The Hurriyat Meltdown
17 September 2003
New Delhi: AT ONE LEVEL, the formation of a parallel All Parties Hurriyat Conference led by Islamist hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani is not news. The new organisation simply gives formal shape to the long- standing de facto schism among secessionist politicians in Jammu and Kashmir. Yet Monday's events are of enormous political consequence. From the time the 23-member APHC came into being, it has claimed to speak for all the people of Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan has energetically supported that claim, projecting the APHC as representatives of a 'nation' who will, one day, negotiate with India and Pakistan on equal terms. The Islamist-Centrist split has rendered this propaganda position absurd. Most major secessionist politicians, ranging from Sajjad Lone to Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, support the Centrist leadership of their APHC chairman, Maulvi Abbas Ansari. Most armed groups, ranging from the Hizb-ul-Mujaheddin to al- Umar and the Lashkar-e-Taiba, as well as a welter of smaller Islamist political parties, have thrown their weight behind Mr. Geelani. It is profoundly unclear who speaks for whom and with what legitimacy: Mr. Lone and Mr. Geelani have, in no uncertain terms, described each other as traitors. Reason suggests the issue can be resolved by participation in an electoral process. Neither faction is likely, however, to be willing to subject its claim to legitimacy to any sort of test. The reasons are simple. The parties of the Centrists commanded limited electoral influence before violence broke out in 1988. Although their leaders say their public support has since broadened, putting the proposition to a vote is a huge risk. Elements of Mr. Lone's party who contested last year's elections fared poorly in the face of competition from better organised mainstream parties. The Centrists have therefore been asking for some pre-election guarantees of power from New Delhi, a kind of first instalment on a political package deal. The Government of India is reluctant to make any such concession, particularly since the Centrists do not have enough influence with terrorist groups to deliver a de-escalation of violence. Mr. Geelani is somewhat better placed. Although his own party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, does not support him, he has enough supporters within its ranks to form the nucleus of a political organisation - a well-muscled party backed by guns. But Mr. Geelani does not wish to be just one of many 'representatives' of the people. All this suggests the glee in New Delhi's policy establishment over the APHC split might prove misplaced, at least in the short term. With secessionist politicians frozen in positions from which they cannot withdraw, there is little room for the manoeuvre so essential to peacemaking. Although terrorist groups will lose some of their political legitimacy - if they ever had, or needed, any - Mr. Geelani will give them the cover they need. Aside from this, the players who can break the logjam are increasingly cramped for space. The Bharatiya Janata Party, with general elections looming, simply cannot afford to grant the concessions needed to bring the Centrists on board. Pakistan's military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, needs support from Islamists in that country to retain power after he sheds his uniform in 2004, and cannot be seen as soft on Kashmir. The United States of America, for its part, is too deeply mired in Iraq to concern itself with minor disturbances in South Asia. The oddest thing is that both Islamists and Centrists agree on two things - that the armed struggle is redundant, and that the time for a dialogue has come. New Delhi, Islamabad and Washington also seem to agree. Paradoxically, Kashmir is no closer to peace than before.