Spring far behind

Print edition : July 30, 2004

The leadership crisis in the All Parties Hurriyat Conference and the mainstream parties' failure to respond to the political challenges in the valley threaten to push the State into anarchy.

in Srinagar

"SPRING will return to the beautiful valley soon," Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee promised in Srinagar last April, quoting a somewhat trite passage from the poet Ghulam Ahmed Mehjoor, "the flowers will bloom again and the nightingales will return, chirping." Like any headless nightingale, the peace process in Jammu and Kashmir is headed earthwards. Initiated by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in 2002, the peace process was predicated on widening political dialogue within Jammu and Kashmir, most significantly between the secessionist All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) and the Union government. Now, however, the contradictions in the process have become evident. Unable to control events on the ground, and battered by terrorist threat, the Hurriyat's Centrist faction is without a leader, and mainstream political parties are fast losing control over their constituencies. Events in Jammu and Kashmir are spiralling out of control, and it will take at least a minor miracle to get them back on track.

Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq leading the prayer for his uncle Maulvi Mushtaq Ahmad who was killed in a militant attack.-

On July 6, Hurriyat chairman Maulvi Abbas Ansari announced that he was resigning his post in an effort to bring about the reunification of the coalition's factions. The organisation's founder-chairman, Srinagar cleric Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, was asked to work towards restoring the Hurriyat's original executive council, which until last year's split included Islamist hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Although the Hurriyat reiterated its willingness to continue dialogue with India and Pakistan, Farooq said this process would commence only after a new chairman was elected by the pre-split executive council. No clear idea, however, has emerged on just how the Hurriyat intends to bring Geelani back on board. The Ittehadi Force, a forum of secondary political parties including Sheikh Abdul Aziz's faction of the People's League, has said that it is waiting for an invitation from the Hurriyat to begin talks, but neither the Islamists nor the centrists have responded.

What sense might one make of Ansari's resignation? At one level, the effective termination of dialogue with the Government of India could be read as the outcome of intense terrorist pressure on the Hurriyat's centrists. On May 29, terrorists had shot the Mirwaiz's uncle, Maulvi Mushtaq Ahmad, and he died nine days later. Farooq's house was subsequently attacked. Speaking in New Delhi on June 28, Farooq admitted that "somebody within our rank and file is targeting me and my family". The reason for this hostility among terrorist ranks, he said, was "our stand on the resolution of the Kashmir issue on the dialogue process between India and Pakistan".

After a meeting with Pakistan Foreign Secretary Riaz Khokhar, Farooq asked for permission to travel to Pakistan as part of a Hurriyat delegation to investigate just who was responsible for the spate of attacks. A meeting scheduled to decide on the members of the delegation, however, never took place, and the Hurriyat never formally made a request for passports to travel to Pakistan.

Discretion, it would then seem, triumphed over valour in the week between Farooq's visit to Delhi and Ansari's decision to step down. One key event may have been the burning down of the historic school run by Farooq's family in downtown Srinagar on June 7, the act of arson intended to signal that both his life and his ideological inheritance were under threat. Yet, the problems surfaced much earlier. It had become clear that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was unwilling to deliver a dramatic face-saving gesture to the centrists, like significant troop withdrawals or direct one-on-one negotiations with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Another key factor was efforts by the Union government to draw the Islamists into the dialogue process, thus undermining the Hurriyat's centrist majority's claims to represent all the people of Jammu and Kashmir.

On June 9, lawyer-politician Ram Jethmalani held an unscheduled 30-minute meeting with Geelani, pushing ideas for wider internal autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir. Jethmalani made his visit on behalf of the non-official Kashmir Committee, set up with quiet government assent at the start of the NDA's engagement of the Hurriyat. Most observers had believed that the Kashmir Committee to be defunct after the resignation of two of its three members, senior journalists M.J. Akbar and Dilip Padgaonkar.

The mission, sources told Frontline, was pushed by elements in the Union Ministry of Home Affairs who believed that the centrists needed to be prodded into action, and the dialogue `broad-based'. The services of the recently removed Intelligence Bureau (IB) Director, K.P. Singh, were used to set up the meeting, and Geelani was contacted through a New Delhi lawyer of ethnic-Kashmiri origin. Although the Islamist leader was non-committal, Jethmalani flew to Srinagar, only to be kept waiting for several hours before he was granted a token audience. At a later rally, Geelani claimed he rejected Jethmalani's autonomy proposals out of hand. "Jethmalani wanted me to give credit to the Indian democracy," Geelani said. "I explained to him how the Indian forces had committed massacre after massacre of Kashmiri people in the last 15 years. He had nothing to say when he withdrew." Geelani also charged that the "the entire Indian leadership was biased against the Kashmiri Muslims", and that while the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was "explicitly communal", the Congress "was instinctively communal but it was pretending to be secular".

JETHMALANI'S mission, then, failed to win over the Islamists - and also served to alienate the centrists. For now, Geelani has shown no signs of biting the bait offered by the centrists, and has expressly rejected dialogue with India. Speaking after Friday prayers at a Srinagar mosque on July 9, for example, he accused India of "massacring Kashmiris under the camouflage of a peace process". In several earlier speeches, Geelani rejected any forward movement other than those founded on United Nations resolutions mandating a plebiscite in the pre-1947 state of Jammu and Kashmir. This rejectionist stance has long had the support of Pakistan-based terrorist groups, who have little to gain from a negotiated settlement that does not include them. Pakistan, in turn, has softened its position on the Hurriyat centrists in recent months, but for obvious reasons would not like a dialogue kite to fly unless it has at least one hand on the string. Thus, reason suggests Geelani would enter the Hurriyat only if he had a decisive say in shaping its strategy: something the mere removal of Ansari would not give him.

Geelani's best hope is to regain influence within the Jamaat-e-Islami, the organisation to which he gave much of his life before being marginalised last year. His supporters now hope to use his majority among the 1,250-plus delegates in the Jamaat-e-Islami's general council to secure changes in the organisation's leadership, and amend its constitution to allow for support of the jehad against India. He does not, however, have a majority among the Jamaat-e-Islami's Rukuns - its rank and file cadre - or its senior leadership.

From December 2003 onwards, moderates in the Jamaat had run a successful campaign to remove pro-Geelani figures from positions of power, tacitly backing the Hurriyat moderates. Syed Nazir Ahmad Kashani, the Amir of the Jamaat-e-Islami, fought off Hizbul Mujahideen efforts to garner support for the hardliners. On January 1 this year, the Jamaat's Markazi Majlis-e-Shoora, went public with a commitment to "democratic and constitutional struggle", an indication of willingness to operate within the Indian political system. Article 5 of the Jamaat-e-Islami's constitution obliges it to use such means, and to desist from those, which "may contribute to the strife on earth".

One key factor in shaping the power struggle will be how much influence terrorist groups are able to exercise. The signs, on the face of it, are not good. Although violence has been in steady decline since 2001 - the year India threatened to go to war unless Pakistan de-escalated its covert war in Jammu and Kashmir - official figures for this summer do not make for happy reading. Killings of civilians from April to June this year were higher than in 2003, particularly in the Kashmir division (see chart). So, too, were the numbers of Indian security force personnel killed, although the numbers of terrorists killed in retaliation declined. Infiltration, as Chief of Army Staff Nirmal Vij recently made public, has resumed, reaching high levels in the first two weeks of June. What Vij did not make public was the fact that the almost-complete border fencing is not as effective as some had hoped. Three terrorists shot dead near the Line of Control (LoC) in the Mandi-Loran area on June 9, for example, were carrying plastic pipes, designed to penetrate the fencing. Indian infantry troops who have carried out tests on the fencing have taken just 10 to 15 minutes to clear the barrier - suggesting that while it is indeed a deterrent, the fence is hardly the kind of impregnable barrier enthusiasts had claimed.

Syed Ali Shah Geelani addresses a crowd in Srinagar on June 18.-DANISH ISMAIL/REUTERS

Worst of all, the political ground on which the peace process is premised threatens to turn into quicksand. With terrorist groups increasingly dominating southern Kashmir, particularly at night, large crowds of villagers have started appearing at the last rites of slain terrorists, a phenomenon not seen since the early 1990s. Gatherings of up to 2,000 villagers have been recorded during the burials of terrorists of Pakistani origin, something unheard of until early this year. In one recent incident in Kulgam, villagers were shipped in by bus to protest an Army siege of a local mosque, in an effort to rescue two terrorists still trapped inside. Major political parties have been unable to respond. The People's Democratic Party (PDP), which until recently had a none-too-covert alliance with elements of the south Kashmir Hizbul Mujahideein, has been haemorrhaging cadre - the wages of the terrorist group's ire at the PDP's inability to deliver on pre-poll promises to scale back military operations. At least five PDP workers have been killed and eight injured since June. In a gruesome incident on June 15, four PDP activists who had campaigned for Mehbooba Mufti, who contested and the won the parliamentary election from Anantnag, were taken to a jungle hideout near Aishmuqam, beaten and then shot through the legs.

Moulana Abbas Ansari who has resigned as APHC chairman.-TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP

Crippled by a bitter feud with its alliance partner, the Congress, the PDP seems unable to respond to the political challenge. Last month, Congress politicians, their eyes firmly focussed on the Hindu vote in Jammu, launched a protracted offensive against the State government's efforts to restrict the ongoing Amarnath Yatra to just one month. The move was motivated by calls from the Indian Army, which said it did not want to squander troops on protecting pilgrims for an extended period. Congress leaders in Jammu responded by charging Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed of interfering in Hindu religious affairs. One MLA, Yogesh Sawhney, even alleged that Sayeed had attempted to murder him, after a helicopter scheduled to pick up the politician from the Amarnath cave failed to do so. Others in the Congress have bucked the party's official line, and charged the PDP with backing corrupt officials and administrative inefficiency. The State Cabinet, as a consequence of the crisis, has not met for four months, the last scheduled meeting having been called off on June 9. Both mainstream parties and centrist secessionist factions seem bereft of leadership: an unhappy pointer to what could lie ahead in the months to come.

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