Seizing the initiative

Published : Dec 09, 2000 00:00 IST

Serious initiatives towards granting federal autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir could prove more productive than the political manoeuvring now under way in the State.

What do these Baniyas know of the meaning of Ramzan? According to the Koran, this is the best month for jehad and for martyrdom, as Allah accepts all sacrifices with pleasure. This ceasefire is part of a conspiracy to undo the jehad.

- Broadcast to cadre from Lashkar-e-Taiba station Hafteen on 153.120 MHz, 22:00hrs, November 29, 2000.

WAR, not prayer, is this year's Ramzan theme on the wireless broadcasts made each hour to the cadre of major terrorist groups that operate in Jammu and Kashmir. Transmissions from the control stations of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the al-Badr and the Jaish-e-M ohammadi spew venom at Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, and call on their cadre for ever greater feats of valour. The battle of Badr, waged by the Prophet Mohammad against the citizens of Medina on the 17th day of Ramzan, is another favoured subject. This year it will fall on December 15, and al-Badr has promised to commemorate the battle with attacks which will bring India to its knees.

However, one group is curiously silent. Indian signals intelligence personnel who monitor transmissions to Hizbul Mujahideen units say that there was almost complete silence on the Hizb channels for the best part of a fortnight. One transmission did take place after Hizb cadre triggered a landmine explosion in Dooru on November 28, which killed at least four soldiers. Local commanders of the Hizbul Mujahideen, Shabbir Ahmed Bhaduri and Mohiuddin Ahanger, who had opposed their organisation's July ceasefi re and started operating with Lashkar cadre, were told that the "elders were unhappy" about the action. Although Hizb chief Mohammad Yusuf Shah, better known by his nom de guerre Syed Salahuddin, has described the Indian government's ceasefire as a point less farce, his cadre received no instructions to disrupt it.

Figures suggest that violence has indeed declined in Jammu and Kashmir since the night of September 27, when Indian forces terminated offensive operations against terrorists. Although it was still too early to arrive at any definitive conclusions, it wou ld appear that groups such as the Hizb were in fact observing something of a de facto ceasefire. Bar the Dooru mine explosion, there has been no major attack on the Indian forces. Indian troops, in turn, have rarely taken on terrorist units other than at the Line of Control(LoC). A group of five terrorists were shot dead at Sawjian, in Poonch, on November 28, and two more Lashkar terrorists, who fired upon an Army patrol in Doda, were killed on December 2. Bar incidents such as the November 1 mur der of a cable television operator who broadcast programmes that the Lashkar deemed offensive, civilian casualties have also fallen. While the number of incidents has not come down, most of these have been desultory and pointless firing.

No one is entirely certain just why revanchist organisations such as the Lashkar have not made good on their threats to disrupt the ceasefire. Their two major assaults so far, the murder of five truck drivers near Banihal on November 22, and the killing of five Hindu bus passengers in Kishtwar two days later, were widely seen to be the beginning of a series of mass killings. Apart from the December 2 killing of four children by terrorists in Udhampur, however, no such killings have, in fact, occured. Su ch massacres, though tragic, are not exceptional or of a magnitude that would seriously disrupt the ceasefire. Incidents like the car-bomb blast that caused no casualties in Srinagar on December 1, and a grenade attack in Pulwama which injured a dozen ci vilians the same day, were also relatively minor.

One possibility is that with the winter setting in, cadre were busy building high-altitude shelters. Another possibility is that the terrorist organisations were utilising the time to regroup to strike at a later stage of the ceasefire period.

MEANWHILE, there was little doubt that the Ramzan ceasefire had caused deep confusion among the terrorist groups and Pakistan's military establishment that supports them. At a press conference in Islamabad on November 24, Salahuddin denied the existence of fissures within the United Jehad Council, the apex body of terrorist groups based in Pakistan, and promised renewed attacks during Ramzan. "The ceasefire is a mockery," Salahuddin said, and demanded that India first scale down its troops to their pre- 1989 levels, release imprisoned terrorists, and end "all operations against civilians". The fact that the promised attacks have not taken place, however, suggests that Salahuddin's cadre is not with him. Top field commanders such as Abdul Majid Dar, the architect of the July 2000 ceasefire, have maintained a stoic silence on current developments.

More important, the ceasefire seems to have driven deep wedges between the Centrists and the Right within the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC). Although Syed Ali Shah Geelani of the Jamaat-e-Islami attacked the ceasefire early on, others in his org anisation, notably its Amir (chief) Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, expressed support for a peaceful Ramzan. Abdul Gani Lone, who has emerged as something of a central pole for pro-peace politicians, Yasin Malik, Maulvi Umar Farooq and Shabbir Shah have in turn ex pressed varying degrees of support for the ceasefire. While the APHC insisted that trilateral negotiations involving India, Pakistan and itself were essential for a meaningful peace process, there are signs of a softening of the stance. Lone, on a visit to Pakistan for his daughter's wedding, told terrorist groups that they must follow the directions of the secessionist political leadership.

Both the APHC and the Hizb are sensitive to the enormous pressure from their supporters for a cessation of hostilities in Jammu and Kashmir. The Hizb's rejection of the ceasefire provoked discontent among ordinary Kashmiris. As important, a spectrum of P akistan-based organisations that seek the independence of Jammu and Kashmir have thrown their weight behind the ceasefire. At a seminar in New Delhi in late November, political leaders representing a range of opinions in Jammu and Kashmir expressed their support for the ceasefire, seeing it as a precondition for dialogue. Participants of the seminar said that speakers from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir were even more emphatic in their support for peace than their Indian counterparts. The ceasefire, then, ha s clearly enabled a peace constituency among politicians to take at least a nascent form.

At the same time, APHC politicians are unlikely to be able to take an overt initiative for dialogue without the consent of the Hizb and other terrorist groups. To do so would invite violent reprisal. On the other hand, any meaningful dialogue would be ne ar impossible if the level of violence did not decline. Events inside the Hizbul Mujahideen could be decisive. The organisation has seen a series of clashes in recent months. In September, violence broke out in Kotli, just across the LoC, after the Hizb removed the commander of its Pir Panjal regiment, Masood Sarfaraz, who had opposed this summer's ceasefire, and replaced him with Samsher Khan. Although figures such as Majid Dar have not gone public, many believe that he and several other crucial field commanders are furious with Salahuddin's unwillingness to go along with the Indian government's peace efforts. In several of the Hizb's training camps, cadres of Kashmiri origin too are known to be desperate to return home.

Pakistan's military establishment will now have to decide just how it wishes to see events proceed. On December 2, Pakistan Foreign Secretary Inamul Haq announced in Islamabad that troops on the LoC would observe "maximum restraint in order to strengthen and stabilise the ceasefire". The declaration followed a three-week lull on the LoC, during which little firing took place. The Pakistan Foreign Secretary also called for the APHC to be allowed to visit Pakistan for political discussions, and the initia tion of a dialogue involving the secessionist coalition, India and Pakistan after Ramzan. Haq's response to the Ramzan ceasefire suggests that Pakistan's Kashmir-policy establishment is kicking itself for not ordering the Mujahideen to accept the Indian offer, and then use it as leverage to compel India to engage in bilateral dialogue.

Haq's declaration seems to vindicate Indian strategists who argued that diplomatic coercion by the United States would compel Pakistan to help end the violence in Jammu and Kashmir. But the configuration of Pakistan politics, and the compulsions faced by Pakistan's military ruler General Pervez Musharraf, could push events otherwise. For one, Musharraf has failed to realise the promises he made when taking power - of ending corruption and reviving Pakistan's moribund economy. That means he is in no posi tion to alienate senior Army officials, many of whom were ideologically committed to the Islamic Right, by engaging in a de-escalation in Jammu and Kashmir. Then, there were signs of broad coalescing of political forces against the continued military rul e. The Grand Alliance of Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party and Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League, though tentative, is beginning to take shape. The only political organisations Musharraf can depend on for support are the right wing groups whos e raison d'etre is war in Jammu and Kashmir.

Nor is it clear that U.S. pressure in Pakistan would take either the form or intensity many in the Indian policy establishment believe it will. Despite its undisputed influence over Pakistan, the U.S. has been unable to secure even limited objectives suc h as the extradition of Osama bin Laden. Although the U.S. banned the Harkat-ul-Ansar for its involvement in terrorism years ago, both that organisation and its successor offshoot the Jaish-e-Mohammadi, continue to thrive in Pakistan. Finally, the U.S. i s unlikely to risk alienating Pakistan, which is after all a nuclear power, to the point where it becomes hostile and desperate. The U.S.' central objective seems to be to ensure that Taliban-type groups do not gain power in that country, something the p ushing of Musharraf to concede defeat in Jammu and Kashmir is near-certain to bring about.

For Pakistan's Islamic Right, a cessation of hostilities in Jammu and Kashmir would plainly be disastrous. Since most of these groups have no political role on either side of the LoC, they would have no political future should the conflict end. Organisat ions such as the Jamaat-e-Islami, Lashkar-e-Taiba, al-Badr and Jaish-e-Mohammadi have built their political and financial empires on the foundations of the jehad in Jammu and Kashmir. While all these groups are offspring of the ISI's U.S.-backed w ar in Afghanistan, many believe the tail now wags the dog. Musharraf had to back down on each of his confrontations with the religious Right after he assumed power, on issues that range from the reform of Pakistan's notorious blasphemy laws to efforts to rationalise taxation. There is no evidence that Musharraf's power to act has been enhanced since then.

Two sets of false assumptions seem to guide the engagement of India and Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir. Indian policy-makers seem to believe that economic desperation and U.S. pressure will, sooner or later, compel Pakistan to accept a solution based on t he conversion of the LoC into an international border. The most that Indian officials believe they can concede is broad autonomy to the State, and, subject to the cessation of violence, free movement for residents across the LoC. But Pakistan's military establishment sees things very differently. Criticism of India's human rights record in the media, and repeated assertions that the Army was tired of its internal security role, were seen as signs of a weakening resolve to hold the State. Sooner or later , Pakistani strategists feel, India will agree at least to a sundering of Jammu and Kashmir, with its Muslim-majority districts being granted independence.

Within Jammu and Kashmir, the problem is being replicated. APHC leaders whom Frontline spoke to off the record made clear that as far as they are concerned, the bottomline would be some variant of the Owen Dixon plan of 1950, which envisioned a pa rtition of Jammu and Kashmir along the Chenab river. This, they believed, would have to be the mid-term outcome of any dialogue process with the Union government. "How could we accept anything less," one leader asked. "We will lose our own supporters, wh o will criticise us for selling out. Everyone else will ask why, if all we wanted was autonomy, we had endorsed violence for the past decade," he said. But most Indian strategists believe that certain figures like Lone will, when push comes to shove, acc ept the mere grant of autonomy. "They can't seriously believe that any Indian government would commit political suicide by compromising on territory," one senior official at the Ministry of Home Affairs said.

At least some leaders seem to believe that the answers lie in breaking down the larger issues that confront Jammu and Kashmir into more manageable, bite-sized chunks. "We should accept that the problems we face are enormously complex," points out Communi st Party of India (Marxist) State secretary Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami, one of the key political advocates of the Ramzan ceasefire. "This is a multi-ethnic and highly diverse State, and we need a dialogue among ourselves before moving on to address the bigg er questions. For example, the people of Ladakh or Jammu have grievances against the Kashmiri leadership. We need to find ways of resolving these grievances." Tarigami has been advocating the setting up of a non-formal forum for discussions between polit icians from different regions and communities. At the same time, he suggests, means can be found to allow insurgents who wish peace to return home.

Efforts like these, coupled with a serious initiative on federal autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir, could prove more productive than the political manoeuvring now under way. It is unclear whether the Union government will be able to risk further initiatives like the Ramzan ceasefire, if the ceasefire ends in December without result or, worse still, is punctuated by mass killings. The Bharatiya Janata Party is already under intense pressure from its own far-right hawks. Jammu and Kashmir Governor Girish Sax ena promised on December 1 that the groundwork was being done for a dialogue with secessionist groups. The prospects of such a dialogue proving meaningful, however, are unclear. Meanwhile, it will be imperative to find alternative means to sustain politi cal dialogue if the peace that has been almost secured this Ramzan is to be built upon.

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