IN the next few days the government will have to take two decisions on which the future of peace in Kashmir could well hinge. The first is whether to extend the ceasefire, which expires on January 26. The second is whether to allow the five-man delegation chosen by Hurriyat chairman, Prof Abdul Ghani Bhat, to proceed to Pakistan. Neither decision is free from risk, but the government would do well to say 'yes' to both.
The risks involved in extending the ceasefire are well known. Peace can cut both ways: it can lead to a relaxation of tension that paves way for dialogue. Or, as the ltte has shown in Sri Lanka, it can give insurgents a chance to consolidate their forces for a renewed assault. In Kashmir, as well as in the home ministry, many believe that prolonged peace increases the likelihood of frittering away the gains security forces have made in their battle against terrorism.
This argument was first put forward at the time of the first ceasefire last July: unsourced stories appeared in a number of dailies to the effect that the Hizbul had virtually sued for peace due to the heavy losses its cadres had sustained in the preceding months. It may well have been true, for according to official estimates more than half of the 420 terrorists who had been killed in May and June had belonged to the Hizb. It has surfaced once more in the past few weeks in the shape of fears that forcing the armed forces not to retaliate when they're attacked incessantly by the jehadis will demoralise jawans and reduce their authority in the eyes of the civilian population. This would make their task a good deal more difficult whenever hostilities resume.
While this possibility can't be discounted, on balance the benefits of an extension far outweigh the risks. The longer Indian forces refrain from proactive counter-terrorist operations, the clearer it becomes to Kashmiris just where their woes originate. This is gradually dissipating the gratitude many Kashmiris feel towards the jehadis for having come to Kashmir to fight their battle against Indian security forces. One indication of this is the specific information security forces are getting about the presence of jehadis and their plans. It was such information that enabled the security forces to foil the fidayeen attack on Srinagar airport.
The jehadis too are aware of the risk of popular disenchantment. This may be one reason why they've been stepping up their activities as the date for deciding whether or not to extend the ceasefire draws near. Their goal is to make New Delhi call off the ceasefire. To do so now would therefore give them the victory they are looking for.
The risks involved in allowing the Hurriyat delegation to visit Pakistan arise from the presence in it of former Jamaat-e-Islami head, Ali Shah Geelani, the most outspoken advocate of Kashmir's merger with Pakistan. In the past four weeks, Geelani has insisted that the Kashmir struggle is religious, not political, praised the jehadis for coming to the 'defence of Islam' in Kashmir, and accused moderate leaders in the Hurriyat of having sold out to India. Geelani has thus aligned himself squarely against all upholders of 'Kashmiriyat', i.e. Kashmiri ethnic nationalism. He has also implicitly denigrated Kashmir's Rishi tradition of Islam, anathema to the extremely orthodox Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadis schools of Islam to which jehadis subscribe. His utterances are music to Pakistani and jehadi ears. His inclusion in the team has been warmly welcomed by Islamabad, and the jehadis who, till a week earlier, had been insisting that the Hurriyat had no right to speak for Kashmiris.
It's precisely this welcome that's given Delhi reason to pause. Geelani is not on the Hurriyat team as a representative of any section of the Kashmiris: G.M. Bhat, the current leader of his own organisation, the Jamaat-e-Islami, has described the Kashmiri struggle as political, not religious. Geelani is there as a representative of Pakistan and the jehadis. His right to represent Kashmir, let alone negotiate on their behalf, is thus suspect.
There's also reason for misgiving over the turn Geelani's presence could give to Hurriyat's discussions with Pakistan. None of the 'moderates' or champions of 'Kashmiriyat' want to further partition the state. Their goal, clearly articulated by Hashim Qureshi, is to secure the independence of the original princely state of Kashmir, which includes Jammu and Kashmir and 'Azad' Kashmir. This follows from their description of the problem as political and not religious. By contrast, Geelani's description of the problem as religious means he's interested only in the Muslim parts of the state. Which means he will back any move to trifurcate the state of Jammu and Kashmir in order to segregate Muslim Kashmir from Hindu Jammu and Buddhist/Shia Ladakh. Not entirely coincidentally, Pakistan has been proposing this for some time as part of a package that involves reuniting the two halves of Kashmir and putting them under UN administration as a prelude to a plebiscite.
There is thus a real risk of the Hurriyat delegation arriving at a 'compromise' suggestion endorsed by Pakistan, that involves the trifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir, the unification of Kashmir and 'Azad' Kashmir under UN administration to be followed by independence or a plebiscite with independence as the third option. New Delhi might know and many Kashmiris might suspect that Pakistan's offer of independence to Kashmir would not be genuine and would be intended only to buy it time for achieving its original goal of annexation in stages. But its refusal to countenance such a 'reasonable' offer would lose it all the ground it has gained both internationally and in Kashmir.
Despite these misgivings, letting the Hurriyat delegation go to Islamabad is better, for any attempt to dictate who will and who won't go will rob Hurriyat of its credentials for asking jehadis to halt their incursions into Kashmir and providing Pakistan with a face-saving way of creating the preconditions for resumption of dialogue with India.
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