Hard choices

Published : May 18, 2007 00:00 IST

APHC Chairman Mirwiaz Omar Farooq.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

APHC Chairman Mirwiaz Omar Farooq.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

The All Parties Hurriyat Conference and the Hizbul Mujahideen come under pressure from hardline Islamists and mainstream politicians.

BANNERS emblazoned with the Lashkar-e-Taiba's crossed scimitars-and-Quran logo fluttered outside the Bihisht-e-Shauda-e-Kashmir, the Srinagar graveyard where many of those who gave their lives fighting the Indian state these past two decades are buried.

"Lashkar ayi, Lashkar ayi," shouted the crowd which had massed there for Islamist patriarch Syed Ali Shah Geelani's April 22 rally: "The Lashkar is coming, the Lashkar is coming." Abusive threats directed at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad followed. Policemen stood by and watched.

The bilious polemic at the rally, without dispute the largest Islamist gathering in recent years, served to demonstrate the growing aggression - and impunity - of the Far Right in Jammu and Kashmir. The message, however, was not directed as much at New Delhi as at Geelani's competitors in Jammu and Kashmir. Put simply, the rally has underlined that All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq has a hammer hovering over his head - and that time to jump off the anvil, and into the dialogue process on Jammu and Kashmir, is running out.

On the one hand, the APHC leadership is finding itself under siege from figures such as Geelani. Aided by the failure of secular politicians to oppose religious reaction, neoconservative Islamists have been increasingly successful in shaping the form and content of political mobilisation in Jammu and Kashmir. On the other, unionist politicians have also demonstrated growing reach and influence. Even Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, who has no real mass base in the Kashmir valley, drew crowds in excess of 15,000 at recent rallies in Kulgam and Bandipora - figures that rival those of both his mainstream and secessionist competitors.

In recent weeks, the APHC has become increasingly aware that a crisis stares it in the face. In inner-party counsels, APHC leader Abdul Gani Butt is thought to have argued strongly that joining the Prime Minister's Round Table dialogue on Jammu and Kashmir offers the organisation the sole prospect of retaining its relevance. In Butt's view, multilateral engagement offers the best means of marginalising hardline Islamists, the common enemies of both the APHC and unionist parties. As early as 1998, Butt argued the case for a multilateral dialogue involving both secessionists and unionist political leaders - a concept not dissimilar to the process now being pushed forward by Manmohan Singh.

But the near-absence of trust among the APHC's major constituents has impeded progress. Butt's close links with Jammu and Kashmir businessman Mohammad Iqbal Bukhari have, in particular, raised suspicions in the APHC. The Bukhari family, whose interests include a dominant share of the State's pesticide business, threw its weight behind the People's Democratic Party (PDP) last year. After PDP president Mehbooba Mufti renounced official protection as part of the party's effort to push its case on demilitarisation, she turned to Bukhari's son, Altaf Bukhari, for the use of his police security detail and jeep in its stead.

Figures like APHC chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq believe, correctly or otherwise, that Butt is pushing the case for joining a multilateral dialogue with New Delhi on the PDP's behalf. If the APHC joins in the Round Table process, Butt's critics argue, it will lose its status as the sole spokesperson of the secessionist constituency in Jammu and Kashmir. Many of its followers could then defect to the ranks of the PDP, which has already made significant inroads amongst supporters of the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Hizbul Mujahideen.

Moreover, the APHC is uncertain about the dividend that participation in elections might yield. Like other pro-dialogue secessionists, notably Muhammad Yasin Malik, the APHC has seen its key slogans stolen by unionist parties. While the PDP has appropriated issues such as demilitarisation and self-rule, the Congress and National Conference have been increasingly vocal on human rights issues and cross-Line of Control (LoC) links. Bar leaders such as Bilal Gani Lone, who has an independent presence in Kupwara, or Mirwaiz Farooq himself, there are few in the APHC who could win an election on their own strength - a bitter truth the coalition is yet to find ways to address.

As a consequence, APHC leaders have been asking for a renewal of one-on-one dialogue with the Prime Minister - a special process that, they believe, secures their flanks from both Islamists and unionists by legitimising their formation as the sole spokesperson of the secessionist constituency in Jammu and Kashmir.

However, Manmohan Singh's advisers have been loath to renew this process, stung by what they see as the Mirwaiz's failure to deliver on promises made in earlier meetings.

Mirwaiz Farooq's unwillingness to break his close links with Pakistan's military establishment has made New Delhi cautious about granting him a special political status; his manifest failure to exercise influence over terrorist groups, in turn, has led many to note that the cleric can deliver nothing in return for whatever deal New Delhi might give him. Moreover, efforts to initiate a dialogue with the APHC have become mired in the Congress' internal politics. Union Water Resources Minister Saifuddin Soz's efforts to reach out to the APHC leadership were seen by Azad, correctly or otherwise, as undermining the Chief Minister's authority. As such, the APHC's efforts to renew its dialogue with the Prime Minister appear to be headed nowhere, pushing the secessionist coalition towards that special version of hell that exists for politicians: irrelevance.

But the APHC could find an unexpected ally: the Hizbul Mujahideen. Once Jammu and Kashmir's most feared terror group, the Hizbul Mujahideen is, like the APHC, facing an existential crisis. Even though the Hizbul Mujahideen has long opposed Mirwaiz Farooq - elements from the organisation were responsible for the assassination of the cleric's father, Maulvi Mohammad Farooq - it now has good reason to make its peace.

In January, Hizbul Mujahideen chief Mohammad Yusuf Shah received a grim briefing on the state of play in his organisation. Just 621 cadre, he was told, were now available at the Hizbul Mujahideen's three major training camps in Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir, the Qayoomabad and Shaheed Burhan-ud-Din facilities in Manshera and Saheed Salim, in Batrasi. Only 20 new recruits had arrived at the camps from Jammu and Kashmir in all of 2006, a small fraction of the organisation's combat losses.

Records of the briefing, obtained exclusively by Frontline, show just how sharp the erosion of the organisation's military capabilities had been. Just one consignment of eight Kalashnikov assault rifles could be despatched across the LoC in 2006, down from 28 in 2005. While 40 kilograms of military-grade explosives were sent to Hizb combat units in 2005, not a single consignment could be shipped last year. And, whereas 165 hand grenades were shipped across the LoC in 2005, just 50 could be delivered in 2006.

If this were not bad enough, the organisation's financial infrastructure is in ruins. From the winter of 2005-2006, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) slashed the Hizbul Mujahideen's monthly grant of Rs.3 million. After 18 prominent jehad commanders staged a hunger strike in Muzaffarabad last March, a maintenance flow was authorised. However, the flow was inadequate even to meet the Hizbul Mujahideen's annual commitments to the families of cadre killed in combat - estimated, according to the documents obtained by Frontline, at Rs.27 million.

Morale, Shah was told, had deteriorated sharply. There were several violent clashes among cadre in the three camps. On one occasion, cash was looted from the main office in the Burhan-ud-Din camp. Some effort was made to address morale by intensifying religious education - almost a hundred cadre were sent to Jamaat-e-Islami-run educational institutions in Lahore and elsewhere.

But this, the Hizbul Mujahideen briefing notes record, did little to stem the rot. Dozens of Hizbul Mujahideen cadre had married local women and set up homes in Muzaffarabad; others had negotiated private deals with Indian military intelligence and surrendered.

All of this, interlocutors engaged in secret dialogue with senior Hizbul Mujahideen commanders say, has convinced the terror group that it must come to the negotiating table - or be extinguished. As a consequence, fissures between the Hizbul Mujahideen and other Islamists have been increasing. While the Hizbul Mujahideen counts Geelani as its political spokesperson and mentor, it did not pass notice that slogans in its support were near-absent at the April 22 rally.

Yet, the Hizbul Mujahideen is reluctant to renounce arms - something New Delhi has made a precondition for talks. Hizbul Mujahideen leaders fear that, without their military capability, they will be unable to compete with long-established political groups. It is becoming clear, though, that equivocation is an unsustainable option.

Three challenges lie ahead. First, governments in both New Delhi and Srinagar need to ensure that the law is enforced. Despite the inflammatory slogans at Geelani's rally - and, if some eyewitness accounts are to be believed, the display of weapons - the Jammu and Kashmir Police arrested only Geelani after a furore in Parliament. Little action has been taken, either, against figures such as the Islamist leader Asiya Andrabi who use violence repeatedly to enforce their particular view of Islam.

A second challenge arises from Pakistan, where Islamist forces sympathetic to Geelani have gathered strength. While organisations like the Hizbul Mujahideen have suffered from the thinning-out of direct ISI funding for the jehad in Jammu and Kashmir, groups like the Lashkar have survived the challenge. With its sprawling West Asian and European financial networks, the Lashkar has now emerged as the principal voice of the jehad. Inevitably, this muscle has strengthened figures like Geelani. As such, India needs to push Pakistan for more vigorous action against the Lashkar.

Most important, though, politicians like Azad must help the APHC and the Hizbul Mujahideen to understand that a multilateral dialogue is in their own interests.

Pushed by a complex set of social and political forces, any of the young people who a decade ago might have been drawn to the APHC or the Hizbul Mujahideen today turn to the Lashkar - something that ought to worry not just the Indian state and its supporters, but ethnic Kashmiri secessionists as well.

It is likely that mainstream political parties, with their strong roots among broad-based mass constituencies opposed to Islamists and, with support from the state apparatus, will survive the new challenge. Both the APHC and the Hizbul Mujahideen, though, risk being blown away by the brewing storm.

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