The function wound up in double quick time. As Abdul Ghani Lone proceeded to his car, three uniformed men opened fire. The Lone voice of moderation was silenced. He was the third victim of assassination to have fallen on sinister May 21, after Maulvi Farooq (Mirwaiz Umer Farooq’s father) and Rajiv Gandhi. Lone’s PSO died at his side. A grenade flung at the crowd mercifully fizzled out.
The same anti-India mood prevailed at Lone’s home that evening. During the funeral procession the following day, as Lone’s family wailed over his body, it was only the intervention of his son, Sajjad, that capped the anti-India sentiments from erupting into violence. The next day the "Hindustani" press became the target of stone-pelting mobs. The strike called by the Hurriyat on the eve of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s visit to the Valley was near total in Srinagar and Kupwara.
The assassination hardened stances all around. Even leaders and groups which had earlier welcomed the PM’s visit supported the strike. In the end, there were two reasons why his three-day sojourn proceeded along lines very different from what had been envisaged. First, the stepped-up hostilities against Pakistan in the aftermath of the Kaluchak incident and second, Lone’s death.
The Centre’s gameplan, sources say, had been to coincide the PM’s visit with the ‘coronation’ of Omar Abdullah as the new face of the National Conference in J&K, and the simultaneous induction of his father, chief minister Farooq Abdullah, into the Union cabinet. At the same time, Vajpayee was to have announced an amnesty scheme, as well as assured the electorate of free and fair polls under President’s rule. The core of the Centre’s effort was to float a "third force" in the state by luring hardliners into the mainstream. The emergence of this force, it was believed, would render the elections a lot more credible than the previous one, by improving the turnout (less than 14 per cent in 1996). None expected the Hurriyat’s first rung to join the electoral process in a hurry, but the hope was the second rung might. Lone was a key element in this plan.
It could have been a historic moment for Vajpayee had the events in Srinagar gone according to New Delhi’s script. Ultimately, when he did announce his Kashmir package, it proved disappointing: it delivered economic sops but carried no semblance of a political initiative. For those looking for an assurance of a free and fair elections, the PM merely extended a guarantee but did not spell out its contours. Likewise, those who had hoped for offers of amnesty, clemency and rehabilitation must have also felt let down. Nor did he meet any hardline group in Srinagar and although he did extend an open invitation for talks in New Delhi, signalling that his policy of keeping a line open with separatists might continue, the balm desperately needed in the wake of Lone’s assassination was missing.
J&K Democratic Freedom Party’s Shabir Shah voiced his disappointment saying that New Delhi’s initiatives had come to nothing. At the same time, he left room open for hope, saying, "the death of Lone has been a setback. Let us hope it will be a temporary one. But it is up to the Centre to ensure that."
Conspiracy theories about Lone’s death abound, with people pointing out that only two sections stand to benefit—the extremists and the National Conference. Firebrand leader Mehbooba Mufti didn’t pull any punches, squarely blaming Farooq Abdullah. "Lone was made vulnerable. The state government is at fault for not providing adequate security," she said, adding, "Lone was a threat not only to the extremist groups but also to entrenched vested interests." The National Conference, she pointed out, had been repeatedly trying to stymie the possibility of hardliners in the Hurriyat joining the mainstream, openly arguing that those responsible for the death of 80,000 people in the name of freedom hardly had moral authority to seek votes. "The PM asked if we would like to participate in the elections. My response was that we would, but only if it was an election and not a selection."
The assassination of Lone has come when Kashmir is passing through a crucial phase in its political history. His murder has come as a severe jolt to those who favour a peaceful settlement, driving a wedge between them and the hardliners. Indeed, the bullet that killed Lone was aimed at the heart of the tenuous process of enlarging the participatory base for the coming elections in J&K. Senior government officials say there was an exploratory process under way to get at least a section of the Hurriyat to endorse the election process. This was considered imperative to impart credibility to this process and negate the popular perception that the election in the state is tailored to suit the interests of the National Conference.
Lone was considered crucial to this minuet. As pragmatic as any mainstream politician, he could sense the dramatic change in the situation post September 11. Pointing to his age (70 years old), an official succinctly put it: "Lone knew this election was his last best chance to make good, to get something for Kashmiris." Official sources say Lone "had sought minimum guarantees so that a political atmosphere could be created to convince people that dialogue with Kashmiris would be initiated, consequently convincing hardliners to moderate their stance".
Lone’s last comments before he was slain couldn’t have been more explicit about his intent: "Election mein ladna koi kufer kaam nahin hai (Fighting elections is not blasphemous)." Lone clarified that he would not be contesting the election, suggesting at the same time that he wasn’t opposed to elections per se.
His brutal removal from the Kashmiri political matrix is an ugly reminder that Pakistan effectively controls the ground, even after the September 11-induced war on terrorism, after the December 13 attack on Parliament and Pervez Musharraf’s January 12 speech in which he condemned terrorism. Between June 1, 2001, and April 30 this year, 2,300 militants have been killed in the state. Yet, intelligence agencies estimate that 3,500 militants are still inside Jammu and Kashmir, 1,600 of whom are "foreigners" (from PoK as well as Pakistan). Add to this the infiltration in progress, with 20 active launching pads mushrooming along the LoC.
Says a government source: "Things have actually turned worse and western reports that the ISI is now kinder and gentler have proved to be vastly exaggerated. If anything, the ISI is more focused than ever on Kashmir." Officials bolster their argument by citing the instance of ISI chief Ehsan-ul-Haq visiting Dubai last month to disabuse Lone and the Mirwaiz of the notion of dabbling in electoral politics, covertly or otherwise. This testifies to the priority Pakistan attaches to thwarting New Delhi’s intention of conducting an election more credible than that of 1996.
Officials say the venue and occasion for killing Lone was aimed at sending a distinct message. In choosing to assassinate Lone on the 12th death anniversary of Mirwaiz Umer Farooq’s father, whom the Hizbul Mujahideen had gunned down the same day in 1990, they were telling the Mirwaiz to mull over the ramifications of participating in the electoral process. Says the source: "They wanted to take out the brains of the alternative emerging within the Hurriyat."
Pakistan’s objective, according to government sources, is to pursue the "policy of intimidation and elimination" and ensure that the participatory base for the forthcoming elections isn’t wide. These officials predict more political killings in the coming months, candidly admitting that Lone’s murder is a "huge setback".
But what’s surprising is that the government hadn’t provided additional security to Lone on whom it was banking to navigate the dangerous waters in Kashmir. That his security wasn’t augmented even after he was roughed up by Shiv Sena goons in the presence of his security guards, who watched indulgently, is shocking.
Lone’s death now allows pro-Pakistan leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, advocate of a jehadi solution, to tighten his hold over the Hurriyat. With elections to the chairman’s post due in July, Geelani will either steer himself to the post or sponsor a protege to it.
Officials believe it’s only a matter of time before the Hurriyat issues a general call for boycott of the elections. Under Geelani’s stranglehold the chances of a split in the Hurriyat have also receded. Says a senior official: "Now second-rung leaders, ex-militants, mainstream parties, all contemplating on the best way to get into the election mode, have been severely jolted." Adds a senior home ministry official: "The third front option has evaporated. No one will dare raise his head now. They will, in fact, be afraid to come to Delhi for talks."
Lone’s death has also resulted in the mercy killing of the K.C. Pant initiative which was supposed to breathe a new political life into the National Conference-dominated politics in the state. His initiative hasn’t taken off, the separatists remain on the other side of the political divide and, now, polls are around the corner. There’s little that can be organised in the next four months to make this much-needed political initiative credible.
Bhavdeep Kang and Zafar Meraj in Srinagar, and V. Sudarshan in New Delhi