February 14, 2020
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The road less travelled

Recent militant attacks and a hardening of stances may prove fatal for a peace in infancy

The road less travelled
It doesn't take too many people to spoil a party. And if the party concerns Kashmir, the problem is doubly compounded. A week before the expiry of the ceasefire deadline on January 26 and amid uncertainty about the Hurriyat's Pakistan visit, it appeared that peace could well continue to tread an uncharted course.

So, even while New Delhi dithered about who from the Hurriyat would be 'allowed' to go to Pakistan and Gen Musharraf said he was willing to hold talks with India anywhere, the spanner in the works was thrown mainly by two militant groups, the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the newly-formed Jaish-e-Mohammed. Both Pakistan-based groups have proved their ability to carry out fatal attacks on Indian security positions and are not unduly impressed with Delhi's unilateral offer of a ceasefire. And that can only be ominous.

Also, the Hizbul chief Syed Salahuddin has echoed the Lashkar's threat that the militants wouldn't hesitate to strike at targets outside Kashmir (see interview). According to officials, while the overall violence has gone down during the ceasefire, attacks on security forces have increased. The Lashkar has carried out 30 suicide attacks during the ceasefire and around 55 securitymen were killed and over 250 injured, while the ratio of militants killed during the ceasefire has gone down by 60 per cent as compared to earlier. Not surprisingly, the security forces are under pressure from the fidayeen's tactics.

The next problem: who in the Hurriyat will go to Pakistan? While the mea has issued passports to three of the five-member team selected by the Hurriyat general body, there's clearly a difference of perception. Well-placed sources in Delhi say while the pmo—in effect principal secretary Brajesh Mishra—isn't averse to issuing papers for all those who want to go, home minister L.K. Advani thinks otherwise. "The Hurriyat can't dictate to us," he said at an official meeting, "on who will go to Islamabad." The man whose passport has become a bone of contention is senior leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, an avowedly pro-Islamabad man. Geelani, who's in his late '60s, and often needs to consult doctors, told Outlook that he was hopeful the trip would materialise. Publicly, Hurriyat leaders say the violence generated by extremist groups should not come in the way of peace. Says Hurriyat chief Prof Abdul Ghani Bhat, "Let's march ahead and not be deterred by whatever happens around. The roar of the guns won't stop unless the mujahideen accept the ceasefire. We've to go ahead with the process despite these hurdles. That is why we want to go to Pakistan. We expect Delhi to issue passports to all Hurriyat leaders and not create hurdles in the peace process."

Bhat is also confident that at the end of the day Geelani would be issued a passport, because according to him, if it doesn't happen, Delhi will go against the mandate provided by Hurriyat's executive. The pmo seems to be taking a similar line. According to it, there's no harm in Geelani going to Pakistan because if anything were to go wrong, at least the entire Hurriyat would take the responsibility. As for Geelani making anti-India statements in Pakistan, there is nothing he may say in Islamabad that has not already said in Srinagar. But almost daily attacks on Indian positions not just in Kashmir but elsewhere in the country has led to hardening of positions with not just Advani but even PM Atal Behari Vajpayee demanding that Pakistan rein in the militant groups.

In New Delhi, Kashmir started off as

a home ministry baby—witness the efforts to rope in the Hizbul by the Intelligence Bureau (IB), represented at the early forays by home secretary Kamal Pande—but had gone into the hands of the pmo. Observers say the appointment of K.S. Dullat, former raw chief as the main theorist on Kashmir affairs in the pmo with direct access to Brajesh Mishra, is a pointer in that direction. Unlike the usual chair-bound bureaucrat, Dullat is an experienced hand in the Valley, with personal contacts with individuals and groups and has travelled extensively through the state.

But Advani has of late been upping his ante. Then, there's the Farooq factor. The CM's views are regarded as being close to Advani, and he, for the first time in Kashmir's recent history, has little or no role to play in the Indo-Pak-Hurriyat triumvirate. Observers in Srinagar say Farooq isn't happy with the peace process and is trying to scuttle it. Holding panchayat polls when Vajpayee is serious about peace is cited as an example. The polls, they say, are being held against the wishes of security forces.

While there's little doubt that the common man has had enough of violence and the ceasefire move is seen as the first serious effort in years, given the roadblocks and past conduct, there's pessimism about its outcome. To bring back a semblance of normalcy in a cynical, war-torn state clearly takes a herculean effort. The point is: do all concerned parties in the conflict have what it takes to promote that peace?
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