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Strategic shift?

Print edition : May 27, 2000 T+T-

Another U.S.-authored move to launch a dialogue involving the government and the secessionist groups in Kashmir may be in the offing.

SRINAGAR has been receiving tourists this summer, but not all of them are of the kind who book hotel rooms and spend their afternoons on the Dal Lake. Frontline has learnt that at least one top United States-based political figure travelled to Sri nagar for covert discussions with top officials on Jammu and Kashmir's future. Unsurprisingly, rumours are rife in Srinagar of an imminent dialogue between New Delhi and secessionist leaders. But as the assassination of Jammu and Kashmir's Minister of St ate for Power Ghulam Hassan Bhat on May 15 illustrates, a dialogue may do little to address the core issue of violence in the State. The optimism triggered in and outside Jammu and Kashmir by U.S.- authored dialogue on the State's future could prove to b e just one more of the many false dawns seen over the last ten years here.

Mansoor Ijaz, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained nuclear physicist who is chairman of the New York based Crescent Equity Investment Bank and a member of the influential Council for Foreign Relations, arrived in Srinagar in the second week of May. He is personally close to U.S. President Bill Clinton and a major campaign finance donor to the Democratic Party. The visit of the second-generation Pakistani immigrant to the U.S. has obvious significance in the context of both U.S. and Indian eff orts to initiate a dialogue on Jammu and Kashmir's future. Sources say that Ijaz, escorted by Research and Analysis Wing minders, was whisked through passport control at Srinagar's Humhama Airport without the mandatory entries being made, and driven to t he State Guest House under police escort.

In Srinagar, Ijaz was given top level official access. Both 15 Corps Commander Lieutenant-General Kishan Pal and Director-General of Police Gurbachan Jagat briefed the businessman on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, a privilege rarely granted to forei gn nationals other than high-level diplomats. A succession of meetings with top officials and politicians followed. Finally, Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah hosted a dinner for the visitor at his residence on Srinagar's Gupkar Road on May 10, which was at tended by a small group of State Cabinet Ministers. Extraordinary secrecy was observed through the visit. The security staff assigned to Ijaz were not told anything about the visitor other than his first name, and neither his nationality nor the purpose of his visit was disclosed.

Just what Ijaz discussed with Jammu and Kashmir officials and politicians is not known: none of them was willing to discuss the matter with Frontline. Informed sources, however, say that Ijaz held a second set of meetings with top officials of the Prime Minister's Office in New Delhi. Ijaz, these sources claim, made few specific proposals, but sought responses to ideas for minor adjustments to the Line of Control (LoC) in the event that its acceptance as an international border could be secured. He also discussed several proposals for granting wide autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir, including proposals made by the New York-based Kashmir Study Group (KSG) for the creation of a quasi-independent Kashmiri state carved out of the Muslim majority areas o f Jammu and Kashmir.

INTERESTINGLY, Ijaz's visit was preceded, in March, by another covert visit by a United States based subcontinental figure. Frontline had broken news of the arrival of KSG head and furniture tycoon Farooq Kathwari, who had been barred by successiv e Indian governments from visiting this country, and his high level meetings in New Delhi and Srinagar on the eve of Clinton's visit (Frontline, April 14, 2000). Ijaz, however, appears to have had little past association with U.S.- based politics on Jammu and Kashmir. An article he wrote in the May 2000 issue of the Pakistani magazine The Herald referred in passing to "India's brutality in Kashmir" and to the American Indian community's campaign to have Pakistan declared a terrorist state. The principal thrust of the article, however, was that the lobbying tactics of the Pakistani establishment have corrupted U.S. democratic institutions but secured little for either Pakistan's citizens or its overseas communities.

U.S. intervention in Jammu and Kashmir has not been restricted to covert dialogue with New Delhi and Srinagar. The All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) has been a major target of efforts to initiate a dialogue on the State's future. U.S. Senator David Bonier, during a visit to Srinagar in late April, met APHC chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani and top leaders Umar Farooq, Abdul Ghani Lone, Abdul Ghani Bhat and Abbas Ansari. The Senator, sources say, flatly told the APHC to drop its historic opposition to any negotiations that did not involve Pakistan. Geelani subsequently flew to New Delhi for discussions with Pakistan High Commissioner Ashraf Qazi Jehangir, at which he was evidently told not to reject the prospect of bilateral dialogue with the Indian g overnment.

Even as Geelani set about sounding out his colleagues in the APHC, the pressure mounted by the U.S. on the Indian government began to become evident. Speaking in Nagpur on May 6, Home Minister L.K. Advani asserted that the government would not extend an invitation to the APHC. A day later, however, speaking at Ahgam near Anantnag, Advani said that he was working "to create a climate in which if any section of the Kashmiri people wishes to discuss issues with the Government of India, discussions can take place". Three days later, with Ijaz in Srinagar, the Home Minister went further, proclaiming his willingness for a dialogue with the APHC as "part of a three-pronged strategy to bring back normalcy in Jammu and Kashmir, which also involves pro-actively tackling militancy and cross-border terrorism and accelerating economic growth".

Fissures rapidly emerged within the APHC over the possible contours of the dialogue. Mirroring the KSG proposals for a partition of Jammu and Kashmir on religious-ethnic lines, Geelani announced on May 9 that while the APHC was "not for the division of t he State, if in the talks the parties reach a consensus to divide the State, we will accept that". Although he asserted that the APHC would not participate in a bilateral dialogue, Geelani added that "our mind is open, provided that the solution enjoys t he consensus of all three parties". Geelani's endorsement of U.S.-authored proposals for a division of the State, with the Muslim majority areas of Jammu and Kashmir being granted quasi-independence within the existing Indian regime, was backed by figure s such as Lone and Ansari but sources say it provoked a bitter response from Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) leader Yasin Malik and Umar Farooq.

APHC politicians also have more immediate concerns about the government agreeing to a dialogue. For one, several key APHC leaders are concerned that terrorist groups would refuse to end violent activity even if negotiations began. That in turn would rend er the negotiations fragile and undermine the APHC's credentials as a representative of anti-India forces in Jammu and Kashmir. The APHC could then end up losing its core secessionist constituency by engaging in dialogue, without being certain of receivi ng any significant gains. On May 11, at its first executive committee meeting after the APHC leaders were released from jail, no consensus could be reached on responses to Advani's offer. Others, however, are scrambling for space in future dialogue, with former Chief Minister G.M. Shah and one time terrorists Azam Inquilabi and Haider Hijazi calling for a cease-fire.

JUST what a dialogue with the APHC will achieve is even less clear than how it might come about. As Minister Bhat's killings illustrates, terrorist groups have no intention of stopping their campaign in Jammu and Kashmir. Bhat's bullet proof car was blow n apart by a remotely activated landmine after he left his home at Chamran, near Dooru in Anantnag. Three members of his security staff and a political worker were killed in the explosion. The Hizbul Mujahideen claimed responsibility for it, and proclaim ed that the Chief Minister would be their next target. Bhat, inducted as a Minister in February, had been a long-standing National Conference worker. Ironically enough, he had travelled to Dooru to protest against supposed Army atrocities in the area.

The killings came amidst reports of serious dissension within the Hizbul Mujahideen hierarchy, and the elimination of several of its top commanders. Mirroring schisms within the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Hizbul Mujahideen's parent body, top operatives, Riyaz Rasool and Ghulam Nabi Nowshera, had reportedly called for an end to armed struggle, charging their supreme commander Mohammad Yusuf Shah with allowing Pakistan to hijack the organisation. Field commander Majid Dar has refused to work in 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 and the National Co nference.

Interestingly, it appears that Pakistan has been under intense U.S. pressure to de-escalate its operations along the Line of Control and within Jammu and Kashmir. On April 28, U.S. Under-Secretary of State Thomas Pickering attacked an "idea circulating i n Pakistan that if events spiral further down in Kashmir toward an all-out military conflict, it would somehow compel Washington to mediate that conflict on some favourable terms for Islamabad". Intelligence officials suggest that U.S. prodding is beginn ing to manifest itself on the ground. Several groups of insurgents at launching camps across the LoC have been pulled back, and infiltration this summer has been at a relatively low level. Although this could be attributed to more aggressive anti-infiltr ation operations along the LoC, March saw just 119 violent incidents in the Kashmir province, the lowest figure in the last ten years.

Pressure from Pakistan could be what made organisations such as al-Fateh, al-Jihad and the Hizbul Mujahideen to backtrack on their initial opposition to the APHC's nascent dialogue with New Delhi. But the largest groups active in Jammu and Kashmir, the L ashkar-e-Taiba and the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, which recently merged with Maulana Masood Azhar's Jaish-e-Mohammadi, are unlikely to respond to such pressure. Both are well funded and increasingly autonomous of Pakistan's military establishment. Fundamental ist groups in Pakistan have succeeded in May in forcing its military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, to drop plans to amend that country's notorious blasphemy laws. And Musharraf is reported to be under pressure from hardliners within the Army, notably General Aziz Khan, not to soften military pressure on India in Jammu and Kashmir.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's May 17 claim to Opposition that the government had taken "no final view" on negotiations with the APHC is clearly just half the truth. Sources in the Union Home Ministry say that proposals are being considered to all ow APHC leaders to travel to Muzaffarabad to negotiate with terrorist groups based there. Whether the APHC will finally choose to open dialogue, however, is far from clear. Even if the organisation finds the courage to break free from terrorist groups, i t is unclear whether it commands enough mass support to make it a credible arbiter of Jammu and Kashmir's future. Several organisations have pointed out that the APHC does not speak for the Jammu and Ladakh regions, and that there are other political for ces within Kashmir which ought to be included in any future dialogue by the Union government.

Farooq Abdullah, for his part, has been working hard to ensure that he is not marginalised in the course of a future dialogue between New Delhi and the APHC. The Chief Minister, who has been calling for what he describes as "multilateral dialogue" involv ing all the political forces in Jammu and Kashmir, has also been seeking to distance himself from the Bharatiya Janata Party, his coalition ally in Parliament. At a rally of artisans on May 16, Abdullah charged Hindutva forces with seeking to "rewrite In dia's history" and said that New Delhi's failure to restore Jammu and Kashmir's pre-1953 constitutional status would lead to its separation from India. This aggressive polemic appears to be a part of preparations to adopt an adversarial posture against t he Union government in case dialogue with the APHC does take off.

In a larger sense, it is strangely appropriate that the U.S.-authored moves towards dialogue come a year after the Kargil war. The nostalgia of India's supposed triumph on the Kargil heights has suffused newspaper pages for the last few weeks, but little thought appears to have gone into understanding just what the wages of the war in fact were. The fact is that for the first time in 50 years, the U.S. has emerged as a de facto arbiter of the fate of Jammu and Kashmir and the policies of India and Pakis tan on it. While there is little doubt that there has been intense U.S. pressure on Pakistan to restrain terrorist groups operating from its soil, India has pushed into negotiations with the APHC and a damaging discussion of plans to partition the State on communal lines. What outcome these processes may have remains to be seen, but the fact that they have begun at all is bad enough.