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A quest and many imponderables

Print edition : Sep 02, 2000 T+T-

The process is mired in confusion and hostile pressure at the ground level is unrelenting, yet efforts to restore the dialogue process in Kashmir proceed apace.

IT is not for nothing that officials in Srinagar describe the Union government's ongoing dialogue with the Hizbul Mujahideen as an experiment. Superheated by doses of rumour and intrigue, Jammu and Kashmir's political life is a little like Brownian movem ent in a test-tube. Six weeks after the Hizb ul Mujahideen's short-lived ceasefire collapsed, those ranging from politicians to intelligence officials to terrorists are engaged in a desperate search for means to restore the dialogue process. The problem is that none of the movement seems headed in any particular direction. All the key actors appear at odds with one other, riven by mutual distrust and personal dislike. More disturbing, the experiment itself seems dangerously close to going out of control , and exploding out of its test-tube world.

As in the case of most of the many supposedly covert initiatives on Jammu and Kashmir during the past decade, the Hizbul Mujahideen dialogue has ended up being played out in full public view. A week after the Hizb ceasefire ended on August 8, its interlo cutor, former Tehreek Jihad-e-Islami leader Fazl-ul-Haq Qureishi, said he was optimistic that the process would resume. The involvement of Pakistan, Qureishi suggested, could be ensured later. Just one day later, on August 18, the Hizb released a press r elease in Islamabad claiming that Qureishi's declarations were part of a "vicious campaign" to discredit the organisation. The Hizb supreme commander Mohammad Yusuf Shah, who prefers the heroic nom de guerre of Syed Salahuddin, said that only fiel d commander Masood Tantrey and a Pakistan-based spokesperson, Saleem Hashmi, had the "right or authority to speak on behalf of the Hizb".

Shah's majestic edict achieved little. It took just four more days for the Hizb's operations commander Abdul Majid Dar, who first announced the ceasefire and was among its key authors, to go public in Qureishi's defence. Speaking to the Srinagar-based Cu rrent News Service, Dar said that the ceasefire had been sabotaged by "vested interests". Who these were he did not say, but Dar made clear that he intended to demand again an end to hostilities "within the next two months". This, he continued, was essen tial, "keeping in view the wishes of the people". Dar said that he believed the involvement of Pakistan in the process was essential, but the tone of his remarks left little doubt that the operations commander was at odds with Shah. He also chose to atta ck the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), claiming that the organisation "lacks a policy on the issue". The APHC had been critical of the dialogue initiated by Dar, notably for failing to involve Pakistan.

Taken by surprise, Shah claimed that his subordinate had been misquoted. The Hizb's operations commander said that what he had in fact meant, in Islamabad, was that the situation would become clear in two months. The fact that Dar chose not to make this clarification himself did nothing to improve the credibility of the Hizb supreme commander.

Shah also went out of his way to suggest that the Hizb was not obstructing dialogue, and he promised that it would offer a deal "bigger than the ceasefire" if India agreed to Pakistan's presence at the negotiating table. No one seems certain just what Sh ah meant by his promise, but clearly there was a growing space between the Hizb supreme commander and others on the field. Reports of a generalised schism between Kashmir-based and Pakistan-based Hizb commanders appear to be exaggerated, for Dar and figu res like Ghulam Rasool Khan have little to gain from leaving the organisation at this stage. But there was more than a little evidence of confusion in policy.

Events on the ground were just as unfocussed. At least two powerful units of the Hizb within the Kashmir Valley, along with its Pir Panjal units, had resumed hostilities. Hizb field commander Bashir Pir and his Anantnag counterpart Shabbir Bhaduri had ma de their opposition to the ceasefire known. Now they returned to violence with unconcealed delight.

Elsewhere, events played out differently. In some places, Hizb personnel continued to observe a de facto ceasefire. Then, on August 16, a Hizb unit attacked Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives at Nikki Mori Dok, some 75 km from Rajouri town. Two Hizb cadre s and one from the Lashkar were killed in the firefight. The violence had its origins in the Lashkar's murder of a local religious figure, Haji Mumtaz, in July. Hizb cadres of local origin were incensed by the killing, and when Lashkar men beat up a Mehr ot village resident, Haji Lal Husain, they decided to retaliate.

CLASHES between the Hizb and the Lashkar have taken place on dozens of occasions in the past. This time, however, the violence illustrated just how difficult Shah's efforts to carry Pakistan with him, along with the pro-jihad organisations it supp orts, would be. The APHC was facing similar problems. Moves towards a dialogue with the Union government, initiated earlier this summer, had come to an end when direct negotiations with the Hizbul Mujahideen began. APHC chairman Abdul Gani Bhat had react ed to the end with ill-concealed delight, and now set about attempting to restore his organisation's role as the sole political representative of the armed secessionist movement in Jammu and Kashmir. Even as Shah was busy attacking Qureishi's proposals f or a renewed dialogue, Bhat suggested that four members of the APHC engage New Delhi in a dialogue, while three of them begin a parallel process with Pakistan.

Bhat's evident intent was to propel the ceasefire process by finding a mode through which Pakistan's immediate involvement in a direct dialogue with India could be avoided. In fact, he had made similar suggestions at several points in the past. Several o f his colleagues, notably the Jamaat-e-Islami's Syed Ali Shah Geelani, however, took umbrage at the suggestion. Bhat backed down, claiming that his proposals were only "personal" ones.

The APHC was unable to take any position on the breakdown of the ceasefire, and the future of the dialogue precess. Geelani sought to make common cause with Shah, claiming that Dar had failed to consult the Hizb chief before announcing the ceasefire. Eve n more venom was reserved for G.M. Bhat, the supreme leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, and one of the authors of the Hizb's dialogue with the Union government. In an August 25 meeting with journalists, Geelani described Bhat's statements supporting the Hizb ceasefire as "worse than those of Farooq Abdullah".

Complicating issues further, the Hizb itself seemed clear that it wanted to have nothing to do with the APHC. Bhat's critique of the Hizb's unilateral dialogue with the Union government provoked a particularly venomous response from the organisation. "Is suing statements and shedding crocodile tears and visiting the families of martyrs will not solve the Kashmir problem," one Hizb statement proclaimed. "If our elders (the APHC leaders) believe that only an armed struggle will liberate Kashmir from the oc cupation and an honourable solution is possible through militancy, then they should come in the forefront and command the struggle," it continued. "If not, they should at least send their wards to join militancy," the press release ended, acidly pointing to the fact that none of the children of senior APHC leaders has been members of terrorist groups.

ALIGNMENTS and objectives in New Delhi were just as blurred. The Union Home Ministry, for one, made clear its belief that the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) were to blame for the breakdown of the ceasefire. The intell igence agencies, the Ministry bureaucrats let it be known, had failed to comprehend the extend of Pakistan's influence over the Hizb, or to anticipate the speed with which the dialogue process would move. Officials within the intelligence apparatus, for their part, suggested that the Ministry had no clear vision of where it wished the talks to proceed towards, and what their objectives might be. Sharp policy differences among the Prime Minister's Office, the External Affairs Ministry, and the Home Minis try also became apparent on the question of whether and how Pakistan might be involved in a dialogue process. While some officials wished to involve Geelani and the Jamaat-e-Islami, others opposed such a project. Similar disputes broke out on whether a d ialogue with the APHC was still relevant or not.

None of this means that it is impossible that a dialogue will resume in the not-too-distant future. Indeed, intense international pressure for a resolution of the violence in Jammu and Kashmir makes it probable that the covert dialogue now under way will soon result in some form of public-domain negotiations.

The two central problems that led to the end of the ceasefire of July, however, will remain. As long as the Hizb's Shah remained in Pakistan, he could not be expected to allow his field commanders to initiate an independent dialogue. And as long as Pakis tan is excluded from a dialogue process, it has no reason either to allow the Hizb to participate in one, or bring about a de-escalation of violence by the Lashkar and the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen. Few of those involved appear to have any clear ideas on how these issues will be addressed, let alone resolved.

Even more problematic, there is at least some reason to believe that a successful dialogue will result in a Jammu and Kashmir that is even more fraught than it already is. For one, the genocidal campaign to rip Jammu and Kashmir apart on communal lines p roceeds apace. The latest killings came on August 19, when four residents of Indh village, in Udhampur's Gool area, were shot dead by Lashkar terrorists. Three of the four were poor Dalits, two of them recent converts to Christianity. Two people, includi ng a woman, were injured in the attack. Six members of a Village Defence Committee and a woman were killed two days earlier at Kot Dara in Rajouri in a similar Lashkar attack. Curfew was imposed in Rajouri, as local right-wing Hindu activists attacked of ficials, including Deputy Commissioner B.A. Runyal. The violence followed a week-long curfew at Ranbir Singh Pora in Jammu, after heads of cows were tossed next to a local temple.

Given the depth of communal tension in Jammu and in Ladakh, there is little doubt that the rise of a dispensation in which the Hizb or its political affiliates held political power would fuel demands for the sundering of the regions from the Kashmir Vall ey. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led Union government may just be forced to make such a concession to the Hindu Right in order to sell an eventual deal with the Hizb. As important, the dialogue with the Hizb may have serious consequences for the people of the valley itself. Both the Hizb and its parent the Jamaat have been reactionary social forces, associated with attacks on women wearing Western-style dress, restrictions on access to family planning services, and bans on cable television and cinema. The se postures, along with the Jamaat's disdain for popular syncretic religious practices, had little mass support, and the organisation traditionally had only a peripheral political presence. The dialogue could, then, end in the Islamic Right gaining throu gh armed power what it failed to achieve in successive democratic elections.

By initiating a dialogue with the Hizb and its political affiliates, the Union government has also marginalised the mainstream political forces in Jammu and Kashmir, notably the National Conference. Although Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah's maximalist vi sion of autonomy for the State may have been flawed, the fact remains that genuine debate on the issue offered a real prospect for opening a political dialogue to restore public confidence in the Indian political system. In the wake of the Hizb dialogue, the autonomy issue has been decisively sidelined. While most officials believe that the Hizb will, through the dialogue process, accept some variant of the autonomy proposals, the fact remains that they will have been negotiated outside of a democratic framework. As important, if the Hizb and Pakistan refuse to accept an autonomy package, India could find itself under intense pressure to accept a sundering of the State along communal lines.

All these risks, the proponents of the dialogue argue, are worth taking for the cause of peace. That might just be so. But, as the spate of Lashkar-executed attacks on both security force personnel and the Army in August illustrate, the Hizb is not the o nly armed force to reckon with in Jammu and Kashmir. This and the other dangers that lie ahead are not reasons not to talk. But the many discomfiting issues that have emerged this summer cannot be evaded through vague assertions that all dialogue is by itself a virtuous thing. Unless the issues that the dialogue with the Hizb have thrown up are addressed, the price of peace could, paradoxically, prove even higher than the appalling costs of the 12-year war in Jammu and Kashmir.