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Truce and pressures

Print edition : Mar 03, 2001 T+T-

The ceasefire has opened political space for a constructive dialogue, but it appears that the government has failed to use the opportunity.

"VAASTU to solve the Kashmir problem," read a local newspaper headline about Jammu-based practitioner Akash Kumar's presentation to a conference on the currently fashionable architectural pretension. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee's decision to extend the ceasefire in the State until May has sparked a frenzied search for ways to bring about an end to violence in Jammu and Kashmir. The All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), Pakistan's military ruler General Pervez Musharraf, the Indian government and the United States of America - all of them seem determined to salvage whatever remains of the peace process savaged by the unending rattle of guns.

Sadly, no one's ideas seem to have any substantially greater chance of success than the vaastu practitioner's quixotic proposals to bring about a reordering of the State's physical spaces.

That Vajpayee chose to order a third extension of the ceasefire surprised few observers. Despite evidence that there was little meaningful decline in terrorist violence since November 2000, when the ceasefire was put in place, the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) has by now invested too much in the process to be able withdraw without tangible gains. The latest decision also had the cautious support of major political groups, including the Congress(I) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which were c onsulted a day before the Cabinet Committee on Security decided to extend the ceasefire. There appears to be a broad consensus that the ceasefire has opened political space, which can be used to begin a constructive dialogue on the State's future.

What is less clear is whether three months into the ceasefire the Union government has any clear idea of how to realise such a dialogue. Announcing the ceasefire on February 22, Vajpayee proclaimed that India would be ready to engage in a dialogue with a ll groups that "abjured violence". Since few of the secessionist formations in Pakistan or Jammu and Kashmir have called for an end to hostilities, this formulation was somewhat mystifying. Then, two days later, the Prime Minister announced that his gove rnment would be "willing to talk to all those who wished to". While the all-party meeting suggested the need to make the ceasefire contingent on some form of reciprocity, the conditionalities have yet to be spelt out.

Part of the problem seems to be the growing internal divisions in the Union government over the conduct of the affairs of Jammu and Kashmir. Union Home Minister L.K. Advani, and the Intelligence Bureau, opposed the ceasefire, arguing that a dialogue proc ess could continue even if military operations were resumed. External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, for his part, attacked plans to allow the Hurriyat leadership to travel to Pakistan, arguing that this would legitimise the secessionist organisation's claims to be the sole representative of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. And even though Chief of the Army Staff General S. Padmanabhan felt otherwise, sources told Frontline that the commanders of the 15 Corps in Srinagar and 16 Corps in Jammu ar gued that offensive operations would have to resume in March, when the currently snow-bound mountain passes into Jammu and Kashmir will become clear.

HOW will these diverse pressures be managed in the months to come? It seems clear that pressure from the U.S. government has shaped Vajpayee's decision. In a February 7 letter delivered through Ambassador Richard Celeste, President George W. Bush made cl ear that his government would continue to play an interventionist role in Jammu and Kashmir. The letter asked India to "start in right earnest the stalled dialogue process with Pakistan", but it said nothing about the support offered by that country to t errorist groups of the Islamic Right. Both the Prime Minister and his Principal Secretary Brajesh Mishra perhaps believe that the extension of the ceasefire will help establish India's desire for peace.

One key component of policy in the coming months will be a decision on whether to allow a Hurriyat delegation to travel to Pakistan. Many people believe that External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh's objections will now be overruled, and that the Hurriya t leadership will soon be issued travel documents. Interestingly, the U.S. appears to have played an important role in this decision as well. Even as the extension was being contemplated in New Delhi, U.S. Congressman David Bonier arrived in the city for discussions with the Hurriyat leadership. Hurriyat leaders, sources say, told Bonier that the principal purpose of their visit would be to persuade the Pakistan-based terrorist groups to end the violence in the State. During a subsequent visit to Ahmeda bad, Bonier expressly proceeded to call for an extension of the ceasefire. The Congressman's April 2000 visit to Srinagar had been instrumental in reversing the Hurriyat's historic rejection of any talks in which Pakistan was not involved.

But it is far from clear if the Hurriyat team itself is still particularly keen to travel to Pakistan. In January, in an interview to the Srinagar-based magazine Chattan, Abdul Gani Lone asserted that had he been consulted, he would have opposed the Hurr iyat team travelling to Pakistan. "On the one hand," Lone said of the APHC's demand for passports, "we ask for a legal right that stands denied to us. But in the same breath we say that allow us to go to Pakistan, and when we will reach there, we will t ell the Mujahideen to sharpen their weapons against India. I see no logic in it." Underlying this argument is the more than likely prospect that the Hurriyat centrists' calls for peace will be rejected by the Islamic Right in Pakistan. That would undermi ne the organisation's claims to be a credible interlocutor on Jammu and Kashmir.

Unsurprisingly, then, APHC centrist leaders led by its chairman, Abdul Ghani Bhat, and the Srinagar religious leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, have been increasingly negative on the issue of a dialogue with the Indian government. Bhat's reticence was reinforc ed by a February 22 attempt on his life. They have been joined, unsurprisingly enough, by the Jamaat-e-Islami's Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who has been the sole member of the Hurriyat executive committee hostile to the peace process. At a February 23 rally i n Baramulla, Geelani asserted that the Hurriyat "did not need to go to Pakistan". Rather, he said, adroitly shifting the goalposts, "Parliament should pass a resolution accepting the disputed status of Kashmir, in the same manner it resolved that Kashmir was an integral part of India." This, he said, "would enable us to ask the Mujahideen right from here to stop their activities".

GEELANI'S new confidence is based on the outcome of events on the ground. Ever since the February 16 killing of five unarmed protestors who were blocking the National Highway at Haigam to protest an alleged custodial death, the Kashmir Valley has seen a series of violent mass demonstrations. One person was killed the next day in the Srinagar neighbourhood of Maisuma, allegedly by a Military Intelligence officer, provoking further public outrage. Many people see such demonstrations, which are taking plac e for the first time since the early 1990s, as being a part of a new "Intifada" against Indian rule. The mass protests have served to undermine the Hurriyat centrists, and strengthen elements allied to Geelani, such as the Islamic Students' League's Shak eel Bakshi.

The proposition that a generalised uprising has begun is, however, flawed. For one, the wave of demonstrations predated the Haigam killings. Shortly after the abortive January 16 Lashkar-e-Toiba attack on Srinagar airport, more than 6,000 people came out to condemn the killing of the terrorists responsible. This was the first time that Kashmir had seen protests against the killing of Pakistani nationals. At subsequent protests, the favoured slogan was "Lashkar-e-Toiba aage badho, hum tumhare saath ha in" (Forge ahead, Lashkar-e-Toiba, we are with you). Again, policemen containing protests outside the Jamia Masjid in Srinagar on February 17 were warned on the public address system that there was a Lashkar squad inside, prepared to block their entr y. Since January 2001, armed cadre of the Hizbul Mujahideen and the Lashkar have regularly appeared in public, often at Friday prayer gatherings.

It is improbable that there has been any sudden growth in the level of people's support for the Islamic Right in Kashmir, where even the Jamaat-e-Islami has generally commanded only a very limited constituency. Furthermore, much of the recent protests ha ve taken place in areas that have traditionally been hostile to Jammu and Kashmir being a part of India - notably in downtown Srinagar and urban centres such as Sopore and Baramulla. One plausible explanation is that the ceasefire has allowed terrorists, and their overground sympathisers, to assert their influence over civil society again. Many of their cadre have interpreted the ceasefire as a sign of Indian fatigue, and believe that capitulation by New Delhi is imminent. With terrorists able to move i n to Kashmir with relative ease, cadre of pro-India organisations have been coerced into submission. On February 20, for example, a 75-year old National Conference activist, Wali Moham-mad, was dragged out his home in Sadal Magam village, and executed in front of members of his family.

Continued violence by the Islamic Right, as highlighted by the killing of six policemen at Kokernag on February 23, could undermine the political processes that the ceasefire is premised on. U.S. pressure on Pakistan seems to have had little impact. On F ebruary 14, Pakistan Home Minister Moinuddin Haider announced a ban on street fund collections for the jehad in Jammu and Kashmir, and announced that he had ordered the police that if anyone was "seen displaying arms, stop them, warn them, and if they do not listen, just shoot them". No one, significantly, was shot in the fortnight that followed. Haider later backed down from the statement, announcing that Pakistan remained committed to the jehad in Jammu and Kashmir, and that it only oppo sed violence on its own soil. It has long been clear that Musharraf, whatever his personal inclinations, is unable to terminate the activities of groups such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammadi.

If the Islamic Right has taken control of political life in Kashmir, Hindu fundamentalists have used the ceasefire to capture street power in Jammu. The Jammu and Kashmir Nationalist Front, affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, succeeded in shut ting down the city on February 12, demanding that the State be sundered into three parts along its religious-ethnic faultlines. Issues such as the admission of Muslim students from a defunct private medical college in Kashmir to State-run institutions in Jammu have been used to gather support for its larger political agenda. Speaking in New Delhi on the day of the Jammu bandh, former Jan Sangh chief Balraj Madhok and the BJP's K.R. Malkani backed the Front's demands. "It must be understood," Malkani pro claimed, "that the reorganisation of Jammu and Kashmir is inevitable."

FOR the past fortnight, Udhampur and Jammu have been paralysed by protests over the disappearance of a teenage girl, Meenakshi Badyal. Initially, Badyal was alleged to have been kidnapped by a Muslim, Mohammad Aftab. Violence broke out in Udhampur, with protestors setting fire to Muslim-owned property and government vehicles. Aftab subsequently surrendered to the police. It transpired that while he was indeed a friend of Badyal, he had no role in the abduction. Two Hindu men, Anoop Khajuria and Vikram S alathia, were then arrested on charges of abducting the teenager. While there is little reason to believe that Badyal was in fact kidnapped, the matter has been used by the Hindu Right to spread communal venom, and discredit the Farooq Abdullah regime.

Curiously enough, Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah seems to be the only person wholly satisfied with the way events are proceeding. In late February, he ordered the State Police to terminate its anti-terrorist operations and came out in support of a ceasef ire that he had opposed from the outset. Says one National Conference leader: "He knows that in the end nothing will come of this. Sooner or later, things will get so bad that the Army will have to be unleashed, with no holds barred. That will end any di alogue with the Hurriyat, and ensure that there is no opposition to the Chief Minister. Farooq Abdullah will be able to say he was right all along."

Everyone in the State knows that when the snow melts on the high passes, the war in the State will resume, ceasefire or no ceasefire. And everyone wants peace. It is just that the terms on which they want an end to violence are irreconcilable.