July 2004 News

Kashmir's Nightingales Silenced

15 July 2004
Asia Times Online
Praveen Swami

Hong Kong: 'Spring will return to the beautiful Valley soon,' then-prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee promised in Srinagar last April, quoting a passage from the poet Ghulam Ahmed Mehjoor, 'The flowers will bloom again and the nightingales will return, singing.' Just over a year on, the nightingales have been decapitated: the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), on whose 'moderates' the peace process was built, is in disarray; political dialogue with New Delhi is stalled, and the substantial reductions in terrorist violence Vajpayee had hoped for have yet to materialize. On July 6, Hurriyat chairman Maulvi Abbas Ansari announced that he was resigning his post in an effort to bring about the reunification of the secessionist coalition's factions. The organization's founder- chairman, Srinagar cleric Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, was asked to work toward restoring the Hurriyat's original executive council, which, until last year's split, included Islamist hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Although the Hurriyat reiterated its willingness to 'continue dialogue with India and Pakistan', Farooq said this process would commence only after a new chairman was elected by the pre-split executive council. What sense might one make of Ansari's resignation? At one level, the effective termination of dialogue with India could be read as the outcome of intense terrorist pressure on the Hurriyat's centrists. On May 29, terrorists had shot Farooq's uncle, Maulvi Mushtaq Ahmad, who died nine days later. Farooq's own house was subsequently attacked. Speaking in New Delhi on June 28, Farooq candidly admitted that 'somebody within our rank and file is targeting me and my family'. The reason for this hostility among terrorist ranks, he said, was 'our stand on the resolution of the Kashmir issue through the dialogue process'. Discretion, it would then seem, triumphed over valor in the week between Farooq's visit to Delhi and Ansari's decision to step down. One key event may have been the burning down of the historic school run by Farooq's family in downtown Srinagar on June 7, an act of arson intended to signal that both his life and his ideological inheritance were under threat. Yet the problems surfaced much earlier, as it became clear that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at Delhi was unwilling to deliver a dramatic face- saving gesture to the centrists, such as significant troop withdrawals or direct one-on-one negotiations with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Another key factor was the efforts by the union government to draw the Islamists into the dialogue process, thus undermining the Hurriyat's centrist majority's claims to represent all of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. On June 9, lawyer-politician Ram Jethmalani held an unscheduled 30-minute meeting with Geelani, pushing ideas for wider internal autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir. Jethmalani made his visit on behalf of the non-official Kashmir Committee, set up with quiet government assent at the start of the predecessor National Democratic Alliance regime's engagement with the Hurriyat. Most observers had believed the Kashmir Committee to be defunct after the resignation of two of its three members, senior journalists M J Akbar and Dilip Padgaonkar. Jethmalani's mission, sources say, was pushed by elements in the Ministry of Home Affairs who believed the centrists needed to be prodded into action, and the dialogue 'broad-based'. The services of the recently replaced Intelligence Bureau director, K P Singh, were used to set up the meeting, and Geelani was contacted through a New Delhi lawyer of ethnic-Kashmiri origin. Although the Islamist leader was non- committal, Jethmalani flew to Srinagar, only to be kept waiting for several hours before he was granted a token audience. At a later rally, Geelani claimed he rejected Jethmalani's autonomy proposals out of hand. 'Jethmalani wanted me to give credit to the Indian democracy,' Geelani said. 'I explained to him how the Indian forces had committed massacre after massacre of Kashmiri people in the last 15 years. He had nothing to say when he withdrew.' Geelani also charged that the 'the entire Indian leadership was biased against the Kashmiri Muslims', and that while the Bharatiya Janata Party was 'explicitly communal', the now-governing Congress party 'was instinctively communal but it was pretending to be secular'. The bottom line was that Jethmalani had failed to win over the Islamists - and at once alienated the centrists. For now, Geelani has also shown no signs of biting the bait offered by the centrists, and has expressly rejected dialogue with India. Speaking after Friday prayers at a Srinagar mosque last Friday, for example, he accused India of 'massacring Kashmiris under the camouflage of a peace process'. In several earlier speeches, Geelani rejected any forward movement other than those founded on United Nations resolutions mandating a plebiscite in the pre-1947 state of Jammu and Kashmir. Common sense suggests Geelani would enter the Hurriyat only if he had a decisive say in shaping strategy: something the mere removal of Ansari would not give him. Geelani's best hope is to regain influence within the Jamaat-e-Islami, the organization to which he gave much of his life before being marginalized last year. His supporters now hope to use his majority among the 1,250-plus delegates in the Jamaat-e-Islami's general council to secure changes in the organization's leadership, and amend its constitution to allow for support of the Islamist jihad against India. He does not, however, have a majority among the Jamaat-e-Islami's rukuns - its rank and file cadre - or its senior leadership. From last December onward, moderates in the Jamaat have run a successful campaign to remove pro-Geelani figures from positions of power, tacitly backing the Hurriyat moderates. Syed Nazir Ahmad Kashani, the Amir of the Jamaat-e-Islami, fought off Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM) efforts to garner support for the hardliners. On January 1, the Jamaat's Markazi Majlis-e-Shoora (central consultative committee) went public with a commitment to 'democratic and constitutional struggle', an indication of willingness to operate within the Indian political system. Article 5 of the Jamaat-e-Islami's constitution obliges it to use such means, and to desist from those which 'may contribute to the strife on Earth'. Perhaps the most important determinant of future events will be how much influence terrorist groups are able to exercise. The signs, on the face of it, are not good. Although violence has been in steady decline since 2001 - the year India threatened to go to war unless Pakistan de-escalated its covert war in Jammu and Kashmir - official figures for this summer do not make for happy reading. Killings of civilians this April and June were higher than in 2003, particularly in the Kashmir Division. So, too, were the numbers of Indian security force personnel killed, although the numbers of terrorists killed in retaliation declined. Infiltration, as chief of army staff Nirmal Vij recently made public, has resumed, reaching high levels in the first two weeks of June. What Vij did not make public was the fact that the almost- complete border fencing is not as effective as some had hoped. Three terrorists shot dead near the Line of Control in the Mandi-Loran area on June 9, for example, were carrying plastic pipes, designed to penetrate the fencing. Indian infantry troops who have carried out tests on the fencing have taken just 10-15 minutes to clear the barrier - suggesting that while it is indeed a deterrent, the fence is hardly the kind of impregnable barrier enthusiasts had claimed. Worst of all, the political ground on which the peace process is premised threatens to turn into quicksand. With terrorist groups increasingly dominating southern Kashmir, particularly at night, large crowds of villagers have started appearing at the last rites of slain terrorists, a phenomenon not seen since the early 1990s. Gatherings of up to 2,000 villagers have been recorded during the burials of terrorists of Pakistani origin, something unheard of until early this year. In one recent incident in Kulgam, villagers were shipped in by bus to protest an army siege of a local mosque, in an effort to rescue two terrorists still trapped inside. Major political parties have been unable to respond. The ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP), which until recently had a none-too-covert alliance with elements of the south Kashmir Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, has been hemorrhaging cadres - the wages of the terrorist group's ire at the PDP's inability to deliver on pre-poll promises to scale back military operations. At least five PDP workers have been killed and eight injured since June. In one gruesome June 15 incident, four PDP activists who had campaigned for Anantnag member of parliament Mehbooba Mufti were taken to a jungle hideout near Aishmuqam, beaten and then shot through the legs. Crippled by a bitter internal feud, dealing with the crisis seems to be the last thing on the ruling PDP- Congress alliance government's agenda. The state cabinet, as a consequence of the growing feud, has not met for four months. Both the mainstream parties and secessionists seem bereft of leadership: a fact which suggests that guns, not words, will once again shape the discourse in the months to come. Praveen Swami is New Delhi bureau chief of Frontline magazine, and also writes for its sister publication, The Hindu.


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