An uncertain game plan

Print edition : December 11, 1999

Is the Union Government making overtures to the APHC in a bid to reach an understanding with it on the Kashmir issue? And will this involve merely provincial autonomy or a partition of the State on communal lines?

WHEN the sun goes down each evening, life throughout Kashmir retreats behind locked doors. After a gap of several years, an undeclared dusk-to-dawn curfew has been imposed in dozens of troubled rural areas in the State. In Srinagar itself, after sunset n o civilian movement is allowed past the Badami Bagh Cantonment, located on the National Highway to Anantnag and on to Jammu. Checking of traffic along highways and cordon-and-search operations in the countryside have once again become common. And the tou rists who had begun to holiday on the Dal Lake in the summer have all left.

In the aftermath of the Kargil War, the other war in Kashmir has been joined again in earnest. But the outcome of this war could well be shaped off the battlefield. The form and content of New Delhi's engagement with the All Parties Hurriyet Conference ( APHC), and its management of Jammu and Kashmir's deep financial crisis, could prove to have more long-term significance than the battles between Indian security personnel and insurgents that break out almost every evening.

Rumours of covert official contacts with the APHC began shortly after the organisation's top leadership was jailed in October. The National Conference (N.C.) leadership allowed the APHC to conduct a vigorous anti-election campaign, expecting that low vot er-turnouts would sabotage the prospects of former Union Home Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed's People's Democratic Party (PDP), and other Opposition figures like N.C. rebel Saifuddin Soz and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Mohammad Yusuf Ta rigami. With the elections out of the way, the N.C. promptly despatched top APHC leaders to jail on charges of complicity with terrorist groups and seditious activities. They are now lodged in Jodhpur.

Under other circumstances, the N.C. could have been sitting pretty in the knowledge that it had eliminated all its principal sources of opposition in one ingenious manoeuvre. But a powerful coalition of interests appears to have ensured that the move did not quite work out as planned. In late October, stories began to appear in both State and national newspapers that a dialogue on Kashmir sponsored by the Union Government was under way. Such a dialogue, since it would undermine the N.C.'s claim to be th e sole legitimate representative of mass opinion in Jammu and Kashmir, was thought to be initiated by forces within the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government that were hostile to the N.C.

Although the APHC has always formally rejected any possibility of a "dialogue with India", several events rendered credible the prospect of such a dialogue. During a visit to the United States in early October, APHC leader Abdul Ghani Lone had attacked P akistan's Kashmir policy. Lone's remarks came in the context of proposals from the Washington-based Kashmir Studies Group for the creation of an autonomous region spanning the Kashmir Valley, and the Muslim-majority areas of Rajouri, Poonch and Doda. Man y believed that Lone was responding to some kind of quasi-official U.S. proposal for a bilateral dialogue.

With APHC hardliners such as its Jamaat-e-Islami affiliated chairperson Syed Ali Shah Geelani in jail, events in November tended to lend legitimacy to this proposal. In a November 6 interview to The Indian Express, Lone ruled out bilateral negotia tions, but then made an intriguing statement. India, he said, "had to give up the bullet-for-bullet policy and volunteer for a dialogue with the Kashmiris as they are doing in the northeast". "Only this," he concluded, "will enable us to prevail upon out siders to keep off Kashmir." A fortnight later, the APHC's acting chairperson and an influential religious leader from Srinagar, Umar Farooq, came out even more explicity, suggesting an India-APHC dialogue with Pakistan "involved at a later stage".

Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah with Home Minister L.K. Advani, Defence Minister George Fernandes and senior officials at a meeting on Internal Security at North Block in New Delhi in November.-ANU PUSHKARNA

Furore followed in the APHC. At its November 22 General Council meeting in Srinagar, APHC figures committed to securing Jammu and Kashmir's accession to Pakistan accused Umar Farooq of treachery. He, in turn, flatly denied that any talks had begun. Geela ni, he said, had told him in Jodhpur on October 24 "swearing by the Holy Prophet that nobody from the Government of India had approached him until then". "My remarks need to be understood in the right context," Umar Farooq said. "India and Pakistan talk to each other, and we reject the talks at futile. But at the same time, the talks generate hopes of a settlement." In other words, Umar Farooq was clearly open to the prospect of bilateral discussions as a precursor to involving Pakistan, a stand remarka bly similar to that Lone had taken.

New Delhi stood by through most of the drama, perhaps to see where events would lead. It was only on November 26 that Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee called a meeting to discuss events in Srinagar. What Union Home Minister L.K. Advani, Defence Minist er George Fernandes, Cabinet Secretary Prabhat Kumar, Home Secretary Kamal Pandey, the Intelligence Bureau Director Shyamal Dutta, and Research and Analysis Wing chief A.S. Dulat discussed with him has not been made public. No Jammu and Kashmir Governmen t officials were invited to the meeting, suggesting that informal contacts with the APHC could well have been discussed. Although Advani denies that any contact with the APHC has taken place, several observers believe that some kind of informal intellige nce community contact could well have occurred.

Whether an official dialogue with the APHC has already started or is only being considered, its initiation would serve several interests. For one, officials in New Delhi, as well as a spectrum of politicians, make no secret of their belief that Chief Min ister Farooq Abdullah's three-year reign has undermined the gains made in 1996. There is unanimity here about the poor administration and the corruption, but as an alternative, no viable Opposition is in sight. Starting a dialogue with elements within th e APHC would, at least, open the prospect of some secessionist leaders joining mainstream politics. This should enable the NDA Government to meet U.S. pressure by proclaiming that dialogue has been opened with representative leaders of Kashmir.

BUT it is far from clear whether a formal dialogue with the APHC could in fact come into being. Most APHC leaders have historically shown little inclination to seek confrontation with terrorist groups, who are certain to be incensed by any bilateral dial ogue. In September, Umar Farooq condemned Hizbul-Mujahideen demands for the termination of all cable television services in Srinagar, suggesting cautiously that educational and news broadcasts were not un-Islamic. The Hizbul-Mujahideen promptly issued pr ess releases virtually asking the religious leader to mind his own business. Subsequently, Umar Farooq failed to condemn the murders of at least four cable network operators in Srinagar city.

More important, it is near certain that major Pakistan-based terrorist organisations such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami would in fact ignore calls by the APHC for an end to violence, an important component of any dialogue. Nor is it c lear whether Hindu chauvinists within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the party's rank and file in Jammu, would allow any kind of autonomy negotiations with the APHC to proceed. "There is this enormous optimism among communalists in Kashmir and Pak istan," said academic Balraj Puri, "that the BJP's Hindu credentials would enable it to sell some kind of deal on Kashmir." "In fact," he argued, "the BJP's core Hindu nationalist beliefs and its internal factional disputes make it near impossible for a deal on Kashmir to come about."

Alternative deals appear more probable. The State government's plans to partition Jammu and Kashmir into a series of provinces along communal lines, Puri suggested, could dovetail with its demands for greater State autonomy. "You might see," Puri said, " the Union Government granting autonomy to the Kashmir valley, Rajouri, Poonch, Doda and Kargil in return for a greater integration into the Union of the predominantly non-Muslim areas of Jammu, Leh and Udhampur. Such a deal could be packaged as meeting t he separate aspirations of religious communities throughout the State." Such an autonomy deal would not only meet U.S. demands for progress in the Kashmir Valley, it would also allow the BJP to keep Hindu hardliners quiet.

The proposition is not as bizarre as it seems. Politics in Jammu and Kashmir is built around three forces, each legitimising the existence of the other. Should a partition of the State come through, the BJP would secure its ranks in Jammu, the N.C. could proclaim victory for its core Kashmiri Muslim constituency, and the APHC could continue with its anti-India platform undisturbed. Leh has seen massive anti-autonomy protests through late November, and BJP Member of Parliament Chaman Lal Gupta has been l etting his Jammu region constituency know that the Union Government will under no circumstances allow the N.C. demands for Statewide autonomy to be put in place. Such protests could propel the case for partition.

THERE is little doubt that the security establishment within the State has recovered from its early post-Kargil reverses. Despite high losses of security force personnel, terrorist groups have also been hit hard by operational reverses and internal fissu res. Intelligence officials told Frontline that Pakistani insurgents bitterly accused their Kashmiri counterparts of collaboration with security force personnel, at a meeting held at Cheripora village near Chattergul in Anantnag on the night of No vember 10. One relative of local Hizbul-Mujahideen military adviser Nadeem Osmani was subsequently executed on charges of being an informer.

But the new political processes set in play inside or outside Jammu and Kashmir have ensured that despite these military gains no one is certain just where events might go from here. Sadly, most politicians appear fixated on this high-level political dia logue, ignoring the fact that ordinary people have lives to live in the meanwhile. "Politicians," said CPI(M) leader Tarigami, "spend their time talking about three-nation formulas and ten-nation formulas. Meanwhile, people do not have access to clean dr inking water, and their children aren't getting an education." If the Union Government is in fact serious about Jammu and Kashmir, it might to do well to address the problems of its people as well.

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