The collapse of an initiative

Print edition : July 20, 2002

The Union government's strategy to bring on board all the major players ahead of the Assembly elections due in the next few months reaches a dead-end.

THE performance is near-complete, the curtain is about to fall, and the audience is unimpressed.

With Assembly elections due to be held in Jammu and Kashmir in three months' time, the Union government's long-running effort to rope into the process new political participants seems dead in the water. Srinagar's two upmarket hotels continue to cash in on the visits by a string of emissaries dispatched to talk to secessionist politicians, but the sad truth is that New Delhi today needs a magician, not mediators. Key targets of the two-year long project, notably People's League leader Shabbir Shah, have made it clear that they have no intention of participating in the elections. Dissident Hizbul Mujahideen figures like Abdul Majid Dar have stated that they mean to stay away from the process. Second-rung secessionist politicians like Naim Khan, too, have shown for the elections as much enthusiasm that a goat might have for the cleaver that is about to sever its neck.

Evidently unwilling to face the inevitable, establishment figures have been pushing hard to have Central rule imposed in Jammu and Kashmir. Speaking in Lucknow on June 28, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said that such demands were under consideration, with a view to ensuring a "free and fair election". Although the Prime Minister soon moved to assuage the feelings of the National Conference (N.C.) in this regard, calls for fair elections have been a repeated motif in his speeches concerning Jammu and Kashmir. Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani has also backed the demand in a recent interview. Demands for the imposition of Central rule have also found support from an unlikely array of politicians, ranging from the People's Democratic Party's Mufti Mohammad Sayeed to Union Minister of State for Defence Chaman Lal Gupta and Lok Jan Shakti leader Ram Vilas Paswan. Another argument put out in favour of Central rule is that it would allow an Opposition formation to coalesce, and give potential rebels from the secessionist ranks the confidence that New Delhi was serious about giving them a real opportunity to establish their popular legitimacy.

Several senior figures in the security establishment back the idea. Secessionist leader Abdul Gani Lone's assassination on May 21 sparked demands for additional personal security to moderate secessionist leaders. The N.C. government, however, stonewalled efforts to upgrade protection for political rivals. Such arguments have some merit. Intelligence Bureau officials had recommended police protection for Ahmad Rashid Tantrey, the editor of a pro-India newspaper who narrowly survived an assassination attempt on July 10. State police officers, they say, sat on the request for weeks, until the assassination attempt took place. Tantrey survived only because the bullet that went through his mouth exited through his neck and not the brain, the bullet having taken a downward trajectory. Five days earlier, terrorists had assassinated Ghulam Nabi Dar, the general secretary of the Awami Mahaz, a political front organisation of one-time terrorists.

At the same time, it is unlikely that any amount of protection for second-rung Opposition leaders will have meaningful political impact. Figures like Naim Khan, for example, have only localised support bases, inadequate to take on the N.C. Even assuming that they enter into a seat-sharing arrangement with mainstream Opposition groups, few people believe that they will have a real chance of winning power. Amarjit Singh Dulat, the former Research and Analysis Wing chief who has emerged as the Prime Minister's key pointman in Jammu and Kashmir, has been unable to give his interlocutors any of the guarantees they are seeking. These include commitments that an Opposition formation made up of one-time secessionists would be subsequently engaged in a dialogue on the future of Jammu and Kashmir. Without such a commitment, potential rebels risk alienating their core constituency without being certain of winning elected office. "Postponing the elections under these circumstances," says Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami, "will only retard the evolution of the democratic process."

As things stand, the N.C. seems set to have a smooth ride back to power. The major issue engaging the party is whether Union Minister of State for External Affairs Omar Abdullah, who took over as N.C. president last month, will head the government before the elections. Before leaving for a vacation in the United Kingdom, Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah had told confidants that he wanted to hand over power to his son ahead of the campaigning. Not all those within the party, however, seem enthusiastic about the prospect. Several senior party figures and top bureaucrats feel that they might be displaced by younger politicians now grouped around Omar Abdullah. These sceptics include Omar Abdullah's parliamentary secretary Nasir Mir, acting Chief Minister Ghulam Mohiuddin Shah's son Irfan Shah, and top N.C. leader Mohammad Shafi Uri's son Sajjad Uri. Omar Abdullah has made no secret of his disgust with the N.C.'s old guard, who he believes to be inefficient.

Minor succession squabbles, however, ought to be the least of the party's problems. Should it fail to secure a reasonable voter turn-out in October, its victory would be shorn of legitimacy. While much debate so far has focussed on securing fair elections, through the deployment of quasi-official international observers and electronic voting machines, few people have paid attention to the widespread coercion of participants. The N.C. has been at the receiving end of a terrible terrorist onslaught, with targeted attacks claiming the lives of at least 40 cadre so far. The most recent assassination was that of Srinagar party functionary Bashir Ahmad Halwai, who was shot on July 10. Al-Jabbar, an assassination squad set up by the Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen, claimed responsibility. "Assassinations of supposed informers, or people even perceived to be simply friendly to security forces, are at record levels," says Border Security Force (BSF) Inspector-General G.S. Gill.

Infuriated by the failure of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) to begin a serious anti-election campaign, the Pakistan-based United Jihad Council has been handing out threats to centrists as well in the secessionist formation. The UJC is chaired by the Hizbul Mujahideen's supreme commander, Mohammad Yusuf Shah. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the Jamaat-e-Islami representative in the APHC, who would have normally led the anti-election campaign, remains in a Ranchi jail on money-laundering charges.

So far, however, the centrists have not buckled. Lone's son responded by asking Shah to leave his sanctuary in Muzaffarabad and join the struggle in India. Another centrist, Abbas Ansari, added that the UJC had no mandate to "dictate terms". Srinagar religious leader Maulvi Umar Farooq, Lone's key political ally, in turn said he would not be "tamed by threats".

Lone's assassination demonstrated that such terrorist threats are, indeed, credible. For APHC centrists, it constitutes the final obstacle in seeking a way out of a seemingly impenetrable maze. Should the N.C. sail back to power in October without facing significant opposition in elections the world perceives as being fair, the formation would have lost what little legitimacy it still possesses. Should it participate, it risks defeat, marginalisation and worse. Yet, the fact remains that there is a growing pro-peace constituency through Jammu and Kashmir. Srinagar saw little protest against Geelani's arrest in May, or the earlier detention of Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front supremo Yasin Malik, again on charges of trafficking funds. Srinagar was, in early July, paralysed not by terrorist-backed protests against elections, but industrial action by transport operators demanding increased fares.

BUT the keys to peace lie not in Srinagar, but in Islamabad. Data from the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, obtained exclusively by Frontline, show that there is at least some evidence to support claims of reduced cross-border movement by terrorists. Indian intelligence estimates that just 30 terrorists crossed into Jammu and Kashmir in June, down from 263 during the same month in 2001. Such data are, however, inconclusive, and will remain so until the expensive ground-based sensor systems now being tested are, if ever, installed. The BSF's intelligence organisation, the G-Branch, believes that the number is closer to 150, while Military Intelligence has come up with figures in between the two estimates. As important, President Pervez Musharraf's January 2002 ban on terrorist groups also saw a short-term drop in terrorist movement, which, as the data show, resumed in full-scale soon afterwards. The drop could be attributed as much to unusually heavy snowfall in Kashmir as to the General's intentions, since infiltration into Jammu continued apace during that period.

More important than infiltration, there is yet to be a statistically significant drop in the levels of violence. Terrorist attacks on and killings of civilians were higher in June 2002 than in June 2001, part of a consistent pattern this year. Such widespread coercion of civil society allows terrorist groups to establish their authority, and to undermine opposition. Killings of both security force personnel and terrorists have declined, suggesting that there has not been a drop in the numbers of terrorists as such but an unwillingness to engage Indian forces in combat. The Jammu zone has, indeed, seen higher levels of violence from January to June 2002 than during the first six months of 2001, again by no means indicating a general Pakistani intention to de-escalate. Recent pronouncements by External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha suggest that India is aware of the problem, and intends to make the conduct of the October elections a key test of Pakistan's willingness to lower levels of violence.

What is less clear is what India intends to do if Pakistan does not de-escalate. Signals traffic from communications stations across the Line of Control (LoC) continues unabated, as do, as Indian intelligence suggests, training operations. Part of the problem is that Yashwant Sinha and his colleagues have been tying themselves up in polemic knots. On June 26, Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani said that while there had been a decline in infiltration, it had not "completely ended". Nine days later, Yashwant Sinha, after a meeting with U.S. Defence Secretary Geoffrey Hoon, claimed that the level of infiltration had gone up again, after a brief lull. Since data on infiltration are based on analysis of information, not day-to-day observation, one of the two assertions was clearly inaccurate. It takes little imagination, however, to see what is going on. Having assured the U.S. that it will not launch an offensive military operation against Pakistan other than in the face of very exceptional provocation, India's political establishment now finds itself left with no option other than diplomatic breast-beating.

Clearly, some hard-headed introspection is called for. Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal's recent speech complaining of the inconsistencies in the U.S.' supposed war against terrorism suggests that the Union government is yet to understand the workings of the real world. "They cannot," he protested at an event organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) on July 8, "accord secondary importance to another form of terrorism just because it does not suit their immediate political interests." They can, and they will. U.S. policy on Pakistan is shaped not by morals, but by strategic imperatives; by the superpower's need to control oil-rich West Asia and Central Asia. Had India believed that it could have waged a decisive war in June, it would have done so, whatever the U.S. wished or did not wish. By pushing Musharraf to promise to end cross-border terrorism, the U.S. bailed New Delhi out of the uncomfortable place it found itself in.

Now, the price for assistance rendered must be paid. What options remain, and how New Delhi can exercise them, it must consider carefully.

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