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Ceasefire and peace drama

Print edition : Jan 06, 2001 T+T-

Conflicting interests in Jammu and Kashmir and in Pakistan seem bent on sabotaging the ceasefire and the peace process now under way in Kashmir.

THERE is an oddly operatic quality to the Ramzan ceasefire in Jammu and Kashmir. Set to run into its second month, it has been full of grand appearances and overblown gestures, sudden narrative transformations and theatrical polemic. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's decision to extend the ceasefire, the Lashkar-e-Taiba's attack on the Red Fort, the sudden appearance of Kashmiri freedom movement prodigal Hashim Qureshi in New Delhi, the imminent departure of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC ) to Pakistan; all these events, which have followed in quick succession, seem to suggest that the drama is about to reach a shattering climax. What no one seems certain of is whether the ending will be joyous or tragic, or even simply farcical.

Without dispute, the Union government's decision to allow the APHC to travel to Pakistan is at the centre of the recent developments. The December 28 decision is believed to have been taken after discussions between APHC chairman Abdul Ghani Bhat and the Prime Minister's Principal Secretary Brajesh Mishra mediated by R.K. Mishra, Vajpayee's unofficial envoy. All members of the APHC executive, bar Jamaat-e-Islami leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, will now be issued passports. Bhat says the APHC's visit to Pa kistan, scheduled for mid-January, will enable engagement with "the leaders of the boys with guns". "We will gleefully hear their throbbing heart," he said, "and trust that they too will appreciate our anxiety to resolve the dispute through negotiations. "

Should Geelani be excluded from the APHC team, it is unlikely that any future dialogue in Pakistan will prove meaningful. The Jamaat leader has made no secret of his belief that Bhat, along with Abdul Ghani Lone, is engaged in cutting some kind of a priv ate deal with the Union government. At a key meeting of the APHC in Srinagar on December 17, six of the seven executive members rejected Geelani's critique of the ceasefire and his argument that the organisation could not hold talks with the Union govern ment. Article 2 of the APHC constitution, a non-modifiable provision, commits the organisation to seek the implementation of United Nations resolutions mandating a plebiscite in Jammu and Kashmir. Failing this, the APHC constitution says, India, Pakistan and representatives of Jammu and Kashmir can hold a dialogue under the supervision of the U.N. or a neutral country.

Frictions within the APHC are already evident. Supporters of Jammu and Kashmir's accession to Pakistan and pro-independence leader Yasin Malik were engaged in an ugly brawl outside the venue of the December 17 meeting. Although leaders of various faction s have worked hard to present a facade of unity, there is little doubt that the pro-Pakistan forces supporting Geelani are feeling increasingly marginalised. In an interview to Dawn, a Pakistani newspaper, given two days before the meeting in Srin agar, the Jamaat leader sharply criticised Lone's suggestion that Pakistan-based terrorist groups follow the APHC's political leadership. "As things stand," he said, "there is a lack of trust in the (APHC) leadership." If moves towards talks continued in this fashion, Geelani asserted, "there is a possibility of a split". "Peace," he concluded, "is not the real issue. The real issue is the festering problem of Jammu and Kashmir."

VARIOUS terrorist groups seem to share that sentiment. There is little evidence that the Indian government's unilateral ceasefire has led terrorist organisations to de-escalate. The number of security force personnel killed by terrorists has shown no mea ningful decline from the month before the ceasefire, while the number of civilians murdered and injured in attacks has remained static, and even increased in some regions (see table). The attacks on the Red Fort in New Delhi on December 22 and the suicid e bombing of the 15 Corps Headquarters in Srinagar three days later had little tactical value. The Red Fort, which has a token Army presence, is poorly guarded and has no real military value. But the attacks had enormous symbolic significance, and they s erved to signal the Islamic Right's determination to derail negotiations.

Hizbul-Mujahideen leaders, at whom the APHC initiative will be directed, have largely maintained a stoic silence. Abdul Majid Dar, the Hizb commander, said on December 22 that the developments reflected a realisation of "the seriousness of the Kashmir is sue, and the need for a permanent resolution". It is far from clear, however, if all of the Hizb leadership is in fact with him. Armed Hizb cadre appeared at the Jamia Masjid in Srinagar on December 22, the first terrorist display in the city in several years. One member of the group, who described himself as Abdul Basit, said that they did not oppose the APHC travelling to Pakistan, but insisted that the Hizb was committed to Jammu and Kashmir's accession to Pakistan. Leaders of the APHC who spoke late r that day were compelled to promise not to "sell out" to India.

Other Pakistan-based organisations, for their part, have adopted an even more hostile position. In an address to Harkat-ul-Mujahideen members at the Madrassa Shah Ismail Shaheed at Muzaffarabad on December 15, its chief Maulana Farooq Kashmiri proclaimed that "jehad is the only way of liberating Kashmir". "Those who believe that this can be achieved through dialogue," he said, "are deluding themselves." The Lashkar-e-Taiba's Hafiz Mohammad Sayeed, speaking to reporters at an iftaar party i n Islamabad two days later, said that "had the Pakistan government preferred jehad to talks, there would be no Kashmir problem." The ceasefire on the Line of Control (LoC), he added, was "ridiculous". The Jamait-ul-Mujahideen condemned Bhat for sa ying that the people of Kashmir could not "afford more sacrifices". This was, the organisation asserted, an effort to "sabotage the movement in Jammu and Kashmir".

Efforts to introduce some element of moderation in this discourse seem to have had little success so far, and on December 24 the United Jihad Council expressly ruled out the prospect of ending hostilities as dialogue continued. Specu-lation that the Jama at-e-Islami's Amir (supreme leader), G.M. Bhat, would travel to Saudi Arabia to meet the Hizb leadership has so far proved unfounded. Bhat had applied for a passport to visit his family there, a move which was interpreted to be part of the dialogue proce ss. Bhat is Geelani's key opponent within the Jamaat, and he has repeatedly called for an end to armed violence. Many believed that Bhat would use the opportunity to meet Hizb leader Mohammad Yusuf Shah, who uses the alias Syed Salahuddin, who was also s cheduled to visit Mecca. Although the passport was granted, Bhat has denied that he will meet Shah, and at the time of writing he was still in Srinagar.

The regime of General Pervez Musharraf seems to be reading events in Jammu and Kashmir in a manner far-removed from how strategists in New Delhi view it. Indian officials claim that the ceasefire and the dialogue process have isolated Pakistan and will c ompel it to reduce the levels of violence in the State. Musharraf, by contrast, seems to think that events are moving his way. At an iftaar dinner on December 22, Musharraf told the editors of Islamabad-based newspapers that Pakistan's offer of talks bet ween that country, India and the APHC had exposed the ceasefire. "India," he said, "is not sincere as it is not talking of the settlement of the Kashmir issue. Rather, it wants to end tension (in Jammu and Kashmir)." The entire dialogue process, Musharra f argued, was brought about by the Kargil war, which made Kashmir the focus of international attention.

Musharraf's remarks make clear Pakistan's conviction that India, at some stage, will have to engage in dialogue with it on the Kashmir issue. Indian politicians have stated that this cannot come about until there is a meaningful decline in the level of v iolence. That, the response of the Islamic Right in Pakistan shows, is unlikely to come about in the foreseeable future. Pakistan believes that the ceasefire it is observing along the LoC, and the implicit restraint on cross-border infiltration, now make it imperative for India to engage on a diplomatic discourse on Jammu and Kashmir. "It has been described by the world as a bold step," Musharraf told the newspaper editors, "and now the pressure is on the Indian side". The language seems to suggest that Musharraf has no interest in allowing an autonomous dialogue between the APHC and the Indian government to proceed without Pakistan's participation.

It is possible that Musharraf does not have much choice in the matter. Signs of moderation have been greeted with dismay in Pakistan's military establishment. The leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Qazi Hussain Ahmad, described Gen. Musharraf as a "security risk" and asked the generals to sack him because of his supposed soft line on Kashmir. Other signs of a Right rebellion are also evident. The Tanimul Ikhwan, a far-Right organisation led by retired army officers, has marshalled 30,000 supporters near Isl amabad and is threatening a march to pressure the government to impose Islamic Shariah and extend the jehad in Kashmir. In the event of Musharraf being perceived by such forces as weak, or seen to succumb to pressure from the United States to aban don Pakistan's Kashmir agenda, he could face serious internal threats to his legitimacy.

Commentators see in this scenario at least as many chances of serious conflict as of any solution to the violence. "There is no doubt in my mind," Friday Times editor Najam Sethi wrote in a recent commentary, "that a radicalised Islamic national s ecurity leadership in Islamabad would provoke India into a conflict with Pakistan." Sethi believes that India needs to agree to a "just settlement on Kashmir which paves the way for enduring peace in the region. If India is seen to lack sincerity or if t he Indian government is unable to keep its word, as on several occasions in the past, the desperate deadlock can only be broken by war. That would be a greater tragedy than the one India and Pakistan are currently seeking to undo." The problem is that wh at would be seen as "just" in India would not be so in Pakistan, a problem no one seems yet to have any real answers to.

Political developments would further complicate this already tangled web. In mid-January, panchayat elections will begin in Jammu and Kashmir, with the troubled districts of Kupwara, Poonch and Rajouri going to the polls. The elections, due to run in pha ses until the summer, were notified just as the Union government decided to extended the Ramzan ceasefire by a month. Both the timing of the election notification and the decision to hold elections in troubled districts, have an unmistakable political im port. Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah's disdain for the dialogue process is no secret, and election-time violence is certain to be used to undermine the Union government's contact with the APHC. There are no indications that the APHC's constituents will p articipate in the elections, so National Conference candidates could find themselves under attack.

More important, widespread violence in January could bring down the ceasefire itself. Already, the Jammu and Kashmir Police seems to be losing patience. On December 27, the Srinagar Police shot dead the Lashkar-e-Taiba's top city commander, Abu Sufian, i n the Tengpora area. Sufian, a resident of Multan in Pakistan, had relayed information from his organisation's headquarters to the six-member unit that carried out the Red Fort raid. The Delhi Police, using Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) information, elimina ted one member of the cell and arrested another. The four other terrorists involved in the incident were believed to have returned, in two groups, to their parent unit in the Rafiabad area of Jammu and Kashmir. The Tengpora operation was clearly pro-acti ve in character, of the kind outside the operational charter given to security forces for the ceasefire period. "I will hold the elections," says Abdullah, "and my police force will do whatever is necessary to make sure they are peaceful."

At the other end of the spectrum, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) also seems to be working to shape the outcome of any settlement that emerges from the dialogue process. Spokesperson of the RSS M.C. Vaidya told journalists in Jammu on December 24 t hat the organisation remained committed to the splitting of Jammu and Kashmir into three separate entities along its main ethnic-communal faultlines. In addition to this, Vaidya said, the RSS believed in the need for a new enclave, a homeland for Kashmir 's Pandit community. Vaidya explicitly linked these demands to the ongoing dialogue process. Endorsing Vajpayee's efforts to bring about a dialogue, he said that "if Article 370, which provides for a special status to the State within the Constitution, i s abrogated, and the State is divided, the Kashmir issue will find a durable solution."

Hashim Qureshi's arrival in New Delhi and decision to stand trial illustrate the depth of optimism recent events have generated. He was one of the founders of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front and architects of the movement for an independent Jammu and Kashmir, and his hijacking of the Indian Airlines aircraft Ganga in 1971 was an important element in the history of the conflict now under way in the State. But larger events make expectations of peace breaking out seem misplaced. The APHC realises t hat the Indian government is profoundly unlikely to concede even maximal autonomy to all of Jammu and Kashmir. Senior APHC leaders have told journalists that the creation of a quasi-independent State is their bottom line. Although Indian officials strenu ously rule out such an outcome, it would be unwise to underestimate the influence of the RSS on the Union government's course of action. A diverse set of interests have, over the past few years, sought to break apart the State on communal lines. The peac e process could make the right-wing fantasy real in a way violence never did. The return of prodigal sons is not going to bring down the curtain on the decade-old war in Jammu and Kashmir.