March 31, 2020
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The Tenuous Line Of Peace

A durable peace initiative must involve all the players in Kashmir

The Tenuous Line Of Peace
It's now clear that Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's Ramazan peace initiative has massive support in the Valley and the people want the ceasefire to hold. But recent events have underlined the danger that the peace effort could get caught—and sabotaged—in the crossfire between hardline militant groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the security forces. The tense atmosphere has also fanned fears that the militants might strike at soft targets.

This perception in the Valley has goaded jklf leader Yasin Malik and other Hurriyat leaders to claim that sufficient groundwork hadn't preceded the flagging off of the Ramazan initiative. While Indian and Pakistani intellectuals exchanged notes and participated in seminars organised in Srinagar, no serious effort was undertaken to talk to the leaders of hardline militant groups based in PoK. This has created fears that the ceasefire might not hold for long. That's perhaps why Hurriyat leaders like Yasin Malik have been emphasising that a team of separatist leaders should be allowed to hold talks with militant leaders in Muzaffarabad (PoK) to convince them that the peace process is in the best interest of Kashmiris. Malik says this process should have been initiated before the ceasefire was announced. But it is still not too late, say Hurriyat leaders.

Their argument is that parleys for finding a political solution can only yield results in a peaceful atmosphere. And this isn't possible unless militants also agree to the ceasefire. While Hurriyat leader Abdul Ghani Lone did informally meet militant leaders when he was in Pakistan for his son's marriage, a formal effort needs Islamabad's support and endorsement. Strikes by militant groups opposed to the ceasefire were indeed expected. But now the army and other security agencies too are having second thoughts about being in the defensive mode. And except for the first day of the ceasefire, guns haven't fallen silent in the Valley.

The army feels the traditional notion of ceasefire—firing only to quell attacks—is difficult to uphold unless the militants too scale down hostilities. This problem is compounded by the fact that groups like the Lashkar, which has managed to induct locals, has also considerably increased its reach in the Valley in the last few months. Points out a senior army officer of the 15 Corps: "It's difficult to go totally on the defensive when ieds (improvised explosive devices) continue to be planted. In fact, we are on a very high alert ever since the ceasefire came into effect. Similarly, search operations have to be conducted when we have intelligence inputs that militants are hiding in a particular area. If we don't do this, then we would be sitting ducks."

The northern border district of Kupwara is where the militants have been particularly active. In Keegam, Cherkot and other adjacent villages in the district, the army resorted to actions it had promised to refrain from during the ceasefire. Checking vehicles and frisking passengers have been renewed. In some areas, the army's road opening parties (rops) have again begun to use innocent civilians as human shields to check for landmines. Also, the security forces have commandeered two private buses—JKC 506 and JK01-2069—for operational purposes. When the ceasefire was announced, the government had made it clear that no search operations and raids would be conducted during Ramazan. Yet, three persons were arrested from Chambpora village.

Some other incidents have also contributed to the existing tension in the Valley.For instance, security forces averted a major tragedy when they detected an ied in the high-security Tourist Reception Centre (trc) in Srinagar. The two-kg ied, tied to a grenade and planted in a tiffin box, had been placed in a bathroom of the complex. The news spread panic among the employees of All India Radio and Doordarshan Kendra, Srinagar, who have been quartered at the trc ever since militancy rocked the Valley.

New Delhi isn't playing up such incidents because the bjp leadership feels that Vajpayee has engineered a public relations coup by offering the olive branch. Says a home ministry official, "There has been intense US pressure to come up with some sort of a Kashmir package and create the climate to resume talks with Pakistan. Why shouldn't the bjp leaders, who are smart politicians, make a virtue out of a necessity?" The so-called Vajpayee initiative has the complete backing of home minister L.K. Advani. The ceasefire offer had been discussed in the Cabinet Committee for Security, where Farooq Abdullah was a special invitee. It was Advani who, as minister for Kashmir affairs, thought it was an appropriate time to explore such an initiative as the high passes—which militants use to infiltrate into India—are snow-bound. And this time around, the prime minister has authorised Advani to make statements on Kashmir and explain the initiative to the party cadre. It certainly is a useful image-building opportunity for the home minister. It's also part of a deliberate strategy, typical of the party high command, to send slightly conflicting signals. For instance, the PM has been silent on the issue of tripartite talks. Advani, however, has ruled it out. He perceives peace talks with militants as being entirely different from holding bilateral talks with Pakistan. This has created an impression that there could be a subtle difference between the two leaders. But as a bjp strategist explains, "It's part of a deliberate strategy to present the PM as more liberal. But no one will ever agree to tripartite talks."

Amidst these political posturings, New Delhi tapped other sources to put pressure on Islamabad. The Shahi Imam of Delhi's Jama Masjid, Syed Ahmed Bukhari, dashed off a letter to Gen Pervez Musharraf on November 25, advising Pakistan's ceo to "listen to what Allah commands in the holy Quran: ‘If they should incline towards peace, incline thou also towards it and put thy trust in God. Surely it is He who is all-hearing, all-knowing'." A copy of the letter was simultaneously faxed to the pmo as well. It will be recalled that the Imam had earlier written to the Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin requesting him to initiate the peace process in Kashmir.

Even though the Imam is not pleased with the hasty manner in which Vajpayee announced the ceasefire offer, he has nevertheless welcomed the announcement. In his letter to Musharraf, the Shahi Imam has described the announcement as "a humane gesture by the Indian government" and has requested Musharraf to see reason and respond positively. "I most sincerely appeal to you to accept this gesture of peace made by the government of India and contribute positively to converting it into an opportunity to resolve the Kashmir tangle. I further urge you to use your good offices and resources to convince and prevail upon the concerned militant groups to accept and honour the ceasefire offer and come to the negotiation table."

The Imam says that he had spoken to Hurriyat leaders like Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Abdul Ghani Bhat, Fazal-ul-Haque Qureishi, Lone and also to Salahuddin.Just as he was planning to go to Srinagar to "assess the situation there", the PM announced the ceasefire. Says he, "The prime minister has done a foolish thing, he has made a mistake. Had I appealed on behalf of the Indian Muslims, it would have a different meaning altogether. The government has irked the militants and Pakistan." Sources say that just after it became clear that the Imam was holding parleys with Kashmiri leaders, the PM's emissary Sudheendra Kulkarni rushed to the Jama Masjid and had "a word" with him. Brajesh Mishra also met the Imam.

While Vajpayee has to be credited with having initiated such backroom moves,the government hasn't yet addressed the core issue—of ensuring that the various militant groups lay off arms and an atmosphere conducive to the political process is created. Sooner rather than later, leaders in Muzaffarabad will also have to be roped in. Until then, as many in the Valley fear, the peace process will be riddled with uncertainties.
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