Over a decade of death and destruction wrought by insurgency and its repression in Kashmir has received its first significant reprieve. The Hizbul Mujahideen's unilateral declaration of a three-month-long ceasefire, coming at a time when chief minister Farooq Abdullah's autonomy gambit has muddied the proposed dialogue with the Hurriyat Conference, signals much more than the Hizbul's keenness to seek recognition as a negotiating party with New Delhi. In the history of militancy in Kashmir, it could well go down as the most significant one with a half-chance of bringing about peace in the Valley.
There are of course many pitfalls yet. The Hizbul has itself threatened to withdraw its offer if India insists on holding talks within the framework of the Constitution, or doesn't respond to it warmly enough - a question that's still very much up in the air. Moreover, on the ground, peace will be hard to keep - encounters in Rajouri late in the week, in which four bsf men and three militants of the Harkat-ul-Jehadi-Islamia were killed, provided a grim reminder. It's clear that militants can strike, ceasefire or not. It also opens up the possibility of the Hizbul being pitchforked into a battle with the other groups which stand opposed to it. This too is a stark likelihood. Other Pakistan-headquartered groups which form part of the Jehad Council have rejected the ceasefire. The Jamaat-e-Islami, the one political party across the border from which the Hizbul has derived its patronage, has virtually condemned the peace offer made by the militant group and has even described the Hizbul as "traitors". The Hurriyat Conference too has made half-hearted noises, keeping a safe distance from the move.
Though the popular perception is that raw had a pivotal role in bringing the militants round, the truth is that the intelligence agencies have had a limited part to play in the Hizbul's peace overtures. It was in fact the US government's initiatives - and the counsel of some Hurriyat leaders - that helped break the ice. Beginning with the release of jailed Hurriyat leaders at the time of President Clinton's India visit, it was the US that has scripted the peace initiative and even pressurised the Indian and Pakistani governments to support the move.
For the moment, there is a visible groundswell of public support for the Hizbul's decision to lay off arms, temporarily. While the intelligentsia and the media welcomed it in unison, it is downtown Srinagar that is the real barometer of popular sentiment. The general view in this part of Srinagar, which has often been branded as a pocket which supports militants, was that the move was genuine enough and could lend momentum to the peace process. "We are happy. We will be doubly happy if the Hurriyat endorses the move," exclaimed Wasim Khan, a shopkeeper in Habakadal.
The truce announced by the Hizbul, the most powerful militant group operating in the state and perhaps the only one with genuine grassroots support (95 per cent of its cadres are Kashmiri, unlike other groups), however, did not surprise the players of Track II diplomacy. There are several factors that preceded Hizbul commander-in-chief Abdul Majid Dar's astounding announcement in Nishat Bagh, in the heart of the city. Dar, flanked by his divisional commanders, told the world they were ready to hold their fire if New Delhi was prepared to talk peace. Here is why the militant group decided to take this uncharacteristic line:
Realising that its olive branch fitted with New Delhi's scheme of devising a comprehensive dialogue with political parties and militant groups to search for a political solution, the Hizbul decided to give the gun a respite. The presence of the Jamaat-e-Islami chief, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, in Washington and the election of hardliner Prof Abdul Ghani Bhat as the new chairman of the Hurriyat Conference a few days before the announcement, are also seen as contributing factors.
Expectedly, the other pro-Pakistan outfits within the United Jehad Council (ujc) were quick in condemning the ceasefire offer, describing it as a "sellout of the jehad" and the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (aphc) indirectly criticised the move, describing it as "hasty" and stating that other intricacies should have been considered and other groups consulted before the Hizbul came to take so significant a decision.
"The Hizbul's offer is a piecemeal measure. What we need is a collective effort for a comprehensive solution of Kashmir," the newly-elected Bhat told Outlook. But he was quick to admit that the Hizbul was the most powerful militant group on the ground, and "its doors were still open" for negotiations with the Hizbul. But other constituents within the Hurriyat have welcomed the move privately. The jklf, for instance, has expressed happiness. "It is a great move. When we declared a ceasefire in 1994, everyone blamed us for betraying the cause. This has to be taken ahead," says a senior jklf functionary.
According to one school of thought, the coming of the Hizbul into the peace process could also portend the sidelining of the Hurriyat Conference. Already, those involved in the peace process are talking about how those sitting across the table to talk peace should have the Hizbul's approval. Also, the popular support it wields in the Valley gives it more credibility than any political grouping, including the Hurriyat.
The security forces and state administration see the ceasefire as a 'god-sent opportunity' which needs to be capitalised on by the Centre. The Unified Command, which oversees counter-militancy operations, has decided quickly to respect the ceasefire call and reciprocate at least half-way. "We will not attack them but the ball is in New Delhi's court and it should not waste this opportunity," says a senior official. In the security forces' reckoning, the government has to be quick to work out the modalities to ensure the ceasefire holds. "Laying down the ground rules is important here," says an intelligence official. That, they believe, would increase the constituency for peace. "Once there is a yearning for peace, pressure can be built up among the people and then the ceasefire can be prolonged," says an official of the home department.
But even operationally, security forces believe that the other militant groups' effectiveness would be severely curtailed without the help of the Hizbul. "In the Valley and other places like Rajouri and Poonch, the Hizbul is the only force to reckon with," says Inspector General Vijay Kumar of the bsf. The other groups, like the Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed (Maulana Masood Azhar's outfit) and the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, who have an exclusively foreign component in their ranks, would be hit hard. "They depend on the Hizbul's network for entering villages and seeking shelter. Now they stand stripped. It is a serious dent to their operations," says Kumar.
That inter-group rivalry will break out is only expected. Handicapped by the absence of the Hizbul, cracks have already appeared. "Even here, we will stand to benefit," says P.S. Gill, IG of the J&K police's Special Task Force. In his reckoning, most of the other tanzeems (militant groups) like the Al-Umar, Al-Jehad and the Jamiat-ul-Mujahideen are defunct and non-existent on the ground. "These are all paper tanzeems and have no solid support like the Hizbul," adds Shaheed-ul-Islam, a former chief of the Hizbul and now a leader of the Awami Action Committee. Effectively, the militant movement has already been divided. Those fighting for self-determination have softened their stand compared to the foreign-dominated outfits carrying out a pan-Islamic jehad.
The Hurriyat's decision to not back the ceasefire call should then be seen in this context, that it does not want fissures to develop in the ujc. "Obviously, the fear of the shadow of the gun was looming large. That is why it indirectly rejected the offer though several functionaries individually wanted an endorsal," says a professor in the Kashmir University. But by default, New Delhi has succeeded in causing a rift within the ujc, which could lead to the weakening of militant groups in the state. Strategically, the appointment of Mohammed Usman, chief of the Muslim Janbaaz Force, as the new chairman of the ujc after the ouster of the Hizbul's Syed Salahuddin, carries little weight. "With just a handful of men in his organisation, what meaning does it have?" asks an intelligence official.
Logically, then, the next move is to consolidate on the present situation. "The backroom negotiations which preceded the Hizbul's dramatic announcement have to be taken forward and will also show the sincerity of the Centre in that it wants to usher in peace here," says a National Conference leader. Many here see the Hizbul's offer as a tactical ploy to force India to the negotiating table. It will certainly give the bjp-led government justification for resuming talks. The symptoms for peace have been in the air for a while. A sampling:
That the Hizbul had announced its offer after much thought and deliberation is not lost on anyone. "The Hizbul is conscious of the fallout of its move and will watch cautiously how the Centre responds," says an official. The failure of an adequate response to match the Hizbul's ceasefire offer could mean trouble and a bitter resurgence of militancy, which the security forces would like to avoid at all costs.
However, one thing which remains certain is that Pakistan will have to be roped in at some stage for a truly meaningful solution. "I am sure as death that wisdom is around and we can find a way out when the tripartite talks happen," says Bhat. In the present scenario, there seems little option for the Centre but to move ahead. "However, considering the duplicity with which every government in New Delhi has handled the Kashmir problem, we are apprehensive of what lies ahead," says a college lecturer.
A decade of death and detentions has touched almost every family in the Valley. Nearly everyone has lost a relative or an acquaintance. For most Kashmiris, alienated from both their masters in New Delhi and their self-proclaimed saviours in Islamabad, the present occasion brings a ray of hope. "We hope something happens. We have suffered enough," exclaims Malina Bibi, a vegetable vendor. A sentiment echoed everywhere. It is now New Delhi's call.