A meaningful course

Published : Feb 13, 2004 00:00 IST

The dialogue process between New Delhi and the All Parties Hurriyat Conference takes off on a note of optimism, but how far it will go given that Pakistan is yet to give up the jehad card is uncertain.

in Srinagar

IN some senses, the ongoing dialogue on Jammu and Kashmir is a little like a bargain between a shopkeeper with no goods to sell and a client with no cash in his pocket. And yet, the moderate faction of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) and the Union government do have an outside chance of haggling their way into history.

On the face of it, little tangible has happened to merit the use of the term "historic" for the January 22 discussions between Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani and the APHC. An official statement noted that the APHC delegation, made up of its chairman Maulvi Abbas Ansari, Abdul Gani Bhat, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Bilal Lone and Fazl-ul-Haq Qureshi, demanded that "an honourable and durable solution should be found through dialogue". Advani promised that "cases of prisoners who have not committed heinous crimes will be reviewed". Both sides agreed that "all forms of violence at all levels should end and the scope of dialogue be enlarged to cover all regions and communities". The next day, APHC leaders held an unscheduled meeting with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who, Umar Farooq later said, "listened to us patiently and asked us to continue with the peace process".

What is significant, however, is that the public polemic of the APHC centrists has changed considerably. In April last year, when Vajpayee made a speech in Srinagar inviting both Pakistan and the APHC to talk to New Delhi, Bhat for one had responded acidly. Vajpayee's "rendition of nightingale tunes won't help the Kashmir issue. Vajpayee talked about laying roads, providing jobs to the unemployed and building houses. We have our houses. We wanted something concrete. Had he taken one step, we were ready to take four steps forward," he had said. Now, Bhat described the dialogue as "amicable, free, frank, fair and fruitful discussions". Ansari went one step further, claiming that the speech Bhat had criticised last year was "historic", and asserted that the dialogue would help "gradually inch towards a resolution of the Kashmir issue". Farooq, in turn, assured Vajpayee that the "entire Kashmir leadership was behind him".

Much of the optimism of the APHC moderates seems to be based on their growing ability to resist Islamist coercion. Qureshi's inclusion in the APHC team is of particular significance. Although his People's Political Front is a constituent of the APHC, Qureshi is not a member of the organisation's executive, and has stayed away from its political battles. A long-time secessionist politician, Qureshi was, along with Abdul Majid Dar, the pro-dialogue Hizbul Mujahideen leader, an active figure in the People's League. Dar subsequently created the Tehreek-e-Jihad, an independent terrorist group which later merged into the Hizbul Mujahideen. When the Hizbul Mujahideen declared a unilateral ceasefire in 2000, Qureshi was Dar's chosen mediator with the Union government. Although Dar was later assassinated, Qureshi has the backing of pro-dialogue elements within the Hizbul Mujahideen. Such support could be instrumental in helping the APHC centrists, who otherwise have no influence among armed groups, give muscle to their moderation.

On how the peace process might actually unfold, however, no one seems certain. A full-scale ceasefire within Jammu and Kashmir, one of the APHC centrists' demands, is certain to be resisted by Indian security forces. During the Prime Minister's Ramzan ceasefire of 2000, terrorist violence had escalated sharply and security forces suffered serious reverses, and few are keen to repeat the experience, other than as a short-term symbolic gesture. There is less controversy about releasing second-rung secessionist leaders and others held on minor charges; the 18 prisoners freed on January 26 could be followed by several others. Most of those now in jail are affiliated with the hardline APHC faction of Islamist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, and the release of prisoners could help win over some factions opposed to the ongoing dialogue. APHC leaders, sources told Frontline, will be allowed to travel to Pakistan later this year to meet with leaders of terrorist groups and their political front organisations. APHC leaders are also expected to engage some Hizbul Mujahideen field commanders in Jammu and Kashmir itself. Again, the objectives of such a dialogue are not well defined.

NO one, though, is in a hurry. The January 22 talks do not mark a discontinuity in the flow of history; they are, rather, just a point in a complex process that has unfolded since 1997. Soon after his release from jail that year, the former Amir, or chief, of the Jamaat-e-Islami, G.M. Bhat, distanced his organisation from the Hizbul Mujahideen, and called for an end to "gun culture". Others soon started to run with the ball. Soon after taking office as APHC chairman in the spring of 1999, Abdul Ghani Bhat called for a dialogue between mainstream political parties and secessionists, a marked departure from the organisation's constitutionally mandated demand for a three-way dialogue between itself, India and Pakistan. All sections of Kashmir's society including the National Conference and even Communists, he argued in an April 19, 1999 interview, had to be involved in "initiating genuine political activity".

War broke out in Kargil soon afterwards. It delayed, but did not derail, New Delhi's engagement of the APHC centrists and pro-peace elements in the Hizbul Mujahideen. Careful covert diplomacy, notably involving the Prime Minister's Principal Secretary Brajesh Mishra and former Research and Analysis Wing chief Amarjit Dulat, led to the Hizbul Mujahideen declaring a unilateral ceasefire in July 2000. While the Hizbul Mujahideen soon backed out of the truce, Vajpayee ordered Indian forces to stop offensive combat operations. In the midst of the ceasefire, the Union government offered the APHC centrists the opportunity to visit Pakistan to consult with leaders there. The sole condition was that the team should not include APHC leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a demand that the APHC rejected. Abdul Ghani Lone, a moderate voice in the APHC, bitterly criticised Geelani for the fiasco. "We say, allow us to go to Pakistan", he reflected, "and when we will reach there, we will tell the Mujahideen to sharpen their weapons against India. I see no logic in it."

Once again, the pendulum had swung towards the Islamists. At the 2001 remembrance of religious leader Mirwaiz Mohammad Farooq's death, exactly a year before Lone's eventual assassination, armed men gathered around a rostrum from which Abdul Ghani Bhat was speaking. "Walk hand in hand with the Lashkar-e-Toiba," went one slogan. "All those in the APHC must support Pakistan," others shouted. Indiscriminate killings of civilians, legitimised as attacks on suspected informers or individuals alleged to be inadequately Islamic in their conduct, help terrorist groups assert their influence over civil society. An unexpected event would, however, transfigure the terms of discourse within secessionist politics in Jammu and Kashmir - the September 11, 2001 bombings in the United States. Although Abdul Ghani Lone and Umar Farooq were now the only committed pro-dialogue elements in the APHC executive, September 11 changed everything: violence had, almost overnight, become unacceptable.

Lone and Farooq were quietly granted permission by the Indian government to travel to Sharjah in mid-April 2002, for a meeting with Sardar Abdul Qayoom Khan, the head of the Kashmir Committee set up by Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf. The meeting was the first in several years between major political figures from both sides of the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir. Pakistan's then-intelligence chief, Ehtaz-ul-Haq, is also believed to have been present at the sidelines of that meeting. Lone subsequently gave some insight into what may have transpired in that closed-door meeting, when he demanded that jehadi groups "leave us alone". Meanwhile, Geelani again came under fire from within the Jamaat-e-Islami, which passed a resolution supporting the "conciliatory stance adopted by Umar Farooq and Abdul Gani Lone". Lone paid for his stance with his life in May 2002; Majid Dar was executed the next year. By late 2003, Geelani was isolated within the Jamaat-e-Islami, which refused to back the hardline parallel faction of the APHC he set up. Although the Hizbul Mujahideen brought considerable pressure to bear on the Jamaat-e-Islami to back the rejectionists, the pressure came to nothing.

Where do things go from here? First, as Lone's assassination illustrates, the APHC centrists are under serious threat. Terrorist groups have already made clear their loathing for the moderates. On January 14 this year, the Jamait-ul-Mujahideen warned APHC chairman Abbas Ansari and his colleagues "not to kneel at the doorsteps of Delhi", or face being "done to death one by one". Underlying this venom is self-interest. Put simply, the Mujahideen have no reason to wish that politicians walk away with the fruits of their jehad - the basic reason why India is talking in the first place. In a statement published in Srinagar newspapers on April 19, 2003, the Hizbul Mujahideen chief Mohammad Yusuf Shah had demanded that his organisation, and not the APHC, be represented in three-way dialogue between India, Pakistan, and representatives of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. Shah's desperation is compounded by indications that some within his organisation are starting to cut their own deals with politicians in Jammu and Kashmir.

Anti-dialogue forces, however, are also under pressure. The Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front's Yasin Malik, widely perceived among liberals as a secular nationalist, is now Geelani's sole credible ally - an alliance replete with ironies to journalists who have heard JKLF leaders assert that their supposedly secular organisation was wiped out by the Islamist Hizb in alliance with Indian security forces. Those who attended the Qul, post-burial rites, of the recently killed Hizbul Mujahideen's Jammu and Kashmir chief, Ghulam Rasool Dar, were treated to the spectacle of praise being lavished upon his memory by JKLF second-in-command Javed Ahmad Mir. One way of pushing forward the dialogue might be to invite figures like Geelani and Malik on board. Most hardliners, however, seem content to bide their time, hoping the talks will eventually reach impasse: allowing them to enter Advani's offices on more generous terms than the centrists could secure.

In the end, much will depend on whether Pakistan's military establishment actually wants to bring about a real de-escalation of violence in Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan's military ruler described the January 22 dialogue as "a very good beginning." The state-run television in Pakistan, however, blacked out news of the APHC's meetings in New Delhi. Mohammad Farooq Rehmani, the head of the APHC's Pakistan-based unit, insisted that "Kashmiris reject the talks between the Ansari group and India, as they decided to sit with the Indian side without any mandate". Geelani, whose faction is recognised by Pakistan as the official APHC, went one step further. He claimed that the moderates were "following in the footsteps of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah", suggesting that they were betraying the secessionist cause. There is little sign so far that Pakistan, notwithstanding public commitments, is actually winding up support to terrorists. Signals traffic from terrorist groups in Jammu and Kashmir to base camps across the LoC, Indian Army Chief General N.C. Vij recently pointed out, continued unabated, and no actual effort has been made to cap or dismantle their infrastructure.

While the peace process will not be derailed by a few major acts of terrorism, its unlikely to survive a major escalation in violence within Jammu and Kashmir. Many in the Bharatiya Janata Party are less than happy with the way events are proceeding. Just nine months ago, Union Minister of State for Defence Chaman Lal Gupta, had said: "There was no need to enter into a dialogue with the APHC leadership, which has no mass base in Jammu and Kashmir." Most officials in New Delhi are hoping that the U.S. will rein in any effort by Pakistan to rock the peace boat. Musharraf, however, is unlikely to give up his jehad card until he secures at least some concessions on Jammu and Kashmir that he can sell as a victory to hawks at home. Officials in Pakistan have spoken of the partition of Jammu and Kashmir along its ethnic-communal fault lines as a possible option. New Delhi, on the other hand, hopes Pakistan will, eventually, settle for the LoC as the border, along with a package of free movement, trade and some autonomy. For all the talk of a Washington-inspired road map for peace, there is no evidence that policy-makers there have any better idea of the way forward than their counterparts in Islamabad or New Delhi.

People in Jammu and Kashmir, though, seem to be in no doubt on how they want events to proceed. For several days in January, villagers from the Teetwal area gathered along the banks of the Neelam river, which marks the LoC. Some shouted across messages to relatives they have not met in decades; others blew kisses or threw letters wrapped around stones. Applicants from districts along the LoC have been queueing up for passports, hoping a Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service will soon begin. Almost incredibly, faith still lives in a place where hope has so often been belied.

A peace process, then, is truly under way in Jammu and Kashmir - but processes do not guarantee good outcomes, or even any outcome. As things stand, an impasse is just as possible as a movement towards an abiding peace. The good news is that both New Delhi and APHC know this, and at least for now, seem prepared to keep talking shop - and to keep praying.

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