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JAMMU & KASHMIR

A peace process in peril

Friday 12 March 2004, by SWAMI*Praveen

Dissension in Jammu and Kashmir’s secessionist politics threatens the dialogue process with the Union government, and the beginning of peace, it would seem, is still distant.

ABDUL RASHID suddenly interrupted his critique on the peace process in Jammu and Kashmir, and paddled furiously as a Border Security Force (BSF) patrol boat neared his shikara on the Dal Lake. "Our shikara will tip over if the waves are more than a few inches high," he said. He smiled: "Just like the dialogue, no?"

When centrist leaders of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) next arrive in New Delhi for negotiations with the Union government, two faces will be missing. On February 16, the APHC chose to recognise the leadership of Bilal Lone, who had usurped control of the pro-dialogue People’s Conference from his brother Sajjad Lone days earlier. It is unclear just who in fact controls the People’s Conference, since Sajjad Lone had expelled Bilal Lone from the party earlier, but the APHC decision now means one of the peace process’ most visible advocates is no longer part of the secessionist platform. The APHC acted shortly after Sajjad Lone wrote an angry letter to its chairman, Maulvi Abbas Ansari, condemning the decision of Srinagar religious leader and leading centrist Mirwaiz Umar Farooq to attend the funeral rites of top Al-Umar terrorist Rafiq Ahmad Dar. Dar, Sajjad Lone claimed, was responsible for the assassination of his father, Abdul Gani Lone, who was one of the architects of the dialogue process which is now under way.

No one is certain if Sajjad Lone’s belief on his father’s assassins is correct. Indian intelligence officials say that Jaish-e-Mohammad commander Shahbaz Khan confessed to a top Hizbul Mujahideen operative, Saif-ul-Rahman Bajwa, that his organisation had in fact carried out the hit. Al-Umar’s Dar, however, is known to have been present in the crowd at the Friday prayer gathering where the elder Lone was assassinated. Whatever the truth, Sajjad Lone’s expulsion reflects deep fissures over the continued influence of terrorist groups on APHC centrists. Mirwaiz Farooq, for one, is believed to have gone to Dar’s funeral rites following threats passed on by an intermediary for Al-Umar commander Mushtaq Zargar, who also pressured him to break off the dialogue. Pressure from Islamists is also believed to have led Fazl-ul-Haq Qureshi, a non-APHC leader close to elements in the Hizbul Mujahideen, to back out of the next right of dialogue, citing continued human rights abuse. Qureshi was earlier chosen by the Hizbul Mujahideen as its mediator during the Ramzan ceasefire of 2000-2001, and his decision suggests the organisation no longer wants to risk a dialogue process in which it does not have a direct voice.

Pressures on the APHC to back out of the dialogue grew after the tragic killing of five porters in the course of a military operation near Bandipora, a tragedy which led to massive protests through northern Kashmir (see box). Moderates in the APHC seem to have weakened after the refusal of the Union government to release several prisoners held on terrorism-related charges, a key demand of the five-member team which held talks with Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani. Recent events have been good news for the head of the APHC’s rejectionist faction, the Islamist hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Even as Sajjad Lone was expelled, Geelani announced that he would soon form a new party to "fight Indian rule in Kashmir through peaceful means, guided strictly by the Islamic tenets". Geelani had broken ranks with the APHC last year after it refused to expel the People’s Conference, then led by Sajjad Lone, for having put up proxies to contest the 2002 Assembly elections. Significantly, terrorists have stepped up attacks on the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDF) and killed at least six party activists in the first three weeks of February alone: signalling a backlash against the PDP’s efforts to break the secessionist political constituency, and win over a section of the Hizbul Mujahideen.

Matters have not been helped by the ill-concealed political meltdown within the PDP-led alliance in Jammu and Kashmir. On February 13, 10 new Ministers were appointed, bringing the strength of the Council of Ministers to 39 - almost half the size of the 87-member Legislative Assembly. The move came after weeks of bitter sniping between alliance constituents. Last month, Deputy Chief Minister Mangat Ram Sharma had walked out of a Cabinet meeting complaining about the PDP’s position on bureaucratic appointments. The Jammu and Kashmir Panthers Party, meanwhile, had claimed that the PDP was not fulfilling its promises of greater autonomy and development for Jammu province. Panthers Party chief Bhim Singh had even walked out of the alliance’s coordination committee. In essence, the controversial expansion was a desperate attempt to firm up support from independent MLAs, who are key to thwarting any coup attempt by the National Conference (N.C.).

Apart from arousing widespread public derision, the expansion has, in fact, opened up the PDP-Congress(I) combine to further political assault. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) noted that the government had, only weeks ago, promised to introduce all-India legislation which would restrict the size of the Council of Ministers. The applicability of much Central legislation is subject to the approval of the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, a constitutional privilege that enabled the expansion. Even supporters of the PDP-led alliance, notably Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami, were incensed by Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s decision to expand the Council of Ministers. Tarigami acidly noted that the Council of Ministers was turning into an "employment exchange," and warned that it would undermine the legitimacy of the PDP-led alliance. "When we don’t have enough funds to provide relief to the family members of victims of terrorism or hire even Class IV employees, how can we afford all these Ministers?" Tarigami wondered.

IT takes little to see just what ordinary people in Jammu and Kashmir expect from the peace process: and it certainly is not more Ministers or APHC factions. Soon after India and Pakistan silenced the guns on the Line of Control (LoC) last year, large numbers of villagers in the Teetwal area of Tangdhar began to gather along the Kishanganga river - known as the Neelam in Pakistan. The first such gathering took place in Teetwal on January 18, after mosque public-address systems were used to announce a time for villagers to gather. The ensuing rush took normally stern troops on both sides of the LoC by surprise. "No one had any orders on what to do," an Army officer posted in the area told Frontline. "So we just stood by and watched the fun." At first, villagers simply shouted out greetings to relatives across the LoC, or floated bottles containing letters across the river. Soon afterwards, however, ropes lines were fixed across the Kishanganga, allowing baskets and sacks to be hauled across.

By the end of January, enterprising villagers were using the ropeways to run a vibrant system of cross-border barter. Sacks bearing copra and textiles began to make their way across the Kishanganga, returning filled with live chicken and blankets. Foodgrain, edible oil and pulses were also bartered, while some families have also sent across cash gifts for births and weddings in their relatives’ families. Alarmed officials, concerned that the ropeways could also carry less innocent cargo, stepped in to shut down the meetings in late January. Formal orders were issued on January 28, two days after thousands of villagers had gathered on the river bank to join an official celebration of Republic Day. Residents of the main village, Teetwal, have respected the restrictions, but meetings and trade continue near thinly guarded hamlets like Simhari, Truti Haji, Pahgwan and Kathwan. The last large meeting took place on February 5, after villagers slipped through the gaps in the fence on the LoC.

For the most part, the Indian Army has taken an indulgent view of events. Teetwal’s ethnic-Pahari population has had little to do with secessionist politics in Jammu and Kashmir. The Tangdhar border was relatively open until 1988, even though cross-border movement was illegal. Villagers routinely crossed the LoC for community functions, weddings and small-time trade. But in recent years, the Kishanganga valley became the scene of some of the most fierce artillery exchanges on the LoC. Indian troops brought massive force to bear on this sector, cutting off Pakistan’s strategically vital Karakoram highway which links the country to Gilgit and China. Little construction work has taken place on the Pakistan-held side of the valley for several years because Indian troops bring down heavy fire on any road movement in the area.

Has the clock turned again? Not quite. Even as Tangdhar residents celebrate the little open-border free trade zone they have created, Pakistan is taking advantage of the ongoing ceasefire to fortify its defences. Underground bunkers and trenches have been constructed to enable troops to move in the face of hostile fire, and entire hillsides blasted away to give Pakistani artillery greater protection from Indian artillery. India, in turn, has hastened construction of its counter-infiltration fence along the LoC, which is nearing completion on the Tangdhar heights. Terrorists seeking to cross the LoC will now face layers of razor-sharp concertina rolls, a welter of electronic motion sensors, and, most dangerous of all, lethal electrified wire. The Indian Army is also investing heavily in bunker-busting missiles and high-technology equipment which will let its Special Forces Regiments (SFR) take out the new defences Pakistan is putting in place.

All this illustrates the enormous grass-roots pressure for peace in Jammu and Kashmir. "I’d like a just and permanent settlement to the problem of Jammu and Kashmir," says local businessman Mohammad Umar, "but I know it won’t happen overnight. In the meanwhile, I would be grateful if the fighting would stop, and I could send my children to school certain they will come home safely."

Hopes for peace, without doubt, are also underpinned by economic self-interest. "Our apple sales have been hit hard by competition from imports arriving in the rest of India," points out Sopore orchard owner Javed Shah, "so our best hope of survival is to reach out to new markets in Muzaffarabad and Lahore." Srinagar high society, for its part, has already been lining up to ensure a seat on the first bus from Srinagar to Muzaffarabad, in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. None of this, however, is likely to take place unless terrorist violence actually stops and a genuine dialogue can begin, a prospect, recent events suggest, is still distant.

War on the LoC may have come to an end, but the beginning of peace, it would seem, is still distant.

See online : Frontline

P.S.

in Frontline, volume 21 - Issue 05, February 28 - March 12, 2004.

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