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Combatants For Peace

As New Delhi and the Hurriyat seem to soften a bit, the latter now needs to convince the militants—and Pakistan

Combatants For Peace
Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's announcement extending the ceasefire in Jammu and Kashmir by another month (ending January 26 next year), and declaring the initiation of exploratory steps for a dialogue with Pakistan, is an expression of faith in his conciliatory approach to resolve the Kashmir tangle. Earlier, the Indian government had insisted on a complete halt to cross-border infiltration as a precondition for dialogue with Pakistan. The decision that indicates a change from that position was unanimously approved at the 30-minute meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security Affairs on December 18—a full two days before it was made public.

Pakistan's response to the Indian initiative was prompt. It announced a pull-back of troops from the border and though the precise sectors from where the withdrawal was to take place wasn't spelt out, sources say Islamabad's response symbolises its intention to keep the momentum of the initiative going till it reaches the dialogue stage. Argues a source, "Pakistan's announcement has symbolic value at best. We did not cross the LoC even during the height of the Kargil war. There is no reason to believe that we will do so now."

In tandem with recent hope-generating policy moves, Srinagar too witnessed some positive developments. There, the central executive of the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference (aphc) met for over four hours and announced its intention to travel to Pakistan on January 15. Significantly, on December 20, Hurriyat chairman Abdul Ghani Bhat, Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Muhammad Yasin Malik had a telephonic conversation with the amir (chief) of the Lashkar-e-Toiba, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, as well as the Hizbul supreme commander and chairman of the United Jehad Council, Syed Salahuddin, to take them into confidence. The Kashmiri leaders, according to sources, told the militant leaders in Pakistan that talks between the Hurriyat and New Delhi as well as Pakistan were necessary. Reportedly, the militant leaders responded by saying that they wouldn't allow the Hurriyat to go the Sheikh Abdullah way and "sell out" to New Delhi for the narrow purpose of coming to power and forsaking the larger goal of self-determination.

Prof Bhat confirmed the telephonic talks with militant leaders and told reporters that a "new process has been set in motion because of which it is imperative for us to have a face-to-face meeting with them." The militant leaders, Bhat said, welcomed the Hurriyat initiative and were eagerly waiting for them to arrive in Pakistan. There, the Hurriyat delegation will meet commanders of various militant outfits and Gen Pervez Musharraf and his cabinet ministers.

As the Hurriyat announced the Pakistan trip, the internal differences between the conglomeration of separatist parties—which had broken out into the open recently—were largely papered over. Missing was the insistence on tripartite talks and the other preconditions (such as talks outside the ambit of the Indian constitution and implementation of the UN resolutions on self-determination) Geelani had earlier spelt out. The moderates, indeed, have had their way, and with New Delhi favouring this proposal, the path has been cleared for further political steps.

The question before the Hurriyat is, who among them will go to Pakistan? The moderates first offered Geelani the chance to go to Pakistan. Initially, he said no, claiming that nothing would come out of this endeavour. The

leaders then discussed the possibility of sending Prof Bhat, Yasin Malik and Abbas Ansari. The final decision stood postponed but the message to Geelani was clear: don't stall the process. Then again, the moot question is: what will the Hurriyat talk about in Pakistan? The short answer:

ending militancy and initiating

a dialogue.

One nuance discernible is the Indian government's decision to delink "exploratory steps" for dialogue from its earlier insistence that infiltration from Pakistan has to cease before such a process could start. Islamabad, too, in its response hasn't harped on tripartite talks. Clearly, all parties involved want to give peace a serious chance. Now, many believe a definite indication of that will be whether the Republic Day witnesses attention-grabbing militant attacks in the state—as is normally the case.

There also has been much speculation on exactly what the "exploratory steps" mean. Government sources say these include militant groups maintaining open channels among themselves as well as the exchange of views during the Hurriyat's trip to Pakistan. Technically, however, the peace initiative does not amount to a ceasefire. Rather, it's a 'No Initiation of Combat Operations' (nico), whereby the security forces reserve the right to retaliate if attacked.

T he government's main consideration before the extension of the initiative was the absence of a positive response from the militants, although militancy-related incidents have certainly come down. Government figures show that while between November 7-27 (pre-ceasefire) as many as 125 terrorists were killed in J&K, this dropped to 30 between November 28 and December 18 (post-ceasefire period). Sources, however, say this reduction in overall violence is largely because security forces have stopped carrying out operations. This means they are less vulnerable to militant attacks than they are during combing operations.

Government sources also claim that the effective isolation of Geelani within the Hurriyat, and the Hizbul's willingness—displayed in July—to enter into a dialogue, is based on the realisation that militancy hasn't paid off. Thus, the argument is: if Kashmir can't become independent and the settlement has to be within the Constitution of India, then why risk death?

In support of this claim, sources point out that after the peace message from Majid Dar to Salahuddin, the Hizbul—which, being the largest militant group active in the state, was the main target of the security forces—played cricket with the army, and that after the ceasefire was announced many Hizbul militants came overground. In some instances, they even distributed sweets, given the fact that many of them were reunited with their families and were keen to lead as normal a life as possible.

E ver since the ceasefire initiative, the ordinary Kashmiri is beginning to relish the simple yet profound prospect of no cordon and search operations, no frisking, no nuisance and none of the harassment they usually have to put up with. This initiative is designed to harden the peace constituency decisively. Even the PM told Parliament that the "the constituency for peace has expanded significantly." Government sources take pains to make the point that this initiative focuses on the Kashmiris, and not Pakistan, although it would be an added bonus if the latter shows signs of being reasonable.

hat kind of discussions the Hurriyat leaders have in Pakistan and how Islamabad responds will determine the future course of the peace initiative. If all goes well, sources say, then there ought to be no difficulty in again extending the ceasefire, considering that till March the number of militants crossing the snow-bound passes goes down considerably.

For the moment though, the only person who seems unhappy over the recent developments is Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah. He said the Hurriyat Conference leaders "are like black crows" adding that "no matter how much detergent you apply, they will remain like that." The question about his own status notwithstanding, the flamboyant chief minister's remarks suggest he feels the Hurriyat will find it impossible to break free from Pakistan's embrace. That's a point on which even government sources are hedging their bets. They say the issue of whether the Hurriyat is an 'unbiased' facilitator for dialogue and true representative of the people of Kashmir is now on test and will be decided after their representatives return to India from their Pakistan trip. But for now, the Kashmiris are a hopeful lot. For, the peace initiative does appear to be acquiring some muscle. n

With Zafar Meraj in Srinagar
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