the PDP resisted these efforts, but it has now assigned its powerful Tangmarg-area leader, Ghulam Hassan Mir, to negotiate with Soz and Tarigami. Both the CPI(M) and the PDP have some pockets of influence in southern Kashmir. Together, they could provide a formidable challenge to the N.C. Although Soz has no organised cadre or apparatus, he wields considerable moral influence.

However, the most interesting one among the emerging alliances is a possible combination of anti-N.C. mainstream politicians and elements associated with the secessionist platform. Informed sources told Frontline that the PDP's Ghulam Hassan Mir had met the once-prominent Shabbir Shah for a series of lunch meetings. What was discussed was not known, but Shah had recently said he would fight the elections if they would help address the problems of Jammu and Kashmir. However, he modified his statement shortly afterwards, claiming that he would only do so if other secessionist politicians, like the APHC centrists, joined the effort. Politicians like Abdul Ghani Lone have told party confidants that they would be willing to contest elections, but only after the Union government announces a major autonomy package for Jammu and Kashmir, granting at least the Kashmir valley something approaching quasi-independent status.

It is unlikely that the Bharatiya Janata Party would be able, or willing, to grant such autonomy. However, should Lone and other APHC centrists come under pressure from the Islamic far Right, they could well drop their preconditions. Indeed, there are some signs that Pakistan's intelligence establishment apprehends such a development. In August, figures within the People's League had sought to replace their head and representative in the APHC executive, Sheikh Aziz, who is close to the Jamaat-e-Islami political chief and prominent hardliner, Syed Ali Shah Geelani. People's League leader Bashir Ahmad Tota, sympathetic to the centrists, had demanded fresh organisational elections, claiming that Aziz was incompetent. However, Aziz returned from an Islamabad trip in May with the support of Pakistan. Tota, informed sources say, was told in no uncertain terms to drop his efforts to replace Aziz. Aziz has now been jailed, again reopening the issue of leadership.

HOW plausible is the prospect of a break in the existing structure of secessionist politics in Jammu and Kashmir? Geelani's silence on the attacks in the U.S. and Musharraf's conduct of affairs, has not passed unnoticed. Many believe the revanchist leader, increasingly isolated within the APHC, will seek support elsewhere. His endorsement of the Lashkar-e-Jabbar's threats to attack women who do not wear veils, an action condemned across the board in Jammu and Kashmir, may provide some insight into the shape of things to come. The little-known Lashkar-e-Jabbar, investigators believe, has been put together by former Jamait-ul-Mujahideen operative Ashiq Hussain Fagloo. Fagloo is the husband of Asiya Andrabi, whose extreme right-wing women's organisation, the Dukhtaran-e-Millat, supported the Lashkar-e-Jabbar's acid attacks on women who were not veiled.

While there are few signs of mass support for this kind of fundamentalism, the Right has demonstrated through the veil issue its ability to intimidate civil society. In the wake of the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, it has also become increasingly vocal. For instance, an article which appeared in a mainstream Srinagar newspaper, Greater Kashmir, on September 21 suggested that "the Jewish lobby' had carried out the attacks. "Jews can go to any extent in taking revenge from Muslims, their betes noirs throughout history," the article stated. "They have a hold on the media. They have the capability to mould opinions and pervert minds." The article proclaimed that "the octopus of Western civilisation relishes the blood of Muslims". The appearance of this kind of language in a mainstream newspaper illustrates, if nothing else, the hardening of opinion on the Islamic Right in Jammu and Kashmir, which until recently was asking for U.S. intervention to solve the conflict in the State.

An axis involving Geelani, Fagloo and Andrabi could attract the extreme-Right from Pakistan-based terrorist groups as well. Intelligence officials who spoke to Frontline rebutted claims of the Jammu and Kashmir Police that some terrorists of Afghan and Pakistani origin had begun to return to their respective countries. "There has not been a single communications intercept since September 11 that bears out this proposition," a senior intelligence official said. However, available intelligence does suggest that there is a great deal of confusion among the ranks of terrorist groups on the issue. Within the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, opinion is polarised between those supportive of the organisation's supreme commander, Mohammad Yousaf Shah, and others further to the Right, who disapprove of Musharraf's course of action. In the event of a prolonged U.S.-led combat in Afghanistan, such fissures could deepen.

IN the weeks to come, as the first bombs of Operation Infinite Justice fall, the full impact of September 11 on Jammu and Kashmir will begin to become clear. Many believe Musharraf will indeed be able to secure some degree of support from the U.S. on Jammu and Kashmir in return for his compliance with operations against Afghanistan. However, such pressure may not be enough to placate Islamic revanchists in both Pakistan and Jammu and Kashmir who are certain to be incensed by the military action to come. "Kashmiris don't need bin Laden," the APHC's Bhat had said in September 1999, "we can sustain the struggle on our own." Now that he has been foisted upon them, the APHC centrists will, inevitably, have to consider their course of action. For months they have waited in the wings, listening out for some call to take their place on Jammu and Kashmir's political stage. But if they wait too long, the play could end without them.