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Breaking The Stalemate

Praveen SWAMI

Tuesday 25 November 2003, by SWAMI*Praveen

Article paru dans Outlook India, ?dition du 25 novembre 2003.

It is generally easy to be a pessimist on J&K, but even hardened sceptics concede that, this time around, there is at least the appearance of progress, with the APHC’s recent anouncement.

For years, efforts to bring about a negotiated end to carnage in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) have resembled what soldiers call the Kadam Taal: the parade-ground art of marching briskly on one spot without actually moving forward.

It is generally easy to be a pessimist on J&K, but even hardened sceptics concede that, this time around, there is at least the appearance of progress. Last week, the secessionist All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) announced it was willing to open dialogue with the Union Government as soon as it receives a formal written invitation.

One of the key proponents of dialogue within the APHC, Srinagar-based religious leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, has been authorised to conduct negotiations. Mirwaiz Farooq was, along with the assassinated centrist APHC leader Abdul Gani Lone, a key figure in covert and overt contacts with the Indian state since 1999 - a process of engagement that has culminated in the current dialogue offer.

The APHC’s decision followed an October 22 announcement that Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani was willing to hold direct talks with the secessionist coalition. Officials in New Delhi have already let it be known that they intend to issue an invitation soon, perhaps after the end of the month of Ramzan.

For once, the APHC centrists have shown considerable flexibility. They have not, notably, demanded that they be allowed to travel to Pakistan to consult armed groups there before dialogue commences - a precondition that has, in the past, proved a spoiler. Lone had fallen out with hardline Islamist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani over this precondition in the months before his assassination on May 21, 2002, following which terrorist groups intervened to settle the dispute directly.

But is this a new dawn? Not quite yet. The APHC has demanded that the coming talks be "unconditional and focussed on the resolution of the Kashmir issue." These are objectives Advani has, at least in public, already rejected. On October 24, he insisted that, "the unity, integrity and sovereignty of the country cannot be compromised, adding,

"We don’t want that all the powers remain confined to Delhi or for that matter to the State capitals alone? we favour decentralisation and are prepared to take steps for that."

Quite clearly, the Deputy Prime Minister’s stated position falls well short of even the demands for federal autonomy made by mainstream regional parties like the National Conference - secession, he seemed to make clear, is simply not on the agenda.

What purpose, then, might the talks serve? Most in the APHC, notably its chairman Abbas Ansari, believe Advani’s posture was election-eve polemic, and that the Union Government will prove considerably more flexible behind closed doors than it is prepared to appear in front of television cameras.

It is also possible that Advani’s formulation was addressed as much to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee as to the APHC. On May 8, Vajpayee had, in Parliament, raised the prospect of an "alternate arrangement" in J&K, a term that some read to mean one that in some fashion diluted India’s current structure of sovereignty. Vajpayee’s perhaps casual use of the term provoked considerable ire within and outside the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and has never been used in public discourse since.

As things stand, those in the Union Ministry of Home Affairs charged with drafting the letter of invitation are grappling with a nightmarish exercise in semantics. Their letter must use terms that allow the APHC to claim all options, including independence, are open for discussion, and that New Delhi acknowledges it to be a legitimate arbiter of the fate of the people of J&K.

At once, the Union Government must be able to claim that secession is not on the agenda, and that the APHC are not representative of ’a nation’. Past experiences in letter writing have not been heartening. A 2001 letter issued to the APHC by the then-Union Government mediator on J&K, K.C. Pant, received no response. Another, to non-APHC secessionist leader Shabbir Shah, led first to a desultory correspondence and then an equally desultory dialogue. The current mediator, N.N. Vohra, perhaps wisely, chose not to write letters to anyone at all.

The biggest problem, however, will be off the dialogue table. The moderate APHC faction New Delhi is engaging is not a principal to the conflict, and has no influence over armed groups. Indeed, even some centrist groups like the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), chose not to participate in the APHC meeting which authorised dialogue.

The Islamists, led by Geelani, have such influence, but will not use it since they have not been invited to feast at the peace table. Geelani has, in no uncertain terms, said that the centrist APHC has "betrayed the trust of the people of Jammu and Kashmir", and described its leaders as traitors. His sentiments have been mirrored by the spokespersons of a wide range of terrorist groups, including the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jamait-ul-Mujaheddin (JuM).

Without a de-escalation of violence, the Union Government will obviously find it very hard to sell even the smallest concession to a public increasingly bewildered by the startling lurches in official policy. Behind the scenes, it is possible the United States is doing what it can to push the process along, though not necessarily to a particularly clever plan.

Pakistan has been pressured into imposing a ban on some terrorist groups. As several Pakistani commentators have pointed out, however, the ban is as half-hearted as the now-forgotten one imposed in 2001. Major terrorist leaders have not been arrested, nor training camps dismantled or military assets seized. Despite President Pervez Musharraf’s expression of concern about the bad press Pakistan is getting, this is one jihad he seems unwilling to wind down just yet.

Unless, by some miracle, violence does deescalate significantly, it will sooner or later drown out voices committed to dialogue. It is not without reason, after all, that pessimists on J&K turn out to be right with depressing regularity.

P.S.

Praveen Swami is Special Correspondent, Frontline. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal.

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