A chance for peace

Published : Dec 08, 2001 00:00 IST

Events that have followed the removal of the 'military commander' of the Hizbul Mujahideen for the Kashmir Valley, Abdul Majid Dar, indicate that the militant organisation is headed for a split. The situation may constitute a political chance for peace.

IF it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, goes the saying, it probably is a duck. No one has yet asserted that the all-powerful Hizbul Mujahideen has split down the middle, but it is hard to describe the events that occurred in the organisation in November in any other way. On October 25, the Pakistan-based leadership of the Hizb had announced that it had replaced Abdul Majid Dar, its 'military commander' for the Kashmir Valley, with Ghulam Hassan Khan, who uses the aliases 'Saif-ul-Islam' and 'Engineer Zamaan'. Since then, the Hizb's central leadership has been faced with something of a mutiny, one that could have major consequences for Jammu and Kashmir's future.

The Muzaffarabad-based supreme war council of the Hizb, Shoura-e-Jehad, had announced its intention to recall Dar in March. In July 2000, Dar had announced a unilateral ceasefire, provoking a showdown with the Hizb's highest leader, Mohammad Yousaf Shah. Shah, better known by his nom de guerre Syed Salahuddin, called off the ceasefire and rejected a reciprocal Indian cessation of hostilities on the grounds that Pakistan was not being involved in the dialogue process. However, Dar pushed ahead with his peace proposals, arguing that both the Hizb's rank and file, and its parent political organisation, the Jamaat-e-Islami, believed that armed struggle had proved futile.

While most Hizb cadre reacted to the decision to remove Dar with disquiet, few dissenting voices were heard in public. However, on November 19 one of Dar's closest aides broke the silence. Khurshid Ahmad Zargar, a one-time veterinary surgeon who operated as the head of the Hizb in the south Kashmir region under the alias Asad Yazdani, told a group of journalists that while he understood that "the armed movement brought the Kashmir issue out of cold storage, at the same time we accept the gun alone is no solution to the problem". "We want organisations such as the Jaish-e-Mohammadi, Lashkar-e-Toiba and Harkatul Mujahideen to work under the local leadership. They should not have any role in policy making," he said.

Zargar was at pains to dispel rumours of a division between the "liberal and hardline" elements in the Hizb. But the divisions showed up in stark relief over the next few days. A day after Zargar's press conference, Khan issued a statement claiming that Zargar was not authorised to speak for the Hizb. His one-time ally replied the next morning, pointing out that the new Hizb leadership was not in place to take charge of the organisation. Shah himself called a meeting of the Shoura-e-Jehad on November 23, ordering Dar and his associates to return to Pakistan, and asking the Srinagar press not to publish statements issued by the dissident faction. However, the Shoura-e-Jehad's order achieved nothing. On November 24, the Srinagar Hizb issued another broadside, proclaiming loyalty to Dar, and making it clear that leaders would not return until their replacements were in place on the field.

Two questions are crucial: Why are Shah's new lieutenants not in place on the ground? What do the dissidents hope to achieve? The answer to the first question is shrouded in intrigue. Khan was expected to have taken charge of the Hizb in the Kashmir region by late November, along with his second-in-charge Abdul Ahmad Bhat, a Sopore resident who uses the nom de guerre Umar Javed. Javed Ahmad Rather, operating under the alias Zubair-ul-Islam, was to have taken control of north Kashmir operations from Dar's aide, Farooq Sheikh Mirchal, code named Feroz. Informed sources told Frontline that all three were holed up in the Rajwar forests, unable to make it down to the valley because of intensive Army operations in the region, being concurrently carried out by two full brigades.

Eventually, Khan and some of his aides will most likely make their way to their ground positions. That, in turn, could bring about a showdown with the Dar faction. Dar appears to be speaking for the bulk of Hizb cadre in Kashmir who are dismayed by the recent events in Afghanistan. Hizb cadre from Kashmir have seen the Pakistani intelligence and military apparatus abandon their Taliban proteges in no time, and are worried that a similar fate awaits them in the not-too-distant future. "The question," said one Hizb sympathiser close to Dar, "is whether Pakistan will seek a solution in its best interests, or those of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. The signs are not encouraging, and we must consider whether our best interests will be served by seeking an honourable settlement directly with India."

HOWEVER, the developments in Afghanistan are not the sole reason for the ongoing spat. The divisions, experience shows, run deep. Shortly after the Hizb ceasefire ended on August 8, 2000, Dar's interlocutor, former Tehreek Jihad-e-Islami leader Fazl-ul-Haq Qureshi, said he was optimistic that the process would resume. On August 18, the Hizb issued a press release claiming that Qureshi's declarations were part of a "vicious campaign" to discredit the organisation. Hizb supreme commander Shah said only field commander Masood Tantrey and a Pakistan-based spokesperson, Saleem Hashmi, had the "right or authority to speak on behalf of the Hizb". But this majestic edict achieved little. Dar told the Srinagar press that the ceasefire had been sabotaged "by vested interests".

Although Dar's critics on the Islamic Right charge him with having sold out to Indian intelligence agencies, the allegation appears to be facile. Centrists within the Hizb seem aware of the fact that time is running out. In the wake of Dar's ceasefire, on August 3, a four-member Hizb delegation had met Union Home Secretary Kamal Pande. While Khan and Mirchal, who were part of the group, were in running confrontation with the Hizb leadership in Pakistan, Hamid Tantrey, code-named Masood, had been shot dead in an encounter. Dar believed that the encounter that led to Masood's death was caused by information passed on by their rivals to pro-National Conference elements in the Jammu and Kashmir Police. This claim too seems overblown. However, the fact remains that the Hizb centrists know that they have to act in a competitive political environment, or risk marginalisation.

WHAT the Hizb centrists and hardliners alike are looking forward to are the next Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir, which many believe will be held a little ahead of schedule next summer. Political formations hoping to capitalise on anti-National Conference sentiments are beginning to take shape. On November 18, the Union government's official political envoy in Jammu and Kashmir, K.C. Pant, said he was maintaining "direct and indirect" contacts with the secessionist leader Shabbir Shah. While Shah has repeatedly ruled out personal participation in the coming elections, describing them as a "futile exercise which will lead us nowhere", informed sources say he has been in contact with Opposition groups such as Mufti Mohammad Sayeed's People's Democratic Party (PDP). The PDP, in turn, has been in contact with a spectrum of Opposition groups, hoping to build a broad front against Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah.

Centrists in the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) have also been feeling the pressure. In October, the APHC called for a "comprehensive ceasefire" as part of a three-point programme to resolve the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir. The other key element of the APHC's call was a bilateral dialogue between India and Pakistan, with representation from the organisation. While APHC chairman Abdul Ghani Bhat flatly rejected "so-called elections" as an element of the peace process, the fact that the APHC felt the need to call for a ceasefire was in itself significant. Interestingly, the Pakistan-based leadership of the Hizb rejected the APHC call after a November 13 meeting, and placed faith instead in what it said was a "new military strategy".

Predictably enough, the APHC itself seems riven by the same contradictions that confront the Hizb. For example, Jamaat-e-Islami political chief and APHC executive member Syed Ali Shah Geelani claimed that Bhat's proposals violated the organisation's constitution. Bhat retorted by proclaiming the existence of "vested interests who wish to capitalise on the bloodshed". Perhaps significantly, the Dar faction has shown little interest in the APHC centrists. At his November 19 press conference, Zargar made clear he had little to say on the idea of ceasefire, pointing to internal dissension within the APHC. The Dar group's earlier choice of an interlocutor from outside the APHC too seems to suggest that it has little faith in Jammu and Kashmir's formal secessionist leadership.

However, the forces of the Islamic Right are bracing themselves to resist emerging challenges to their authority. In the latest of a string of efforts to impose a Taliban-style regime on civil society, on November 24, a 57-year-old schoolteacher, Gulzar Lone, was shot dead in front of his students at the Government Middle School in Alal, near Thanamandi, Rajouri. Apparently, his crime was that he taught his daughters how to ride a two-wheeler. The string of recent attacks on security force installations along the highly-sensitive National Highway 1A are also designed to undermine any possible dialogue. Nor have days of pro-Taliban protests in urban Srinagar passed without notice. Should such mobilisation of the Right continue, both Dar and the APHC centrists could find themselves redundant. Peace is perilously close to having its last political opportunity in Jammu and Kashmir.

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