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Distant thunder

Print edition : Nov 10, 2001 T+T-

Echoes of turmoil and war from across the border and beyond, add to the cacophony of the violent insurgency and politics in Jammu and Kashmir.

ON October 30, a bomb went off in a Jammu and Kashmir police vehicle in Srinagar's crowded Magarmal Bagh area. Police officials promptly cordoned off the road, fearing a second explosion of the kind that often takes place after terrorist attacks in the State.

Then a thin man who walked over to officials supervising the cordon complained that the sanitisation of the area was just taking too long. "Bomb or no bomb," he shouted, "you have to let our children go through now. Their examination begins in 15 minutes!"

Twelve years after Jammu and Kashmir's bitter insurgency began, violence has become a part of everyday life. This surreal fact, however, has not stopped the new war in Afghanistan from shaping the course of political life in the State. With Assembly elections less than a year away, Afghanistan has become a central motif in the discourse of all the major political formations. Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah has been citing the fascist rule of the Taliban to attack his opponents on the Islamic Right, and has also called for strikes on terrorist training camps across the Line of Control (LoC). Insurgent groups and the Islamic Right, for their part, are using the Afghan war to try and marginalise the centrists seeking to engage in a dialogue with the Union government.

Perhaps the most important move in this battle came on October 25, when the Hizbul Mujahideen announced in Islamabad that its military commander in the Kashmir Valley, Abdul Majid Dar, was being replaced. The Hizb announcement was unusual for two reasons. First, the organisation has never in the past made public postings and movements of its leaders. Then, while the Hizb claimed that Dar was removed because he had completed a one year tenure in the Kashmir region, the fact is that there has been no such fixed tenure for Hizb commanders in the past. Dar had on July 24 last year announced a unilateral ceasefire by the Hizbul Mujahideen. Talks with Union government representatives followed, but they broke down two weeks later on the issue of Pakistan's involvement in the dialogue.

Dar made little secret of his anger with Hizb supreme commander Mohammad Yousaf Shah's decision to call off the ceasefire. More friction followed when Shah, better known by his nom de guerre Syed Salahuddin, refused to endorse the Indian government's decision to end offensive combat operations in November 2000. Dar gained more than a little legitimacy by representing the concerns of that section of the Hizb which believes that violence has failed to secure the organisation's objectives. In March this year, certain that Dar was engaged in some form of covert dialogue with Indian intelligence and fearing a split within the organisation, the Hizb leadership decided to recall him to Pakistan and put a new operative in charge of military operations in the Kashmir region.

Saif-ul-Islam, the name announced by the Hizb for its new commander, is believed to be an alias for one of Shah's closest aides, Ghulam Hassan Khan. Khan, who also uses the aliases of Engineer Zamaan and Inamullah Khan, is believed to have crossed the LoC into India early this summer. A resident of the Shopian area of south Kashmir, Khan had led the Hizb in south Kashmir, and then in the entire province, until 1997. He fled across the LoC that year following raids on his Srinagar home by the Special Operations Group of the Jammu and Kashmir Police. A Frontline investigation later discovered that he had run his network using a priority quota telephone issued on the direct orders of then Union Telecommunications Minister Sukh Ram.

OPINION is divided on how Khan's arrival will have an effect on the Hizb in Kashmir. Some people argue that grassroots opinion among the Hizb cadre will eventually force the new commander to continue with the engagement process that Dar initiated. Others suggest that the Hizb could split, with pro-dialogue elements in the organisation offering support to anti-National Conference (N.C.) forces in next year's Assembly elections. A third school of thought holds Dar was never serious about the peace process, and used it only to secure his own personal safety. The events will most certaintly be watched closely by the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), which is now more fissured between centrists and the Islamic Right than at any point in the past. Should a large element of the Hizb follow Dar, who has so far shown no inclination to leave for Pakistan, APHC centrists might choose to use the opportunity to engage in a dialogue with New Delhi.

Afghanistan is the pretext for the latest round of battle in the APHC. In early October, pro-Taliban terrorist groups called for strikes and protests against the United States bombing of Afghanistan. The APHC centrists, following Pakistan's official position, opposed such protests and argued that they alone, as the sole legitimate representatives of the State's people, had the right to call for any political action. In the event, much of Srinagar and towns including Sopore and Baramulla saw five successive days of pro-Taliban protests from October 8. Although most Srinagar residents simply closed shop to avoid attacks by pro-Taliban lumpen elements, the fact remains that the APHC centrists were exposed. Since then they have been under polemical assault by both terrorist groups and organisations of the extreme Right, such as the Dukhtaran-e-Millat.

Right-wing groups, however, have their own share of problems. Pakistan's decision to abandon the Taliban, and its October 24 decision not to accept the bodies of Harkatul Mujahideen cadre killed in Afghanistan, have had a predictable effect on the rank and file of the Islamic Right in Jammu and Kashmir. Jaish-e-Mohammad leaders have, in the wake of the U.S. decision to freeze the organisation's assets, seen the need to assure cadres that the campaign will continue. Speaking at a rally in Muzaffarabad on October 16, Jaish leader Mohammad Asghura vowed to "pursue and intensify the armed struggle". The spate of high-profile attacks in recent weeks, notably ambushes that on several days in late-October blocked Army and civilian traffic on the Srinagar-Jammu highway, seem designed not only to inflict damage but reassure cadre.

Sadly, poor management of security has allowed groups such as the Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Lashkar-e-Toiba to succeed in broadcasting their continued commitment. The October 26 occupation of a mosque in Panzan village by terrorists for three days, the fourth incident of its kind in recent months, is a case in point. Leadership-level confusion in the operation, which involved the Army, cadre from Anantnag-based pro-Indian insurgents, the Border Security Force, the Central Reserve Police Force and the Jammu and Kashmir Police, engaged a single terrorist holed up in the mosque's central minar. Troops initially assumed that he was hiding in a hamam, or bath-house, on one side of a mosque. The hamam was blown open with explosives, but there was no one inside. The massive use of fire and explosives, which echoed through the countryside, gave the terrorist a larger-than-life and heroic image.

International reactions to the continuing violence have added to the complexity of political dynamics in Jammu and Kashmir. Major-General Hermann Loidolt, head of the United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP), which is charged with monitoring violence on the LoC, set off a major controversy at an October 29 press conference. "All of us," General Loidolt said of India and Pakistan, "are aware of the situation in Kashmir and the games that both parties are playing with this tormented country." These games, he continued, "may be a diversionary manoeuvre on the part of Pakistan, to make India the real enemy instead of the U.S., or it may be the (result of the) dawning of the next election in India". Kashmir, he concluded emphatically, "was an issue for the U.S. to solve."

No one is entirely certain just what provoked the General to make these remarks - the UNMOGIP rarely enters into media interaction - but officials in New Delhi reacted with predictable outrage. Loidolt's assertion that the U.N. believed the LoC was the "border between Pakistan and Jammu and Kashmir", in particular, seems mystifying, since it appears to suggest that the UNMOGIP accepts Pakistan's occupation of parts of the State. One explanation is that Loidolt simply spoke out of some deep-felt anger with Indian policy in Jammu and Kashmir. Another is that the UNMOGIP was being used to float a trial balloon. But three days after making the remarks, Gen. Loidolt expressed his "sincerest apology" for his "misbehaviour". In a letter sent to the Director-General (Military Operations), he stated that his action "was not intended to blame someone on something".

On October 15, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell called for a renewed India-Pakistan dialogue, which India has rejected, and said that Jammu and Kashmir was "the central issue" in their bilateral relations. A day later in New Delhi, Powell made a grammatical correction to this formula, saying that it was "a central issue". But the substance of his message was evident.

Few people in the Union government appear to have any clear idea of how to respond to such pressures. Home Minister L.K. Advani, for example, told The Tribune in early October that he had never advocated "hot pursuit" of terrorists across the LoC. A few days later, speaking to journalists at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in New Delhi, he said this was indeed an option, but not at present. Defence Minister George Fernandes meanwhile warned on October 15 of a "no-holds-barred retaliatory action", and did not rule out cross-LoC strikes. Nine days later, Advani again ruled out any such action. Such confusion illustrates a broader malaise. There seems to be little consensus on whether the Union government ought to attempt to engage APHC moderates and the Hizb's Dar further, or instead put its faith in the N.C.

Farooq Abdullah has moved rapidly to cash in on the confusion. The Chief Minister has repeatedly called for strikes across the LoC on terrorist camps, using the issue to embarrass his critics in the Bharatiya Janata Party. The N.C's major concern is the prospect of the emergence of a united opposition front, made up of elements from the Hizb, the APHC, and mainstream political formations including the People's Democratic Party. The more dramatic the fallout from Afghanistan, the less likely any prospect of such a front being formed in Jammu and Kashmir will become. Should America's war against terrorism continue into the summer of 2002, Abdullah could prove to be one of its unintended beneficiaries. Time is running out for the APHC centrists and figures like Dar, but there are no signs yet they will find the courage to act.