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OPINION

Double-Barrelled Dialogue

PREM SHANKAR JHA

Monday 6 October 2003, by JHA*Prem Shankar

The escalation of violence in the Valley, after a brief lull, is Pakistan’s doing. But this time it intends to use the jehadis to make Delhi talk.

We were half way back into Srinagar on the boulevard that abuts the Dal lake before my driver exclaimed, in tones of sudden surprise, "There are no tourists!" His consternation captured perfectly the abrupt change that had taken place in Kashmir in the past two weeks.

Five weeks ago, Kashmir had seemed well on the way back to peace. For nine months the Valley had known a tranquility that it had been a stranger to for 13 years. Violence had not abated altogether, but most of it was confined to Jammu and Poonch-Rajouri, and concentrated near the Line of Control. In June, July and August, tourists had come flocking back to the Valley as they had not once since the end of the ’80s.

By some estimates, as many as 1,50,000 came in July and August. Others put it as high as 3,00,000. Mobile telephony and internet connectivity had arrived at last in Kashmir and the demand for the former had far outstripped bsnl’s expectations. Mufti Mohammed Sayeed’s policy of applying the healing touch seemed to be working.

Important changes had also taken place in the Hurriyat. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the most adamantly pro-Pakistani of its leaders, had been removed from the executive council after he ’retired’ from the Jamaat-e-Islami, which he had represented on the council for almost a decade. The new chairman of the executive council was the Shia leader, Maulvi Abbas Ansari, who was known to be a moderate wedded to Kashmir’s autonomy rather than to Pakistan. These changes had brightened the chances of talks with the Hurriyat to find lasting peace in Kashmir to an extent never witnessed before.

Then, within a matter of days, everything changed. A spate of fidayeen attacks culminated on August 27, even as A.B. Vajpayee was chairing a meeting of the Inter-State Council in Srinagar, with two fidayeen entering the Greenway Hotel and shooting Javed Shah, a counter-insurgent who had entered politics and become a member of the Kashmir assembly and also ran a newspaper. In the gunbattle that followed, both the terrorists lost their lives but the Greenway Hotel was shot to pieces with cannon and rockets and caught fire. What shocked Kashmiris and sent a shiver of apprehension down the administration’s spine was that one of the fidayeen was a Kashmiri youth. No one, not even his family, knew why he had decided to become a martyr, who had motivated him and where he had received his training and explosives. The possibility that an entirely new network of terrorists had been born while Delhi and Srinagar basked in the illusion of peace began to haunt the security agencies and the home ministry in New Delhi. Since then, hardly a day has passed without a major incident in the Valley.

The resurgence of violence has coincided with a crisis in the Hurriyat. At about the same time as it began, Pakistan TV announced that the Hurriyat had split and that the majority of its 23 constituent groups had backed the breakaway group headed by Ali Shah Geelani. The announcement came as a surprise to the members of the Hurriyat, many of whom reacted angrily by saying they would not be dictated to from ’outside’. But within hours they began to receive calls from Pakistan asking them what they were doing at home and why they were not already at Hyderpora (Geelani’s residence). One by one, many of the smaller parties wilted under the pressure from Islamabad. The rebels were also supported by the Hizbul Mujahideen from Islamabad and the United Jehad Council from Muzaffarabad. With startling swiftness, Kashmir seemed to be sliding out of Delhi’s grasp once more.

The sudden change in Kashmir has caught Delhi completely by surprise and raised a slew of questions to which they had no immediate answers.Was Pakistan behind the upswing in violence, or were the jehadis acting on their own? If Pakistan was behind it, why had it lain quiet for the past year? Had the violence declined because fewer militants were coming across the border, or because those who were coming were lying low? If the latter was the case, then did the spurt in violence signal a change of strategy by Pakistan, similar to the spurt in August 1999 that had heralded the arrival of the fidayeen? Was it only a coincidence that the Hurriyat had split just when the violence had erupted once more, or was that too part of a design? Finally, was the spurt of terrorism in Kashmir connected in any way to the terrorism in Maharashtra? Statements by spokesmen of the security forces claiming that the spurt in militancy was a sign of growing desperation among the Pakistan-based jehadis added to the confusion. Pakistan continues to maintain it is living up to its promise of preventing terrorist attacks on India or Indian Kashmir from its soil. The violence in Kashmir, it insists, is indigenous and shows that Kashmiri insurgency per se is very much alive. It admits it has not been able to cut cross-border infiltration off completely, but maintains it was not fully in control of the jehadi factions any longer. Messrs Vajpayee and Advani have unhesitatingly dismissed this, accused the isi of being behind the spurt in violence and announced that "no useful purpose would be served by entering into a dialogue with Pakistan just now". But since blaming Pakistan has become a conditioned reflex, and is never supported by concrete evidence, foreign governments are able to become more and more sceptical of India’s claims.

The confusion, however, is concentrated mainly in New Delhi. Kashmiris, who live with the violence, have a much clearer understanding. To begin with, there’s complete agreement that the jehadis are mainly from across the border. Kashmiri involvement is limited and subordinate. There’s an equally strong agreement that they are controlled by Pakistan. Islamabad’s contention that it can exercise only limited control on them has very few takers in Srinagar.

They readily concede that there was a sharp drop in violence. For the seven months before the end of August, the Valley was as calm as it had been in 1987. But there was only a small let-up, according to some estimates, of no more than 40 days, in the infiltration. The militants kept coming but used the time to entrench themselves in Kashmir. Today, former militants, who move about freely in the countryside, claim they are entrenched in virtually every village.

The peace in Kashmir was not a product of last year’s elections, or of the widespread approval of the Mufti government. These factors have affected public opinion and brought down the level of alienation from India. But Kashmiris don’t control the jehadis. The main cause of the decline in violence was the immense pressure put by the US on the Pakistan government. Islamabad, however, had experienced no change of heart. For Musharraf, bowing to American pressure was only a change of strategy for bringing India to the conference table.

He had made it clear as far back as July 2002 that he could not control the jehadis indefinitely.

It is at this point that Kashmir’s opinion diverges sharply from that of the home ministry in Delhi. While Delhi believes that Musharraf is not interested in a negotiated peace and has only been buying time, Kashmiris are convinced that had New Delhi started the dialogue Mr Vajpayee promised in April, Pakistan would have held back the militants. But Delhi did not and instead began to insist once more on a complete cessation of cross-border terrorism first. For Islamabad, notwithstanding anything it says to the contrary, the demand to end cross-border terrorism first is equivalent to being asked to lay down arms before entering into a negotiation.It is as unacceptable to it as it is to the LTTE in Sri Lanka. All through July and August, New Delhi continued to make the resumption of talks conditional on the end of cross-border infiltration on the one hand and proclaimed loudly that life had returned to normal in Kashmir, on the other. The immense influx of tourists into the Valley shored up this claim. Articles began to appear in the western press describing the return of peace to the Valley. Pakistan found that restraining the jehadis had become counterproductive. Islamabad’s other cause for worry was that the Hurriyat was steadily becoming more and more ’Kashmiriyat-minded’ and less and less inclined to toe its line and advocate secession to Pakistan. Ali Shah Geelani was no longer on its executive council and Abdul Ghani Bhat, the past chairman, had become firmly aligned with the moderates. Thus the organisation that Pakistan had created in 1992 and funded for 11 years had slipped out of its hands.

Continuing to do nothing in these circumstances would have transferred all the bargaining chips into India’s hands. For Islamabad, therefore, doing nothing ceased to be an option. At the end of August, it took the leash off the jehadis and also took up Geelani’s long-standing offer to form a new party wedded to Kashmir’s union with Pakistan. However, it did not want to lose the Hurriyat logo. It, therefore, decided to split the organisation, and bully and threaten the members of the Hurriyat’s general council into joining Geelani.

If the above analysis is correct, then Pakistan’s abrupt change of strategy doesn’t necessarily mean it is going back to its old game of bleeding India with a low-intensity proxy war till it’s forced out of Kashmir. It is much more likely that the shift is born out of a perceived sense of weakness and is designed to bring India to the table. All of Musharraf’s recent statements, such as to the Indian parliamentary delegation that met him in August, and at the UN earlier this week, are consistent with this interpretation.

The ball is, therefore, in India’s court. There is every likelihood that if it takes concrete measures to restart the stalled dialogue, Musharraf will call off his dogs. But there can also be no doubt that Pakistan’s return to coercive tactics has made it much more difficult for New Delhi to take the next step. For if Pakistan cannot negotiate from a position of declining leverage, New Delhi too cannot afford to be seen negotiating with a gun held to it head. However, of the two, India is much more able to afford making a concession on this issue.It is eight times Pakistan’s size, has an immensely stronger economy and, most important of all, is in possession of Kashmir. If the subcontinent ever needed a dose of Mr Vajpayee’s statesmanship and far-sightedness, it needs it now.

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