Sixteen-year-old Sher Afghan, who lives in an apartment in south Karachi, was ready to join a group of 200 mujahideen preparing for "jehad in Indian-occupied Kashmir" when the news of the Hizbul's ceasefire came in. Now, he and his fellow jehadis are looking to alter their plans. Many others like Afghan, people who have been working for the 'liberation' of Kashmir, are also still reeling under the shock of the Hizbul Mujahideen's surprise offer.
"Traitors" was the first reaction that emanated from the camp of the Lashkar-e-Toiba, one of the most hardline groups fighting in Kashmir. Some activists even broke down when the news came in, while their leaders began contacting their superiors in Muzaffarabad. "We have been working with the Hizbul Mujahideen, but now we have to change our entire strategy as we can't trust them anymore," says Lashkar leader Umer Farooq. Just a week earlier Maulana Masood Azhar, chief of the newly-formed hardline militant group
Jaish-e-Mohammad, had made some fiery speeches in Karachi. "You'll be glad to hear that at least 10,000 youth are ready to attack and become martyrs," he thundered before a mammoth gathering at a mosque during Friday prayers.
Within Pakistan, there is a school of thought that believes that the ceasefire may expose the cracks in the Hizbul Mujahideen. But its supreme commander, Syed Salahuddin, refutes that argument. "We take decisions based on a consensus," he says while reiterating that there is no divide within Hizbul ranks. But soon the rift with other pro-Pakistan groups was clear and Salahuddin was sacked as convenor of the United Jehad Council, an alliance of over a dozen parties. But it's the Jamaat-e-Islami which faces the biggest crisis vis-a-vis the ceasefire. The party has all along been backing the Hizbul Mujahideen but now opposes its ceasefire offer. Says Jamaat leader Qazi Hussain Ahmed: "The jehad was not started by any one party or group and it cannot be stopped by a few individuals."
However, Hizbul leaders believe that the ball is now in India's court. While it's too early to say when the negotiations will begin, analysts here hint that the move has the blessings of both Islamabad and the US. One analyst even sees it as a major development in the region's geo-strategic environment after the Lahore declaration. As for official reactions, Pakistan's Foreign Minister Abdus Sattar offers a guarded response, "It is for the people of Kashmir and their representative organisation, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, to decide how their struggle should be waged," he told newsmen in Islamabad. As for the man on the street who's been exploited in the name of Kashmir, the new development gives some hope for peace. "I don't see an early solution - at least not in my lifetime. But perhaps my children can go to India without fear of being branded isi agents," says Nargis Begum, a school teacher. Adds human rights activist Anis Haroon, "It is still a long way to go, but the Indian government must initiate a dialogue with an open mind. The mujahideen have taken a difficult but bold decision."
But there are many sceptics who offer a different view. Senior columnist M.H. Askari doesn't have much hope, "It's like a chess game in which you cannot predict who will win. I am all for peace but those in the field are the best judges and they have to decide what is good for them and their country," he says. But there's a unanimity that the Hizbul ceasefire is a significant development. Not least because the group has had the backing of the Jamaat-e-Islami - a well-organised political party in Pakistan. Many analysts, taking a broader, more global view of the Hizbul decision, attach a great deal of significance to the Jamaat chief's recent visit to Japan, China and the US. The unilateral truce is also being seen in the context of Gen Pervez Musharraf's planned September visit to the US. Musharraf had earlier said that Pakistan could use its influence with the mujahideen if India responded positively to discuss and resolve the core issue of Kashmir.
Hizbul Mujahideen sources in Karachi say that the decision, though it may appear prima facie unpopular, was the correct approach under the circumstances. Its leaders expect support from the Hurriyat Conference and a positive response from the Indian government. By all accounts, the next three months are crucial. Many people on both sides of the border are keeping their fingers crossed and hoping that now there might be a real chance for a permanent solution to the Kashmir crisis. But in the end, all depends on what stand the two governments adopt as well as the position taken by the more militant groups who are yet to erase thoughts of an all-out jehad from their minds.