February 16, 2020
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The Paralysis of Peace

In the 10 weeks since Vajpayee extended the ceasefire in November, Delhi hasn't moved a single tiny step towards a dialogue with the Hurriyat.

The Paralysis of Peace
Nine months ago, the Vajpayee government released the leaders of the Hurriyat Conference who'd been incarcerated for months on the flimsiest of pretexts, and announced that it would soon begin talks with them to find a solution to the Kashmir problem. This set off a chain reaction of political developments that brought the first hope of genuine peace to Kashmir in over a decade. The first of these developments occurred two months later when the Hizbul Mujahideen announced a unilateral ceasefire. This sent a wave of optimism sweeping through the Valley. But that did not last beyond August 8, when the Islamabad-based Hizbul chief, Syed Salahuddin, ended the ceasefire. Despite that, its memory lingered in Kashmir, so that when Vajpayee announced another ceasefire on November 18, the longing for peace flared up once more and swept the Hurriyat into its embrace.

But in the 10 weeks that have elapsed since then, Delhi has done absolutely nothing to start a political dialogue that'll take the peace process forward. It may have had some excuse for not doing so with Pakistan, for Islamabad has not, at least so far, shown any interest in curbing the jehadi attacks in Kashmir. But Delhi has also not moved a single tiny step towards opening a dialogue with the Hurriyat. And that is utterly inexcusable. For, the prospect of negotiations with Delhi and Islamabad laid bare the differences between pro-Kashmiriyat and pro-Pakistan forces in the state, set off a new round of killings by forces opposed to peace, and put the lives of several of the Hurriyat leaders and other former Kashmiri militants in danger.

The threat to Hurriyat leaders has arisen out of the huge Kashmiri response to Vajpayee's ceasefire. This had its impact not only on the Hurriyat but also the Kashmir-based Hizbul. In the Hurriyat, Sheikh Abdul Aziz and Abdul Ghani Bhat, two executive council members who'd previously been markedly pro-Pakistan, adopted a neutral stance. This left Ali Shah Geelani the lone champion of Pakistan. As for the Kashmir-based Hizbul, in an interview with the Washington-based Stimson Center, Abdul Majid Dar not only called on jehadis to halt attacks so as to give peace a chance, but also urged Kashmiri militants to take part in an election in Kashmir, provided it was demonstrably free and fair.

There was thus a perceptible closing of ranks by all Kashmiri militant groups around the goal of settling the Kashmir dispute through negotiation. But there can be no negotiated settlement without compromise. The hawks in Pakistan therefore saw that a settlement would only be possible if it was prepared to give up its claim to all of Kashmir, and if the Hurriyat respected India's need to safeguard its own federalism. Since at present almost no one in the Pakistani military and political establishment is prepared, even tacitly, to accept either of these constraints, the positive Kashmiri response to the ceasefire has led to frenzied attempts by the jehadis to force India to call it off. These attempts have not been confined to attacking Indian security forces. By J&K government estimates, three times as many National Conference (NC) cadres, surrendered militants and other civilians were killed in the first two months of the ceasefire than in the previous two months.

Once the rift between the pro-Kashmiriyat and pro-Pakistani leaders in the Hurriyat surfaced, it was inevitable that an attempt would be made to intimidate the former. Lone was the first to be publicly threatened, but the first attempt on the life of a prominent Hurriyat member occurred on January 9, when two youths tried to kill Mirwaiz Umer Farooq's lieutenant and former Hizbullah guerrilla Shahid-ul-Islam. As a well-known militant but not a member of the Hurriyat council, he was a perfect choice. Only quick thinking and luck saved his life. This was soon followed by a threat to Hurriyat chief Bhat, which came while the Hurriyat council was in session to decide on the composition of a delegation to Pakistan. Bhat was told on the phone to 'go along with what Geelani says' or 'we'll do a lot worse to you than we did to Shahid-ul-Islam'. Bhat was shaken but went ahead with the announcement of the delegation. Since then Javed Mir has left his house; Lone is under constant police protection, and the Mirwaiz has beefed up his personal security.

Hawks in Pakistan may not be the only ones trying to scuttle the possibility of peace. More and more Kashmiris, including many committed to the Indian union, are beginning to wonder whether Farooq Abdullah may not be among them. The reason is the alarming number of custodial killings, by the J&K police's task force, in recent weeks. At least four such killings—of a forest department driver named Bilal, two former militants named Mushtaq and Shaukat, and another person also named Bilal—preceded the public demonstrations that culminated in the attack on Sikhs last week. These may have been triggered by the murder of a large number of NC members, but the brazenness of the killings has raised darker spectres.

The longer Delhi leaves Kashmir in a limbo, the more frenzied will the attempts become to abort Vajpayee's initiative. But Delhi will remain in the grip of paralysis if Vajpayee is unable to impose his writ on the home ministry. From Advani's announcement last May that talks would be held only within the Indian constitution, to his declaration last month that only some Hurriyat leaders would be given passports, it's been apparent that the home ministry has been ploughing a different furrow. The latter's fears may not be unfounded. But what Advani needs to appreciate is that leaving the process that Vajpayee began half-finished would be the worst of all options. For it would profoundly disappoint the Kashmiris, embolden the jehadis, and force the pro-Kashmiriyat elements to run for cover. India, and of course, the Kashmiris would emerge the losers.
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