Danger signals from the Valley

Print edition : October 10, 2003

The APHC split, the killing of militia leaders Mohammad Yusuf Parrey and Javed Ahmad Shah, and the recruitment drive by jehadi forces constitute a serious threat to the Kashmir peace initiative.

in Srinagar

"SPRING will return to the beautiful Valley soon," Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee promised during his April 18 speech before an audience of some 30,000 people in Srinagar. "The flowers will bloom again and the nightingales will return, chirping."

Jamaat-e-Islami chief Syed Ali Shah Geelani addressing a press conference in Srinagar on September 15 after he was elected Chairman of the rebel faction of the Hurriyat.-

Nights in Srinagar have now started to cool, a sign that autumn and the long, harsh winter are not far away. The All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), on whose centrist leadership the peace initiative was predicated, has split down the middle. Neither faction seems prepared to engage in any serious dialogue with the Indian state. Two important emblems of pro-India forces in the State, militia leaders Mohammad Yusuf Parrey and Javed Ahmad Shah, have been assassinated. Infiltration from across the Line of Control and recruitment of new cadre by terrorist groups within Jammu and Kashmir are up. Prime Minister Vajpayee's peace flowers, it is clear, have wilted.

On September 15, hardline Islamist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani formally took charge of the rejectionist faction of the APHC. "I vow in the name of our 1,00,000 martyrs that I will continue to work for Kashmir's freedom," Geelani said. He hit out at the Hurriyat centrists, charging them with betraying the cause for which the organisation was set up. "They refused to participate in the anti-election campaign last year and, thus, did a service to India," the veteran Jamaat-e-Islami leader alleged. The decision of some Hurriyat leaders to field proxy candidates in the elections, Geelani continued, "was the reason why a large number of people cast their vote". In a subsequent interview, Geelani did not rule out dialogue, but said he would only "appeal to the Mujahideen to lay down their guns if India first acknowledges that Jammu and Kashmir is a disputed territory".

Polemic apart, though, the balance of power within the APHC was visible at Geelani's appointment as the parallel rejectionist chairman. Of the APHC's seven Executive Council members, just one - the near-defunct People's League - attended the September 15 meeting. Two individuals expelled from other groups represented in the Executive Council, the People's Conference's Ghulam Mohammad Hubbi and the Muslim Conference's Ghulam Nabi Sumji, also attended the meeting. Both organisations, however, say they have expelled the breakaway leaders. Geelani could also rustle up the presence of just 11 of the 27-member APHC General Council, mainly small Islamist groupings such as the Islamic Students League, the Muslim Khawateen Markaz, the Kashmir Mass Movement and the Jammu Freedom Movement.

APHC chairman Maulana Abbas Ansari (right) with Executive Council member Abdul Ghani Bhat at a joint press conference at the APHC headquarters in Srinagar on September 16.-RAFIQ MAQBOOL/AP

On the face of it, the centrist political line-up is more impressive. The centrist APHC's chairman, Maulana Abbas Ansari, commands the support of People's Conference leader Bilal Lone and former APHC chairman Abdul Gani Bhat. Both Bhat and Lone have lashed out at Geelani, saying that his organisation was created in violation of the APHC constitution and has no legitimacy. Lone's supporters even disrupted a rally held by Geelani on September 20, shouting slogans that he was responsible for the 2002 assassination of their party chief's father, Abdul Gani Lone.

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq of the Awami League, who initially sought a rapprochement between rejectionists and centrists, has gone one step further, demanding that the Muttahida Jihad Council, the Muzaffarabad-based coalition of important terrorist groups, stop interfering in the APHC's affairs. The centrists may also find support among Geelani's own party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, which chose not to send its representative in the APHC, Ashraf Sehrai, to the September 15 meeting. The Jamaat is scheduled to consider Geelani's action on September 20.

Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front chief Yasin Malik, however, has maintained a stoic silence on the issue. Malik had earlier sided with Geelani's efforts to expel Lone from the Hurriyat because of the participation of People's Conference-backed candidates in the 2002 elections.

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq of the Awami League.-NISSAR AHMAD

What Geelani has achieved, however, is to make it near impossible for the centrists to move into any kind of dialogue with the Union government. "Our doors are open," the Prime Minister said recently in Srinagar, "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." This was of a piece with his past position, notably articulated during the Ramzan ceasefire of 2000-2001, when the Union government sought to engage elements within the Hizbul Mujahideen politically. Put simply, the Union government is only willing to negotiate with the APHC if it calls on the armed groups to disarm.

For secessionist groups, armed or purely political, this position is simply inadequate. Ansari has repeatedly rejected dialogue with the Union government's official mediator on Jammu and Kashmir, N.N. Vohra. The Hurriyat centrists believe that their legitimacy would be undermined unless New Delhi negotiates with them at the highest political level, acknowledging the secessionists as representatives of a de facto nation. For them, this is a precondition for any high-risk call to jehadi groups to end the fighting. With general elections on the horizon, the Bharatiya Janata Party simply cannot afford to make such a large concession. Indeed, it is unlikely that any political dispensation in New Delhi could do so.

Underpinning this stalemate is the simple fact that the most important secessionist player in Jammu and Kashmir is not the APHC. Pakistan's military and the jehadi groups they sponsor have thrown their weight behind Geelani. The Muttahida Jehad Council has thrown its weight behind the rejectionist APHC, as have ultra-Right groups such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad. Terrorist groups have supported Geelani unequivocally since 2000, when he clashed with Abdul Gani Lone on the question of whether the struggle in Jammu and Kashmir was nationalist or Islamist in character.

Pakistan has long argued that the united APHC is the sole voice of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, and the split is a profound political embarrassment to that country's establishment. At the same time, the split was preferred to the prospect of the APHC dealing directly with New Delhi. Ansari had repeatedly spoken of a two-way dialogue with India, saying the subsequent inclusion of Pakistan was "a matter of timing". This was a major break with the APHC's traditional, constitutionally mandated, demand for a three-way dialogue between itself, India and Pakistan. Even if Ansari does receive the concessions he needs from New Delhi, the centrists are now in no position to deliver a reduction in violence.

With the APHC and the BJP-led coalition cramped for room, and the United States too deeply bogged down in Iraq to focus on events in South Asia, the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir is politically deadlocked. Sadly, thousands of lives are certain to be lost in the time it will take to find a way forward.

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