The peace meltdown

Print edition : September 26, 2003

Dialogue with the Hurriyat remains a non-starter, the half-truce between the ruling PDP and the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen is on the verge of collapse and terrorists resume their offensive - the peace process in Kashmir is once again up against serious obstacles.

in Srinagar

JUST outside the rolls of concertina wire strung out to guard Srinagar's Humhama Airport from terrorist attack, a giant billboard welcomes tourists to Jammu and Kashmir. Set against the backdrop of Kashmir in autumn, the billboard bears the visages of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. If the intent of the billboard is to convey the impression that Srinagar is a very special place, it succeeds. Nowhere else in the country would a Congress-supported Chief Minister be so eager to advertise his warm relationship with the Bharatiya Janata Party. Nor, of course, would the BJP be keen to share space with the leader of a party committed to releasing terrorists from jail, and to holding dialogue with Islamist secessionist groups such as the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen.

The wreckage of an Army vehicle blown up in a powerful car-bomb explosion, in which four persons were killed at Parimpora on the outskirts of Srinagar.-

Sadly for both politicians, the twin poles of the peace process initiated in March, things are not going according to plan. For one, there are few tourists to see the billboard. Hotels and houseboats had to be emptied after a string of bombings and suicide-squad attacks were executed by terrorists to mark the Prime Minister's August 27 visit to Srinagar. The return of large numbers of tourists to Jammu and Kashmir had been advertised as a major achievement of the People's Democratic Party-led coalition government in the State. This year, as in every year since 1999, terrorist attacks undid the gains of an early-season tourist boom.

But more important than the tourists is the fact that the core components of the peace process are heading nowhere. First, dialogue with the secessionist coalition, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), seems as unlikely as ever before. Second, a long-running half-truce between the mainly ethnic Kashmiri Hizb-ul-Mujahideen and the PDP seems to have collapsed.

Vajpayee arrived in Srinagar for the first meeting of the Inter-State Council to be held outside New Delhi, and proclaimed his delight over tourist-laden Shikara boats once again sailing in the Dal Lake. "Our doors are open," the Prime Minister said, "to all those who reject militancy and extreme positions and wish to play a constructive role in taking Jammu and Kashmir forward on the high road of peace and rapid development." "I assure the people and the Government of Jammu and Kashmir," he continued, "that we will give them maximum help in consolidating the recent gains."

The visit was the third by the Prime Minister to Jammu and Kashmir in 15 months. During his last visit, he had dramatically offered near-unconditional dialogue with secessionist groups, a statement that became the basis for the ongoing dtente process with Pakistan.

The wave of terrorist attacks that took place while the Prime Minister was in Srinagar sent across an unmistakable signal: the Islamist groups who actually exercise power in Jammu and Kashmir simply were not interested in his terms for peace. Five blasts, of Improvised Explosive Device and a grenade, took place through August 27, while two fidayeen launched an attack on the Greenway Hotel in downtown Srinagar. The attack targeted, and successfully eliminated, top counter-terrorist militia leader Javed Husain Shah. Shah, who had until recently been a member of the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Council, had unsuccessfully contested last year's Assembly elections from Bandipora. Over the next two days, terrorists targeted and eliminated at least half a dozen Muslim civilians, in Budgam, Kulgam, Doda and Mahore. Shortly after the Prime Minister's visit, terrorists eliminated Mohammad Khadim Husain, the elected sarpanch of Chamalwas near Ramban in Udhampur, and his four relatives, part of a pattern of targeting Muslim residents of the State perceived to be in any way pro-India.

AT least some important lessons about the dialogue process can be drawn from these events. The first is that with general elections not far away, and its core constituency restive on issues such as the Babri Masjid dispute, the BJP simply cannot afford to make grand concessions to secessionist groups. Even as Vajpayee called for dialogue, Deputy Prime Minister and Union Home Minister L.K. Advani laid down a series of conditions for the offer. The Hurriyat, he said, should enter into a dialogue with the Union government's official interlocutor on Jammu and Kashmir, N.N. Vohra. Vohra alone, Advani continued, was empowered to issue a formal invitation to the Hurriyat for talks. While there was some let in his posture, it was minimal. If the Hurriyat leaders "desire to come to Delhi, the Union government would have no objection to keeping the doors open for informal dialogue", Advani concluded.

For the Hurriyat, this position is simply not adequate. For one, Hurriyat Chief Maulvi Abbas Ansari has already made his disdain for Vohra clear, describing him on one occasion as a chaprasi, or clerk, of the Union government. Vohra, a tough-as-nails bureaucrat, has returned the compliment by refusing to extend a formal invitation to the Hurriyat, asking that it respond to newspaper advertisements for an open dialogue, as other political groups have done. Ansari's position is further compromised by the running battle within the Hurriyat Conference.

On September 6, Jamaat-e-Islami leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the Hurriyat's arch-foe, called for a parallel meeting of its General Council to chalk out the organisation's course of action. The next day, 12 members of the 23-member General Council elected Muslim League leader Masrat Alam, a long-standing Geelani supporter recently released from jail by the PDP government, as a parallel Hurriyat leader. This move to depose Ansari is of dubious legitimacy, particularly since several General Council members claimed to speak for their organisations without authorisation, but does mark a frontal split between centrists and the Islamist Right. Although the split is still limited in scope, it could have far-ranging, long-term consequences.

On top of it all, the Hurriyat is increasingly finding itself in confrontation with armed Islamist groups. Prior to Vajpayee's visit, the Hurriyat sought to avoid calling for a shutdown of shops and businesses, a ritual practice when major Indian leaders visit Srinagar. Geelani, however, issued a call, and was followed in quick time by the Islamabad-based council of 14 terrorist groups, the Muttahida (or United) Jihad Council (MJC). The MJC attacked the Hurriyat centrists for having gone soft on New Delhi, a position that was also adopted by the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad. The Hurriyat was then forced to issue a call for a general strike. Hurriyat rejectionists Javed Mir and Shahid-ul-Islam, who have operated as commanders of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front and Hezbollah respectively in the past, led protests demanding the right of self-determination, and attacking the presence of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi in Srinagar.

MEANWHILE, as official data shows, terrorist operations continue unabated through the State. Levels of violence - judged by the number of terrorist attacks and killings - are considerably lower than in 2001, possibly a consequence of the United States exerting pressure on Pakistan to de-escalate after the near-war situation that took place in the wake of the terrorist attack on Parliament House in New Delhi. After a brief lull this winter, however, violence is closely mirroring the kind that took place in 2002. Of particular concern to security planners is that killings of security forces have been rising faster than those of terrorists and civilians. In August, 41 security force personnel died as compared to 28 in July, while killings of terrorists rose from 126 to 135, and civilians from 74 to 76. The higher level of killings of army, police and paramilitary personnel shows that terrorist groups have again resumed targeted attacks, often in the form of bombings of military convoys using major highways.

Few understand that this escalation holds out direct political consequences for the PDP. Its coalition ally, the Jammu Kashmir National Panther's Party, has recently protested terrorist attacks on its workers through Jammu, blaming the State's "Kashmiri leadership" for the problem. Such sniping, however, is secondary. In the build-up to last year's elections, the party had arrived at a modus vivendi with the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. In several south Kashmir areas, Hizb cadre put up posters ordering voters to support the party; in other areas, relatives of top terrorist commanders campaigned for the PDP.

After a lull of several months, the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen has resumed attacks on military forces, a notable one being the September 6 bombing of the National Highway at Parimpora, on the outskirts of Srinagar. The action, security planners believe, is the result of the PDP not being able to guarantee impunity to the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen leadership, and its failure to ensure the group is included in final-status negotiations on Jammu and Kashmir. Although PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti has repeatedly called for dialogue with the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, both Vajpayee and Advani gave no endorsement to the idea during their visit.

In mid-August, highly placed sources told Frontline, a senior PDP leader had held a one-to-one meeting with the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen's central Kashmir commander, Abdul Rashid Pir, who uses the nom de guerre Shardar Khan. The meeting, held near the tourist resort of Pahalgam, was called after two Border Security Force raids on the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen narrowly missed eliminating Pir. Shortly after the meeting, Pir disappeared from the radar of Indian intelligence, fuelling speculation he may have left for consultation with his bosses in Pakistan. Whatever the truth, the Parimpora bombing has made it clear that the Hizb-ul-Mujahideeen's velvet glove is now off. Although no one in the PDP will admit on record to meeting with Hizb-ul-Mujahideen leaders, its leaders privately admit that they seek to engage ethnic Kashmiri terrorists in the hope of bringing them on to a political platform. The problem is New Delhi is in no position to make the political concessions the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen demands as a precondition, a fact underlined during abortive negotiations with dissident commanders from 2000 to 2002.

Sayeed's political position has not been helped by recent allegations of corruption levelled at his party. Although the State's Vigilance Commission, led by former Central Bureau of Investigation top gun Radha Vinod Raju, has launched a massive anti-corruption campaign, several recent bureaucratic appointments have subverted the goodwill gained through this effort. On August 27, the Srinagar-based newspaper Greater Kashmir, generally sympathetic to Sayeed, charged one of the regime's top Ministers with "institutionalising corruption and nepotism". The report charged the Minister with having purchased three cars and considerable amounts of land since taking office. "In the recent transfer and posting of engineers in the departments under his charge", the newspaper reported, "a price tag of Rs.2 lakh to 5 lakh was attached to each prize posting by the personal section of the Minister."

Fortunately for the PDP, the goodwill which brought it to power still survives. Srinagar is plastered with billboards which advertise the party's key slogan, `Healing Touch'. A medical store in Pampore has adopted the slogan as its name; so has a non-governmental organisation in Srinagar. The Chief Minister was, doubtless, delighted when the slogan became the subject of editorials in The New York Times and a welter of newspapers in the Gulf region. It is anyone's guess, though, how long a slogan will be able to withstand the ravages of real-world politics. Srinagar recently observed a general strike to protest long-overdue power tariff hikes, for example, while newspapers are already complaining of the failure to implement corruption-free recruitment to government and to bring about genuine development. The Healing Touch candle still burns despite the hostile winds determined to snuff it out - but candles, as we all know, cannot burn forever.

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