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The Breaking of the Winter Chill

Hope gets an extension, but hardliners within the Hurriyat—and the BJP—might not be stalled for long

The Breaking of the Winter Chill
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553
Hopes for peace in Jammu and Kashmir won a reprieve last week when Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee moved decisively to extend the peace initiative by another month. The extension came after obituaries about the initiative had begun to appear in the press and hardliners in the government and the Sangh began to consolidate against the process. But in the end, it took Vajpayee just two minutes to extend the ceasefire for the third time.

When it met on Tuesday, the Cabinet Committee of Security Affairs (ccsa) went through the usual presentations on the ground situation in the Valley. But the outcome was, in many ways, prejudged because of Vajpayee's keenness on the peace initiative. This was clear from one fact: last week's review of the ceasefire was actually due after the Republic Day—as Vajpayee had told Parliament on December 20. The exercise was advanced because of the feeling gaining ground in some sections of the government—and being voiced with increasing assertiveness—that the peace process ought to be abandoned. This bent of opinion drew its logic from many factors. One, the problem of whether or not to grant passports to the members of the team the Hurriyat had chosen for visiting Pakistan. Then, the spurt in fidayeen violence in the Valley (see chart) post-ceasefire and the resultant anxiety among bjp hardliners over New Delhi's perceived mollycoddling of the Hurriyat.

Why the rethink?

It was home minister L.K. Advani who openly opposed the issuing of passports to all the Hurriyat leaders. Hardliners in the bjp exploited the militant groups' intransigence and Pakistan's refusal to rein in the jehadi groups to launch a campaign against the peace initiative. Equally miffed was J&K chief minister Farooq Abdullah, who, upbeat by the large turnout in the panchayat elections, started to talk privately about aborting the ceasefire. Media reports suggested that the peace process was now yielding diminishing returns, that the ceasefire would no longer apply to the Lashkar and Jaish, that the government might extend the ceasefire by two weeks and then play it by the ear.

Some of these apprehensions were aired at the ccsa meeting. Those in favour of an extension cited the high turnout in the panchayat polls. They said the militancy hadn't yet spiralled out of control, and moderate voices in the Hurriyat were still being heard, though they hadn't yet distanced themselves from fidayeen violence. In totality, they insisted, certain gains were visible. The PM heard it all, including the important point that militant infiltration has doubled since July, and then declared the ceasefire ought to be extended.

Is it vital for Hurriyat to visit Pakistan?

Ultimately, it was the Hurriyat which rendered it possible for the government to persist with the peace initiative. At the January 20 meeting of its executive, the moderates, including Abdul Gani Lone, thought the Hurriyat should look at the entire gamut of issues instead of only harping on issuance of passports. The hardliners disagreed, but it was ultimately decided to issue a moderate statement encapsulating four points—that the ceasefire was a positive step; that it would become more meaningful if the Hurriyat team went to Pakistan; that hardliners in the government wanted to exploit the passport issue to scuttle the process; and that the Hurriyat wasn't adamant on passports because their ultimate goal is the peace process itself and not passports.

With the extension, the peace process has now entered a delicate stage. The government feels any progress "will be slow". This is understandable because both sides will want to discuss what the process holds out for the other before a dialogue with the Hurriyat is initiated formally. "For the moment," says a government source, "the passport issue is in cold storage". What is heartening is that none of the three parties—India, Pakistan or the Hurriyat—has said it is opposed to holding a dialogue on Kashmir. In fact, Pakistan high commissioner Ashraf Jehangir Qazi apparently told Syed Ali Shah Geelani a fortnight ago that he should back off and not vitiate the moves for peace.

The moot question is: can the process go forward without the Hurriyat travelling to Pakistan?

The government feels the peace process has three distinct threads—the ceasefire extension, the Hurriyat passport issue, and dialogue with Pakistan—that have to be viewed separately. Says a senior government official, "No one in the government thinks we need the Hurriyat to start the Indo-Pak process. That is a separate matter." The challenge before the government is the manner in which it can counter Pakistan and the Hurriyat's emphasis on tripartite talks. That's precisely why the passports became such an issue. As one official explains, "The Hurriyat said talks with Pakistan would come before talks with India. The passport issue is intricately linked to it."

In fact, the Ministry of External Affairs (mea) introduced a new wrinkle into the passport issue by suddenly objecting to the Hurriyat's proposed trip to Pakistan a fortnight ago. It wrote to the pmo saying Pakistan had never been a factor in Delhi's sovereign dealings with Kashmir and that the Hurriyat's trip would legitimise its role as the sole representative of Kashmiris. The mea felt this would complicate the already complex composite dialogue structure with Pakistan. The mea's belated objection testifies to an element of ad hocism in the way the government has been grappling with the peace process, with its various wings working at crosspurposes. Ironically, foreign minister Jaswant Singh has been publicly maintaining that the issuance of passports is strictly the home ministry's prerogative. The passport issue might not seem so piquant now as the Hurriyat has decided to not insist on it for now.

What's in it for Pakistan?

Many feel Delhi's peace initiative, and Islamabad's response to it, is aimed at winning international (read US) support. With George Bush yet to put together his South Asia team, it is felt that the recent overtures of the two countries are aimed at influencing Washington's future policy. So Delhi will be keen to demonstrate its reasonable approach to Kashmir and Pakistan will try to show that its neighbour is not prepared to break new grounds politically.

The US has made it clear off and on that it favours the resumption of the Lahore process. Last week's remark from the US state department that Pakistan has influence over the militancy in Kashmir and should control it is a mere reiteration of the earlier policy. Also, implicit in Clinton's enunciation of four Rs—Restraint, Reduction of Violence, Respect for the LoC, and Renewal of lines of communication—is a fifth R: Return to the Lahore process. New Delhi, Islamabad and those in Srinagar are quite aware of this pressure from Washington.

What next?

There is a feeling that the current extension may finally set the stage for a dialogue between the Hurriyat and New Delhi. In fact, while only intermediaries have been used so far, some Hurriyat leaders were travelling to Delhi over the weekend. But there's not much time at hand. The snow starts melting in the upper reaches north of the Pir Panjal in April, facilitating infiltration. With the LoC quiet, it is now possible for Pakistan to put in place new launching points. The peace initiative, indeed, would be threatened were it drag on till April. And there is little to suggest that a political breakthrough could come about before then. It's a perilous balance.
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