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A dangerous game

Print edition : Sep 16, 2000 T+T-

The process of seeking a direct settlement with terrorist groups has marginalised the prospect of a meaningful debate on autonomy, which could have propelled a real dialogue on the democratic aspirations of Jammu and Kashmir's diverse communitie s.

TWO years ago, Abdul Majid Dar's friends have it, the Hizbul Mujahideen commander received divine directions to a initiate dialogue with the Indian government. The crush of pilgrims in Mecca had led the Saudi Arabian police to suspend movement in the hol y city. Stuck right in front of the Kaaba, the structure at the heart of the Haj pilgrimage, Dar had a vision of the devastation he had inflicted in Jammu and Kashmir. At that moment, Dar's associates claim, he decided to meet interlocutors who might bri ng about negotiations to end the carnage. After putting his plans to his wife, a doctor in the United Arab Emirates, the Hizb's operations chief began to plan the peace process that finally began in July this year. Dar himself is not available for commen t, so there is no way of finding out just how seriously he himself takes this god-did-it narrative. What is clear, however, is that the work of an invisible hand is indeed evident in the events Dar set in play. But there is nothing supernatural here: the hand is that of the United States of America.

Dar's chosen mediator, Fazl-ul-Haq-Qureishi, has given the first real idea of what the Hizb's vision of a negotiated settlement to the crisis in Jammu and Kashmir might constitute. In a September 1 interview to an Internet news portal, the People's Polit ical Front leader said he had submitted to the Union Government formal plans for a quasi-independent Jammu and Kashmir. "The model," Qureishi said, "envisages a semi-sovereign status for Jammu and Kashmir, and joint control exercised by both India and Pa kistan". It is not clear whether Qureishi was speaking for the Hizb or his own organisation, which appears to be developing independent political ambitions. But the fact that the statement came from Qureishi suggested to most people that it had the suppo rt of at least a section within the Hizb leadership.

Masood Tantrey, the Hizb's valley commander and its official spokesperson, formally disassociated himself from Qureishi's pronouncements three days later. "We have made enough concessions by agreeing to (a) tripartite solution," Tantrey's statement read, "and there is no scope for further compromise. Now all of us should accept only that settlement which is agreed through the tripartite solution." It was lost on none, though, that Qureishi's announcements closely mirrored proposals made by other Kashmir -based figures on the Islamic right. On May 9, just a month before Dar came out with his ceasefire declaration, the then chief of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) and Jamaat-e-Islami leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, announced that his organisatio n was "not for the division of the state, and if in the talks the parties reach a consensus to divide the State, we will accept that".

Geelani's proposals, as in the case of those made by Qureishi, have their origins in proposals put out by the Kashmir Study Group (KSG), a United States-based organisation. Farooq Kathwari, who owns the upmarket Ethan Allen, set up the KSG after his son was killed in an accident during training in Afghanistan as a recruit for the Islamic Right's jehad in Jammu and Kashmir. With the backing of prominent Indian establishment figures, the KSG put out proposals in September 1999 for the creation of a new Kashmiri state which would be a "sovereign entity but one without an international pers onality" (Frontline, October 22, 1999). The new state, the KSG report said, "would have its own secular, democratic constitution, as well as its own citizenship, flag and a legislature which would legislate on all matters other than defence and fo reign affairs. India and Pakistan would be responsible for the defence of the Kashmiri entity, which would itself maintain police and gendarme forces for internal law and order purposes".

Almost unnoticed, Kathwari's proposals for a new state created by sundering Jammu and Kashmir along communal lines, gathered momentum. The furniture tycoon met high-level officials in New Delhi and Srinagar this March, including Chief Minister Farooq Abd ullah. In the build-up to the Kargil war, Pakistan's then Foreign Minister Niaz Naik mirrored the suggestions in the KSG Report, calling for a series of tehsil-level referendums to settle the State's future. Reports in the Pakistan press suggest that Nai k and the Indian government's back-channel negotiator during the Kargil war, R.K. Mishra, also held discussions on the plan. Finally, the Jammu and Kashmir government's Regional Autonomy Commission (RAC) called for the sundering of the State along commun al lines. Sources close to the official charged with the implementation of the RAC Report, Riyaz Punjabi, say that he has watered down some of its more explicitly communal proposals, but its final contours remain to be seen.

QUREISHI'S conversion to the Kathwari plan is not the only sign of the U.S. role in the ongoing processes in Jammu and Kashmir. On September 4, just as Tantrey was busy attacking Qureishi's proposals, in Islamabad Hizbul Mujahideen chief Mohammad Yusuf S hah was offering journalists riveting insights into the U.S. role in the dialogue process. Shah, who prefers to use the nom de guerre of Syed Salahuddin, said he had given to a U.S.-based businessman, Mansoor Ijaz, a detailed account of the Hizb's reason s for terminating its ceasefire. Ijaz, Shah suggested, had been acting as a personal representative for U.S. President Bill Clinton. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained nuclear physicist, he is chairman of the New York-based Crescent Equity I nvestment Bank and a member of the influential Council for Foreign Relations.

It is now well known that Ijaz was in India around the time Dar was in Jammu and Kashmir. Ijaz was flown in through Kathmandu on a special Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) aircraft (Frontline, June 9, 2000). The U.S. businessman, who is personally close to Clinton and a major campaign finance donor to the Democratic Party, arrived in Srinagar in the second week of May. Escorted by RAW minders, he was whisked through passport control at Srinagar's Humhama Airport without the mandatory entries bein g made, and driven to a State guest house under escort. Later, he was briefed by 15 Corps Commander Lieutenant-General Kishan Pal and Director-General of Police Gurbachan Jagat, a privilege rarely granted to foreign nationals other than high-level diplom ats. Finally, Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah hosted a dinner for the visitor at his residence on Srinagar's Gupkar Road on May 10, attended by a small group of State Cabinet Ministers.

Abdullah himself has gone on record to say that he did indeed meet both Kathwari and Ijaz, but little is known about the specific role of the U.S. in preparing the ground for the ongoing peace process. One important event, however, appears to have been t he visit of U.S. Senator David Bonier to Srinagar in April. In Srinagar, Bonier is believed to have flatly told Geelani and top APHC leaders including its current chairman Abdul Ghani Bhat to drop their opposition to any negotiations not involving Pakist an. Geelani subsequently flew to New Delhi for discussions with Pakistan High Commissioner Ashraf Qazi Jehangir. Similar plain talking was possibly done in New Delhi, for on May 7, Union Home Minister L.K. Advani had for the first time spoke of the prosp ect of talks with terrorist groups, saying 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".

Key players in the dialogue process are far from unanimous on its future, or even its contours. Deep fissures are evident even within the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Hizb's parent organisation. Following bitter criticism by Geelani of the Jamaat's Amir (chief), Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, the organisation's Majlis-e-Shoura (supreme council) met to consider the former APHC chief's future. Although Geelani refused to withdraw his attack on Bhat for supporting the ceasefire, the Majlis, at the end of a three-day meetin g on August 29, chose neither to censure him nor to remove him from the APHC, where he serves as the Jamaat's representative.

Events in the Majlis-e-Shoura surprised more than a few observers. Only weeks earlier, Bhat, who has been one of the principal advocates of a ceasefire and a negotiated peace, appeared to have secured the organisation's unequivocal support. Bhat defeated Geelani's nominee, Ashraf Sehrai, in elections for the Amir's post held by the Jamaat's general house of representatives, the 90-member Majlis-e-Numaindgan. The outcome of the Majlis-e-Shoura, however, illustrates that Bhat is in no position to risk a s plit in the Jamaat, or to marginalise the hardliners decisively. Instead, something of a compromise between the two factions emerged, with Bhat accepting Sehrai as a deputy, and Geelani, who heads the Jamaat's political wing, taking on Ghulam Qadir Lone, a moderate, as his second-in-command. The feud within the organisation appears to reflect larger schisms within the Hizb itself, for Dar has been unable to gain endorsement for his initiative from several key field commanders.

Developments at the other end of the political spectrum are not dissimilar. Mainline Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) activists were stunned by the support their cadre gave to the controversial former Jan Sangh chief Balraj Madhok during his September 1 visi t to Jammu. Madhok charged Advani with "bringing shame to the nation" by engaging in a dialogue with the Hizbul Mujahideen. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Advani, he said, "should quit and hand over Jammu and Kashmir to the Army". The newly-form ed Jammu and Kashmir Nationalist Front, Madhok announced, would launch a campaign to sunder the state into three. Madhok shared a platform with a spectrum of Right-wing leaders in the State, notably the Ladakh Buddhist Association's Tsering Samphel. Samp hel has been at the cutting edge of a Buddhist-chauvinist agitation in Ladakh this summer, which has on at least one occasion almost provoked violence.

If the Hindu Right is under pressure in Jammu, so too are its Islamic counterparts in Kashmir. The APHC, for one, has found itself under collective assault from revanchist organisations like the Jammu Kashmir Islamic Front, threatening to execute securit y guards assigned to its leaders. The Hizb, for its part, has been forced to threaten to engage in a new wave of hostilities that is pan-Indian in character, a posture obviously designed to ward off pressure from Pakistan-based jehadi organisation s. Hizb commanders have also been seeking to make a communal issue of census operations, which are being undertaken in Jammu and Kashmir after two decades.

As the September 1 bombing which injured former State Minister Maulvi Iftekhar Husain Ansari illustrates, just weeks after the Hizb ceasefire, it is back to business in Jammu and Kashmir. While high-political plans for a resolution of Jammu and Kashmir's bloody war may seem conceptually attractive, their principal impact so far has been to deepen the conflict between religious communities. Through the State, peoples and politicians have begun to position themselves in the event of a partition, however f ar it might yet be in the future. Tragically, meaningful debate on autonomy, which could have propelled a real dialogue on the welter of democratic aspirations of the State's diverse communities, has been marginalised by the process of bringing about a d irect settlement with terrorist groups. Many had advertised the Hizb ceasefire as the beginning of a new time of peace. It may turn out, instead, to be just a false dawn.