An unquiet peace on the border

Print edition : March 18, 2000

Since the rise of terror in Kashmir over a decade ago, there has not been a more crucial phase there than the present one.

A CURIOUS calm has descended along the Line of Control (LoC). The string of skirmishes and artillery duels that punctuated the winter has, for the moment, begun to die down. The homes of Ghulam Nabi and Mohammad Yusuf at Telwari village in Uri, hit by Pa kistani fire on the night of March 2, were the last recorded casualties of the winter warfare that left dozens of civilians and soldiers dead on either side of the LoC. But this is an unquiet peace, for the armies arrayed along the LoC know it will prove transient. Just what shape the coming battle will take will depend on the forces set in play by the visit to the subcontinent by President Bill Clinton.

An Army jawan watches the movement of Pakistani troops in the Sunderwani Sector, 85 km northeast of Jammu, along the Line of Control on March 2.-AIJAZ RAHI/AP

Pakistan's military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, the Islamic far-right, politicians in Jammu and Kashmir and the Indian state - for all of these, the visit of this imperial potentate could mark the most important event since the rise of terror over a decade ago. While Indian officials have expressed delight over the U.S. insistence that it does not wish to mediate a settlement on Jammu and Kashmir, the celebration could prove premature.

The quiet on the LoC does not mean the war within Jammu and Kashmir has abated. In fact, quite the opposite appears to be true. The attacks on Indian military installations by suicide squads which began last year continue unabated. On March 6, two terror ists opened fire with a light machine gun on the 5 Rashtriya Rifles camp at Karhama, near Ganderbal. Six soldiers were killed and 11 injured, while both terrorists, believed to be members of top Hizbul Mujahideen commander Hameed Gada's unit, escaped. Th e troops, sources told Frontline, had been assembled for roll call when the attack took place. Curiously, news of this attack failed to appear in the Indian media.

What the succession of attacks on military camps have meant in practice is that Indian forces have been pushed into increasingly defensive positions. In the first two months of this year, 98 terrorists were killed in the Kashmir Valley. Exactly the same number of terrorists were killed in January and February 1999, despite the fact that larger numbers of terrorists are now present in the area. Interestingly, Union Home Minister L.K. Advani's well-advertised promise in January to create 49 new operationa l sectors, with the Army in effective command of all forces with each of these, has simply not come into existence. Neither have the additional forces and technology upgrades promised in the Union Government's new policy on Jammu and Kashmir been realise d.

Meanwhile, communal massacres by terrorists have resumed after a six-month break. On February 28, Anju Bala, Madhu Bala, and her children Mukesh and daughter Pushp Lata were shot dead by Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists who raided the village of Harni, near Me ndhar in Poonch district. Further losses were averted when a police post some 200 metres from Pushp Lata's home returned fire. Five truck workers, four Hindu and one Sikh, were murdered by terrorists at Qazigund the next day. Earlier, four Kashmiri Pandi ts were killed near Anantnag, while Jammu was subject to a series of bomb blasts in crowded civilian areas as well as on public transport out of the city. Such massacres are intended to deepen the division of Jammu and Kashmir on ethnic-communal lines.

But such violence is not in itself likely to achieve much, and there are signs that Musharraf's campaign in Jammu and Kashmir is facing its own share of problems. The military ruler has made at least three visits to Muzaffarabad, in Pakistan-held Kashmir , engaging in a dialogue with terrorist groups. Indian intelligence officials believe that even pro-independence groups, such as Amanullah Khan's faction of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, have been told that Pakistan will no longer oppose their position. This would mark a sharp break from the past, and suggest that there is desperation to build a new coalition to push progress on Jammu and Kashmir.

Musharraf's problem is simple. It has long been evident that most people in Jammu and Kashmir are fed up with continuing, and seemingly aimless, bloodshed. Friction between terrorists of Pakistani origin and ordinary Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir is incre asingly evident. On February 19, Hizbul Mujahideen terrorists beat up villagers at Sarthal in Kishtwar who they believed had provided information which led to the elimination of four of their cadre. Rapes and executions of informers, real and imagined, h ave become increasingly common. The flow of information on top Pakistani terrorists to security organisations illustrates the depth of resentment. Seven division-leader commanders of the Lashkar-e-Taiba have already been killed in Kashmir this year - an unusually high figure.

Rifts, observers say, have showed up even within the once-monolithic Hizbul Mujahideen. The organisation's supreme commander, Mohammad Yusuf Shah, better known by his nom de guerre Syed Salahuddin, is believed to be facing flak from second-rung leaders R iyaz Rasool and Ghulam Nabi Nowsheri. Nowsheri and Rasool, sources say, want an end to armed struggle, mirroring broad ideological rifts within the Hizb's parent organisation, the Jamaat-e-Islami. One top field commander, Majid Dar, has refused to work i n Kashmir after he returned to Pakistan disgusted by intra-organisation feuds in 1997, while the Hizbul Mujahideen's Kashmir Valley chief, Ghulam Nabi Khan, is rumoured to have been flirting with political factions in both the People's Democratic Party a nd the National Conference.

There is no way of confirming whether all these rumours have basis in fact, but its persistence illustrates the problems Musharraf faces. Pakistan desperately needs to force the pace of events in Jammu and Kashmir if its decade-long campaign is to avoid stalling. Low-level engagements along the LoC have taken place steadily through the winter, the last one when Pakistani troops attacked two posts in the Nowshera area on February 27. Nine Indian soldiers were killed in the attacks, while at least six Pak istani troops are believed to have been killed in retaliatory fire. Since then, the LoC has been relatively quiet. One plausible explanation for the quiet is that the Pakistan Army wishes to see just how Clinton engages with the Jammu and Kashmir issue b efore renewing its offensive.

How India would respond to an escalation raises interesting questions. There is little doubt that the Indian Army's posture has been increasingly aggressive in recent months. Many people in Pakistan attribute the massacre of 19 village-dwellers in Lamjot , in the Nikiyal Sector near Rajouri, to Indian soldiers. The killings provoked widespread outrage in Pakistan. While India has denied the allegation, many observers believe that its troops may indeed have carried out the operation as part of an exercise to inflict retaliatory civilian costs on Pakistan. The Lamjot killings were preceded by a series of massacres of civilians in Jammu, and some people believe that the communal massacres of February were part of a counter-retaliation.

PERHAPS more significant, attacks on Indian border posts this summer generally met with severe responses. The retaliatory attacks were provoked by Pakistan's use of small groups of terrorists to attack Indian forward positions. Pinning down forward posts makes infiltration through the LoC less risky, as troops are then tied down in defensive positions. Reliable sources said both 15 Corps in Srinagar and 16 Corps in Jammu have been provided authorisation to use force across the LoC should Pakistan escala te fire around the time of Clinton's visit. Led by Defence Minister George Fernandes, who recently propounded a doctrine of "limited war", military officials believe that such retaliatory actions would not escalate to the point of a generalised conflict.

That proposition could just be put to the test this summer. Musharraf, who has staked his future on a Pakistan securing progress in Jammu and Kashmir, could become increasingly desperate in the event the U.S. does not succeed in initiating some form of d ialogue. Organisations like the Harkatul Mujahideen, active in Kargil last summer, have threatened similar violence this year too. No one is entirely certain how such a situation would play itself out. But the fact remains that India would be compelled t o respond much more aggressively to an intrusion in Uri or Tangdhar than in Kargil. The risk of such an escalation snowballing into a generalised conflict could well invite fresh international pressure on India to begin a process to dialogue on Jammu and Kashmir.

Perhaps significantly, major political players in Jammu and Kashmir already seem to be positioning themselves for such a new dialogue. The most significant development is the decision of the Union Government to call for the State Autonomy Committee (SAC) Report, which demands the restoration of the 1953 status of Jammu and Kashmir, which would remove Union jurisdiction in all areas except defence, communications and external affairs. A second document, the Regional Autonomy Committee (RAC) report, which calls for the State to be divided into a series of new provinces based on communal lines, is now being implemented by the State government. Part of the process of implementation consists of dialogue with New Delhi.

Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah's reasons for pushing the State Autonomy Report are transparent. Pushing demands for autonomy seems to Abdullah the sole tool with which his political legitimacy might be restored. The National Conference's lack of mass cre dibility became clear at a February 25 meeting of party leaders, where MLA Najib Suhrawardy flatly told Abdullah hamari hukumat sabse nikammi hai (our government is the most incompetent ever). Faced with revolt from disgruntled MLAs, Abdullah stun ned the Assembly the next day by asserting that some members on the Treasury benches were "out to dig my grave". Abdullah evidently believes that securing broad autonomy would give him the success he so badly needs.

What is less clear is the Union Government's position on the issue. In a little-noticed February 18 speech in Jammu, the Chief Minister made clear that the Union Government had in fact asked for the SAC Report. "I simply presented the views of the State government to them," Abdullah said. Interestingly, no senior National Democratic Alliance figure has attacked the report, bar Udhampur MP and Civil Aviation Minister Chaman Lal Gupta. The thrust of Gupta's critique of the report is that neither the peopl e of predominantly-Hindu Jammu or of predominantly-Buddhist Leh wish such autonomy to be put in place. Nor has there been much criticism of the frankly communal RAC Report from the NDA leadership.

Some observers suggest the prospect of a tacit deal between the BJP and the National Conference on the issue. The provincial divisions announced in the RAC Report could enable the SAC Report's recommendations to be made applicable only to the Muslim-majo rity areas of the State. The BJP would then be able to proclaim a victory in Jammu, consolidating its presence there. The N.C., which has been busy reinventing itself as a Muslim-communal organisation, would in turn find its legitimacy in its Kashmir Val ley heartland enhanced. Many scent a sordid deal. At a February 21 press conference, People's Democratic Party (PDP) leader Mehbooba Mufti made clear her belief that both the BJP and the N.C. had "brought up the autonomy issue for their own vested intere sts".

But the fact remains that efforts to carve up the State could well receive official U.S. blessings. The twin narratives of the SAC and RAC recommendations resemble proposals that have emanated from the U.S., notably from influential think tanks like the Kashmir Studies Group. Musharraf, in turn, may see in such plans, coupled with proposals for soft borders between the two halves of Jammu and Kashmir, a limited, tactical victory. Most important of all, progress on the issue would enable Clinton, who has on more than one occasion expressed his personal concern on South Asia in general and Jammu and Kashmir in particular, to secure a famous end-of-term diplomatic coup.

One significant indication of Clinton's mind came at a meeting with Indian businessmen in San Francisco, where he linked India's claims to a United Nations Security Council seat to its willingness to execute its commitment to a plebiscite in Jammu and Ka shmir. It is unclear what semantic space exists between U.S. insistence that it does not want to mediate on Jammu and Kashmir, and Clinton's repeated assertions of interest. It is this space that both Pakistan and India will be seeking to explore this co ming fortnight. Either way, the choices seem limited. Should a political process begin with the de-facto partition of Jammu and Kashmir as its objective, the consequences would be calamitous for India. And should such a dialogue fail, Musharraf's regime could be pushed to secure its objectives by force in the not too distant future.

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