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UNCEASING FIRE

Print edition : Feb 03, 2001 T+T-

The Vajpayee government's decision to extend the ceasefire in Jammu and Kashmir again may well be an unwise step, considering the reality of escalating terrorism and infiltration in the Valley.

MORE than 3,000 people have left their homes on the mountain heights of Rajouri and Poonch, and now camp out in makeshift tents on the banks of the Tawi, near Jammu. These refugees, both Hindus and Muslims, are just some of the civilian victims of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's Ramzan ceasefire.

Javed Bi fled Surankote with her six children, the youngest of them less then a year old, after her husband, Mohammad Mishar, was executed by terrorists. Mishar was beheaded after he refused to help build shelters for the terrorists around his village, n ow free of Army or police presence. Similar killings are being carried out through the State, as terrorists have taken advantage of the ceasefire to re-assert their authority over civil society.

On the face of it, Vajpayee's decision to extend the ceasefire for a second time does not make much sense. If its objective was to reduce the levels of violence, the ceasefire has failed. Elements within the Hizbul Mujahideen have continued their offensi ve operations, the most notable among them being the firing of grenades at a meeting held by Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah in Srinagar on January 14. The Lashkar-e-Toiba's suicide bomb attack at the Srinagar airport two days later was just one of a stri ng of attacks it carried out on military and civilian installations during the ceasefire. The United Jihad Council (UJC), an alliance of 18 major terrorist groups, has rejected the extension and threatened to step up violence. A spokesperson of the UJC, Ishtiaq Hamid, described the ceasefire as a "drama" and advised people not to "fall into the same old trap again".

It is clear that there is a serious division of opinion on the issue of ceasefire in New Delhi. At a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) in the wake of the attack on the Chief Minister, no one spoke in favour of extending the ceasefire. Th e Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) and the Jammu and Kashmir government are both known to have lobbied to bring the ceasefire to an end, arguing that terrorists were using the period to consolidate their position. Over the last ceasefire period, infiltration h ad resumed particularly into the Jammu region, and over 400 terrorists are believed to have moved across the Line of Control (LoC) - figures similar to those in the winter of 1998 and 1999. Informed sources told Frontline that even the Prime Minis ter's Principal Secretary, Brajesh Mishra, one of the major advocates of the ceasefire, expressed alarm at the turn of events. At the January 22 meeting of the CCS, however, the Prime Minister overruled such objections.

More disturbing is the increasingly schizoid character of the government's Jammu and Kashmir policy. One of the stated objectives of the ceasefire was to allow the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) leaders to travel to Pakistan to initiate a dialogu e with terrorist groups and the government in Islamabad. Then, on January 17, Union Home Minister L.K. Advani went back on earlier official promises and said that travel documents would be issued only to those APHC leaders whom the Union government consi dered "appropriate". At the CCS meeting of January 22, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh came out in Advani's support, arguing that a visit by an APHC team to Pakistan would amount to accepting both that the organisation was a legitimate representa tive of the people of the State and that trilateral negotiations including Pakistan were acceptable to India, which would be a reversal of standing policy.

IF the ceasefire extension does not make much military sense, it is possible that its raison d'etre is political. The famously tight-lipped R.K. Mishra, the Prime Minister's chosen envoy to meet APHC leaders, does not talk about the content of his dialogue. It is clear, however, that there has been a broad enlargement of the peace constituency within the APHC, which the extension of the ceasefire could be intended to consolidate. In November 1999, when almost all the major APHC leaders were jaile d, only Abdul Ghani Lone and Yasin Malik appeared inclined to some form of dialogue with the government. Today, the Jamaat-e-Islami's Syed Ali Geelani stands alone - not just in the APHC executive, but within his own organisation itself - on the issue of ending the violence.

In some senses, the death of Farooq Abdullah's mother last year brought about a realignment of forces within the APHC. Religious leader in Srinagar and APHC executive member Maulvi Umar Farooq chose to attend her burial rites, in deference to his family' s long association with the Abdullah clan. The Muslim League's Masrat Alam and the Islamic Student League's Shakeel Bakshi, both close to Geelani, responded with a venomous attack of Umar Farooq, charging him with betraying the anti-India movement. Activ ists of Farooq's Awami Action Committee responded by beating up Bakshi, while their leader joined the Lone-Malik axis in the APHC. Geelani, who had hoped to be re-elected APHC chairman in the July 20, 2000 elections, was now forced to accept the Muslim C onference's Abdul Ghani Bhat as chairman.

Majid Dar, the commander who initiated the abortive Hizbul Mujahideen ceasefire last August, provided the next serious blow to Geelani's authority. During covert talks before the ceasefire took effect, Geelani had asked Dar to wait until the Jamaat elect ions, scheduled for August 28 last year, were held. He hoped that his protege, Ashraf Sehrai, would replace the pro-peace Bhat as the Jamaat's overall leader. Bhat had set about distancing the Jamaat from the Hizb, a move the Right-wing had bitterly oppo sed. Dar, however, jumped the gun, and announced the ceasefire four days before the Jamaat's Majlis-e-Numaindgan met to elect their Amir. Dar's peace initiative undermined the far-Right elements grouped around Geelani, and Sehrai was defeated. Geelani ne ver forgave Dar, and he successfully lobbied with Pakistan to end the Hizb ceasefire.

But the rise of centrists in the APHC continued. Bhat, who Geelani hoped would act as his proxy, also jumped ship. He now supported the Hizb ceasefire and suggested that the APHC send separate teams to negotiate with India and Pakistan. Maulvi Abbas Ansa ri, under pressure from the Shia community following the assassination late last year of his cousin, the highly respected leader Aga Syed Mehdi, also switched sides and joined the centrists. The last of Geelani's backers, People's League leader Sheikh Ab dul Aziz, now came under pressure from his own organisation to take an independent position. Aziz found before himself moves to re-unite the League's various factions and place them under the command of the Pakistan-based Farooq Rehmani. Where the Lone-M alik axis had once commanded little authority, Geelani was now left outnumbered six to one, and with little power even in his own organisation.

IT seems probable that the proponents of dialogue in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) hope the fissures in the APHC will deepen in the coming weeks. Highly placed sources told Frontline that Bhat had written to the Jamaat Amir complaining of thre ats made in recent weeks by terrorist organisations to Lone and other pro-dialogue figures. Geelani responded by complaining that his associates in the Islamic Students League and the Muslim League had been criticised for attacking the centrists but Lone had not been censured for demanding that foreign terrorists end their activities in Jammu and Kashmir. The dispute seems certain to escalate, since Bhat's letter also asks that the Jamaat-e-Islami resolve its internal differences, or that the Amir himse lf represent it in the APHC as all other organisations do.

Recent APHC meetings have seen Geelani being marginalised on other key issues. When the executive met on January 2, Geelani insisted that the APHC demand passports for all its seven executive members. The executive decided, six to one, that Bhat be empow ered to choose a five-member team. Geelani's insistence that the APHC work within the narrow confines of its constitution also appears to have been shot down. The APHC constitution prohibits bilateral dialogue with the Indian government and the discussio n of any proposals other than secession from India, and also mandates that should any agreement come about, it must be the result of a three-way negotiation between the organisation and the governments of India and Pakistan. Interestingly, Bhat was among the first in the APHC to suggest some kind of parallel but separate dialogue with India and Pakistan.

Geelani, indeed, seems to be preparing himself for an eventual departure from both the Jamaat and the APHC. In recent months, he has been meeting former terrorists of the Hizb and attempting to turn them into some kind of independent political cadre. The Muslim League's Alam, who is now in jail on terrorism-related charges, and the Islamic Students League's Bakshi seem to be emerging as key players in this enterprise. Since Alam's arrest, Bakshi has been at the forefront of protests against the police f or allegedly staging fake encounters, and denouncing the ceasefire as a political fraud and a farce. A Muslim League activist, Mushtaq Ahmed, who is believed to have been working with active Hizb elements, was eliminated by the Jammu and Kashmir Police's Special Operations Group in an encounter in mid-January.

But if eliminating the APHC's far Right is indeed the PMO's intent, the denial of passports to its five-member delegation makes no apparent sense. The APHC's Pakistan delegation, which Bhat nominated on January 11, is made up largely of Geelani's opponen ts. One fear expressed by those opposed to sending the APHC to Pakistan is that Geelani's position may be strengthened during the visit, and he could use the opportunity to engage in anti-India polemic. What Geelani could say in Pakistan that he has not already said in India is, however, unclear. Geelani's position is certain to be challenged by others in the delegation, at least during subsequent meetings of the APHC. Should passports not be issued, the government risks undermining the centrists in the APHC, whom it has painstakingly cultivated in the past year.

Larger problems in Union government policy on the APHC are also evident. Ever since the Union government last year expressed its willingness to talk to the APHC and the terrorist groups, the legitimacy of the Farooq Abdullah regime has been undermined. T he APHC's status as a representative of the people of Jammu and Kashmir has, in contrast, been revived since the Union government gave it the status of a credible interlocutor. For reasons it best understands, the government has at no stage sought to eng age with the spectrum of non-APHC forces in Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh. Indeed, the Union government expressly rejected even a discussion on the legitimate, if problematic, demands for autonomy made by the democratically elected National Conference govern ment.

Whether the APHC centrists will be able to deliver some kind of cessation of violence is also unclear. On January 26, the UJC declared that all decisions made by the organisation would first have to be ratified by the terrorist groups operating from Paki stan. Whether the APHC chooses to follow this edict or not remains to be seen, but it is evident that it has little influence with the Pakistan-based terrorist tanzeems. The APHC has not, so far, been able even to demonstrate the ability to contro l the Hizb, which ought to be the one most amenable to local political pressure. The Hizb's units in Pulwama, Baramulla and Anantnag, along with the bulk of its cadre in Rajouri, Poonch and Doda, have been active through the ceasefire period, and its cen tral leadership has rejected unilateral talks with India.

One explanation for Vajpayee's handling of the situation is that the government's Kashmir policy is being made under pressure from the United States. No such pressure seems to be operating on Pakistan. Although the Pakistan Army has cut back on shelling along the LoC, the resumption of infiltration means that the truce is unlikely to hold for long. The Chief of the Army Staff, General S. Padmanabhan, enthusiastically supported the extension of the ceasefire on January 12, but few of his field-level comm anders seem to share his view. "Matters will come to a head next month," one senior 15 Corps officer told Frontline. "There has been thin snowfall this year, and the passes are covered with just two or three feet of snow. That will melt by early M arch, and we will have to deal with full-blown infiltration again."

At the heart of the chaos in Jammu and Kashmir is the fact that no clearly defined policy appears to be in place on dealing with either the violence in the State or with Pakistan. By committing itself to both a ceasefire and a dialogue with the APHC, the Union government has played its two highest-value cards, without any tangible gain. The dialogue process itself seems premised on the a priori assumption that the APHC centrists will accept some kind of an autonomy deal. Such a deal not only would be re jected out of hand by Pakistan, but would mean that the APHC centrists themselves would face political annihilation in their own constituency. Neither do extreme Right terrorist groups have any interest in a settlement.

On January 13, Pakistan's Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider agreed to amend the country's constitution to make the Shariat its supreme law and to set up boards of religious leaders from the tehsil level upwards to mediate on political issues. If nothing else, Haider's remarks illustrate the depth of influence the religious Right now exercises in Pakistan.

Every few months since it took power, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government has announced some grand project to bring peace to Jammu and Kashmir. The Pokhran-II nuclear tests, the proactive policy on Jammu and Kashmir, th e threat of hot pursuit, Prime Minister Vajpayee's bus journey to Lahore: all these, it was claimed, were historic initiatives that would soon solve the five-decade-old problems. Like its ill-fated predecessors, the Ramzan ceasefire also seems to be on t he fast track to nowhere.