Peace and war

Published : Nov 21, 2003 00:00 IST

Soldiers take up position behind the damaged walls of their camp during a gunbattle with militants in Akhnoor, near Jammu, on October 27. - AMIT GUPTA/REUTERS

Soldiers take up position behind the damaged walls of their camp during a gunbattle with militants in Akhnoor, near Jammu, on October 27. - AMIT GUPTA/REUTERS

The Union government's offer to negotiate with the Hurriyat marks only a small step. The path ahead is full of obstacles - the opposition of the militant groups over which the Hurriyat has no influence, the lack of incentive for Pakistan to rein in terror and the government's own inability to make concessions in an election year.

"It's very good jam," said the Queen."Well, I don't want any today, at any rate."

"You couldn't have it if you did want it," the Queen said. "The rule is jam tomorrow and jam yesterday but never jam today."

"It must come sometimes to `jam today,'" Alice objected.

"No it can't," said the Queen. "It's jam every other day; today isn't any other day, you know."

"I don't understand you," said Alice. "It's dreadfully confusing."

- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, 1871.

PRIME Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's peace initiative on Jammu and Kashmir has passed through the mirror between the real world and into that strange place Lewis Carroll called Wonderland. Here, all participants must submit to the tyranny of meaninglessness. At once, they are overcome by a compulsive urge to decode the babble that passes for dialogue, and to search for sense in even the most trivial and insignificant text. Six months ago, Vajpayee announced in Srinagar that "spring will return to the beautiful Valley soon, the flowers will bloom again and the nightingales will return, chirping." So far, the only chirping to be heard is that of the Kalashnikov - but heard from within Wonderland, it would seem, the ugly staccato rattle of gunfire contains within it the muted strains of birdsong.

Little is known about just what transpired in wonderland - in this case, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) - on October 22, when the Union government announced that Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani would negotiate with the secessionist All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC). The CCS, sources say, discussed the peace initiative for a little over half an hour; no voices of dissent were raised. External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha was charged with offering Pakistan the now-famous 12-point peace proposals. Advani's appointment as negotiator with the APHC, a source present at the meeting said, was presented as a fiat, and was not the outcome of discussion. Again, however, consultations on negotiations with the APHC began at least a fortnight before the CCS meeting. Former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah was consulted on his reactions to such a move shortly after his return from a vacation in London in early October. Soon afterwards, Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed went public with his belief that the Prime Minister ought to negotiate directly with the APHC - an idea he had pressed home to Vajpayee over the past several months.

Despite the magical illusion of a dramatic breakthrough, however, there appears to be no clear plan for transforming dialogue with the APHC into a material reality. APHC Chief Maulvi Abbas Ansari, who was present in New Delhi when the CCS meeting took place, welcomed the announcement at first. "Advani's appointment has come a little late but it is a good step," said Ansari. Soon afterwards, however, the APHC centrists began a process of in-house consultation, which insiders say could last up to a month. Yasin Malik's faction of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front opposed a two-way dialogue with India just this August, while the breakaway parallel APHC formation led by Islamist hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani seems hostile to commencing any repast on a table at which it has not been invited to be present. To top it all off, New Delhi has yet to respond to the APHC's demand for a formal invitation to dialogue. While the APHC wants written confirmation that the dialogue would address its demands for secession, the Union government has obvious concerns about making any such emphatic admission. No consensus exists within the government, too, on the demands by the mainstream APHC to visit Pakistan to hold a dialogue with secessionist and terrorist groups based there.

Advani himself seemed keen to circumscribe the limits of the dialogue agenda well before it begins. On October 24, he insisted that "the unity, integrity and sovereignty of the country cannot be compromised" - an obvious reference to the APHC's demand that secessionist demands be brought to the table. Instead, he suggested an alternative limitation for dialogue, well short even of the demands made for federal autonomy by several mainstream parties in Jammu and Kashmir. "We don't want that all the powers remain confined to Delhi or for that matter to the State capitals alone. We favour decentralisation and are prepared to take steps for that," Advani said. It is possible that this formulation was addressed as much to the Prime Minister as to the APHC. On May 8, Vajpayee had suggested the prospect of an "alternative arrangement" for Jammu and Kashmir, a phrase that was construed as a dilution of India's current structure of sovereignty. On the 12-point proposals for Pakistan, Advani was even more emphatic: "Our stance is the same, that Pakistan has to stop cross-border terrorism, destroy the terrorist infrastructure and build a congenial atmosphere before any talks can begin."

It is hard to understand, then, what the Indian government hopes to achieve by talking at all - and what drove the sudden and unexpected revival of its peace agenda on Jammu and Kashmir. On the face of it, the peace initiative marks a sharp break with months of publicly stated policy; it is all the more mystifying since it comes on the eve of the Assembly elections in some major northern States where a soft line on Jammu and Kashmir could cost the Hindu Right dearly. On September 25, speaking before the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Vajpayee had made perhaps the most blunt official assertion that no dialogue was possible unless Pakistan-backed terrorism ended. "When cross-border terrorism stops," the Indian Prime Minister had said, "or when we eradicate it, we can have a dialogue with Pakistan on the other issues between us." A day later, he seemed equally pessimistic on the prospects of a dialogue with the APHC. The Hurriyat, he said, "wants a special invitation, which I cannot understand". The Union government had already extended, he pointed out, "a general invitation to all".

Evidently, understanding dawned on the Prime Minister sometime in the two weeks after his New York visit, and the time when Farooq Abdullah was consulted on a possible dialogue with the APHC. Several explanations have been offered for this sudden turnaround. Some observers believe that there was intense pressure by the United States to give its Afghan war ally, General Pervez Musharraf, some legitimacy-inducing concession on Jammu and Kashmir. This school of thought points to a dramatic reduction in fatalities in Jammu and Kashmir in October, which fell to a record low compared to the same month in 2001 and 2002 - and, indeed, to a level not seen since March this year (Chart 1). This can be interpreted as the result of Musharraf partly meeting the no-terrorism precondition set by India for dialogue. Musharraf had seemed to suggest earlier that he would use his influence with terrorist groups to secure a de-escalation of violence if dialogue began. Prime Minister Vajpayee responded to this offer in New York by asserting that India refused "to let terrorism become an instrument of blackmail".

Proponents of the `U.S. pressure' thesis point to several other pieces of evidence. On October 29, deposing before a House Sub-Committee on International Relations, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca singled out Musharraf for effusive praise. "Despite sceptical public opinion and bitter criticism from a coalition of opposition parties," she said, "President Musharraf has maintained Pakistan's policy of supporting U.S. operations, with practical results." Pakistan, she proceeded, was doing what it could on Jammu and Kashmir. "We look to Pakistan to do everything in its power to prevent extremist groups operating from its soil from crossing the Line of Control," she said. "The Government of Pakistan has taken many steps to curb infiltration, but we are asking it to redouble its efforts," Rocca said and proceeded to call for "dialogue and peaceful solutions to disagreements in the region", including talks with "militants in Kashmir". Answering questions, she held India and Pakistan equally responsible for what she described as an "impasse".

Rocca's use of the terms "extremists" and "militants" are instructive, particularly since several of these groups figure on the U.S. government's list of foreign terrorist organisations. Notably, however, the U.S. did throw India a bone on the eve of the CCS meeting, with its Treasury Department designating Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar a terrorist. The Treasury Department gave out a Karachi telephone number for Dawood Ibrahim, affirming Indian claims that the principal accused in the Mumbai serial bombing case was indeed in Pakistan. None of this, of course, was news in India; any self-respecting Mumbai crime reporter could have provided the telephone number, along with that of Dawood Ibrahim's key aide, `Chhota' Shakeel Ahmad Babu. Nor does the Treasury Department's action compel Pakistan to hand over Dawood Ibrahim to India. Nonetheless, the action may have given pro-U.S. Ministers the leverage they needed within the Cabinet.

A SECOND major line of explanation also exists as far as policy-making for Jammu and Kashmir is concerned. Prime Minister Vajpayee, this school of thought runs, is deeply concerned about gaining a place in history - or, cynics content, a Nobel Peace Prize - and genuinely wishes to push ahead with a negotiated settlement on Jammu and Kashmir. His policy thrust became evident in the winter of 2000, just a year after India's military triumph in the Kargil war. Hoping to strengthen pro-dialogue elements within the Hizbul Mujahideen, led by dissident commander Abdul Majid Dar, Vajpayee initiated the five-month Ramzan ceasefire. Indian troops were ordered not to initiate offensive combat operations, while New Delhi began a covert dialogue with Dar and APHC centrists. The ceasefire eventually collapsed, but Planning Commission Chairman K.C. Pant was appointed the Union government's first official interlocutor to continue the dialogue process.

Pant formally invited the APHC to join the dialogue soon after his appointment in April 2001. It never responded to his invitation. Geelani, then part of the APHC, demanded that its leaders be allowed to visit Pakistan as a precondition to dialogue. Others, like Abdul Gani Lone, were more sympathetic to the Pant mission, but could not carry the organisation with them. Shabbir Shah, a secessionist leader outside the APHC umbrella, also received a letter, and responded by asking for several clarifications. A desultory dialogue followed, with few results. Pant, insiders say, came to believe that Shah might be interested in joining the election process under the right conditions, but nothing of the kind eventually happened. N.N. Vohra replaced Pant this year and issued a press release inviting all parties interested to dialogue. Ansari, soon after his appointment as APHC chief, dismissed the invitation out of hand, described Vohra as a "clerk" and demanded direct dialogue with the Prime Minister. Vohra is known to have met both Advani and Vajpayee in the days before the CCS meeting, at which he was present. Sources say the hard-nosed bureaucrat made it clear that his mission had reached a dead end, and that any further progress would require the government to make larger concessions to the APHC centrists.

Despite Vohra's frustrations, however, the government and the APHC had in fact remained in contact. Brajesh Mishra, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, and A.S. Dulat, Officer on Special Duty, are believed to have held a series of covert meetings with top APHC figures. Former Union Minister Ram Jethmalani, in turn, conducted a parallel dialogue process through his own Kashmir Committee, which functioned as a sounding board for new ideas. When Vajpayee visited Srinagar this April, his renewed calls for talks added impetus to this quiet peace dialogue. The next month, Ansari revived the idea of visiting Pakistan, much to the ire of the Islamists around Geelani, who felt they would be kept out of such an initiative. Meanwhile, the APHC itself split down the middle, and the Prime Minister's Office came to believe that it needed to make fresh concessions in order to strengthen the centrists. During a meeting of the Inter-States Council in August, Advani offered the APHC an "informal dialogue" that bypassed Vohra. If the APHC "desired to come to Delhi", Advani said, "the Centre would have no objection to keep the door open for talks informally". From here to the CCS offer was just a small step.

Before taking the next step forward, however, New Delhi might have to carefully sweep the area for hidden mines. First, experiences with peacemaking in the public domain have not been heartening. The Ramzan ceasefire, notably, led to an escalation in violence levels and civilian fatalities - a paradoxical situation for a peace initiative (Chart 2). The reasons for this are simple: moves towards peace actually give players an incentive to harden their postures and heighten violence, hoping for larger concessions during dialogue. Groups like the Jamait-ul-Mujahideen, Hizbul Mujahideen and Jaish-e-Mohammad have already made clear their dislike for the nascent dialogue with the APHC. This should surprise no one, for jehadi groups will not be present at the table. Pakistan, which also has limited leverage over the centrists, will do its best to ensure that a dialogue which does not include it goes nowhere. Finally, as National Conference leader Omar Abdullah has pointed out, New Delhi's failure to invite extremists like Geelani to the table may prove costly. Should the dialogue fail to secure peace, or yield no short-term results, the Islamists will be strengthened, and the centrists de-legitimised.

Most dangerous of all, though, is the assertion by both Vajpayee and Defence Minister George Fernandes that the ongoing peace effort is a last throw of the dice. Unlike in, say, Nagaland, the Union government is not talking to the principals. The APHC has no influence with the armies of the jehad and cannot fulfil New Delhi's expectations of a reduced level of violence. Conversely, New Delhi is, on election-eve, in no position to give the APHC the sweeping concession it requires to sustain its own fragile legitimacy. Pakistan, in turn, has no real incentive to rein in terror unless it gets what it wants. Meanwhile, the Hindu Right is incensed with what it sees as official pandering to Pakistani recalcitrance. Unless there is some careful thinking, the prospects of disaster are enormous. This is after all Wonderland: each step towards peace could, at once, be bringing India and Pakistan closer to war.

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