June 17, 2021
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The Heart Of The Matter

India wants Kashmir militancy ended; Pakistan fears the triumph of the status quo that would follow if it did. Neither India nor Pakistan are likely to get what they want.
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The Heart Of The Matter
Map by Jai; Collage by Anil Ahuja; Photographs: AP, T. Narayan
The Heart Of The Matter
When is a militancy not a militancy?  When militants stop fighting.  Right now, militancy in Kashmir continues, even if the diplomatic canvas against which it is waged has changed beyond recognition.  General Musharraf's long - and bold - speech to the people of Pakistan on 12 January promises a fresh direction in both Pakistani domestic and foreign policy.  It remains to be seen if, institutionally, Pakistan can deliver on its President's pledges.  That the Americans have welcomed what he had to say encouraged the Indian government to follow suit.  Today New Delhi is facing a dilemma - it has to accept Musharraf's statement at face value, without really knowing what he means when it comes to militancy in Srinagar, unlike attacks in Delhi.

On Kashmir, change is underway.  The Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad are history, although both hope to continue their activities.   In the case of the Lashkar, it will probably manage to continue its campaign, but without the degree of external backing it has come to rely upon. And few Valley Kashmiris, even of a militant disposition, will want to join an organisation gradually starved of money and weapons.  Despite this, the Lashkar should not be underestimated.  It has a constituency in the Punjab, replete with economic assets, and enjoys political support in influential Islamabad quarters. It also plans to take careful issue with American and Pakistani steps taken against it.  (A statement issued a few days back by Hafiz Muhammad Saeed makes interesting reading - it takes great pains to argue that the Lashkar neither target Americans nor seek to engage in 'hostage taking, hijacking or kidnapping.')  Reducing its scope to Kashmir alone is not an option; the LeT remains, in its heart, a Punjabi organisation.  The Jaish-e-Muhammad, on the other hand, was largely invented around Masood Azhar.   As with all manufactured goods, it can be dissembled.

Crucially, the Hizbul Mujahadeen remains.  In 1991, it took on the mantle of militancy from the JKLF, but retained a Valley-flavour.  Most of its recruits, fighters, supporters were Kashmiri then.  As the armed wing of the Jamaat-i-Islami, the Hizb drew from Kashmiri roots.  Many of its fighters remain Kashmiri today.  Will they, or won't they, retain covert backing from across the Line of Control?  Can New Delhi persuade Washington DC that Syed Salahuddin is as dangerous a terrorist foe as, say, Richard Reeves or Ahmed Sheikh?  Can Vajpayee accuse Musharraf of a proxy-war if the proxies hail from the Valley, speak Kashmiri, and need to cross no LoC to launch their operations?  With no dead Afghans to parade in Badami Bagh, India will be hard pressed to make connections between Hizb militants and their radical Talibanised cousins.

From a distant perspective in London, it is unclear which way Pakistan will go.  Militant groups are being encouraged to lie low for the time being, at least until this present crisis is past.  Concrete action is being taken in Pakistan against the Lashkar and Jaish, but other groups are waiting, perhaps nervously, in Muzaffarabad to see whether this crackdown is infectious.  Several leaders have been given private reassurances from senior members of the Pakistani military.  Statements immediately prior to Musharraf's speech from Salim Hashmi, the Hizb media spokesman, suggest that they have been worried about possible winds of change.  No clear outcome beckons.

Viewed in such a context, India is in a quandry.  Either it presses its demands further, hoping that demands for the extradition of 20 names will translate into its actual policy objective: an end to support for militants from Pakistan.  To do so India would have to threaten war for months.  It may be the autumn before the fruits of Musharraf's commitments take shape, and the shape they take depends on what commitments you think he has made. He chose his language with great care when he delivered his broadcast.  He attacked sectarianism and terrorism, but did not identify the Kashmir militancy with either.  He condemned terrorism and the murders of innocents, but not the campaign that Kashmiri militant groups operate against Indian security forces.

What does India do?  To remain poised in attack mode will be expensive, particularly if drawn out over months.  It will damage India's economy. It could impact negatively on the BJP's coming election campaign in UP.  And the Americans will be irritated if a heightened state of Indian mobilisation, with inevitable counter-mobilisation in Pakistan, threatens further incidents along the international border or Line of Control in Kashmir.  What if another plane is brought down by one side or the other? What if militants, unprompted by Pakistan, make mischief in Delhi or Mumbai?

Whether it wants to or not, New Delhi has to take Musharraf's commitment on trust.  His speech deserves careful attention, in particular to the language he used.  Kashmir was not mentioned in substance for over 40 minutes.  But when it came, the diplomatic language remains the same - the Pakistani position on Kashmir continues as before.  (The drama is in the strategy: will militancy play a part, or not?).

It appears unlikely that Musharraf will give up on militancy.  To terminate all the groups would give, in his view, India too much for too little. After all, if you were in his position would you offer up all your cards at once?  The Hizb is likely to survive, at least for the year to come.  There could be renewed attempts by the Indian government to lure it into talks; but once bitten, twice shy.  Few militant leaders want to end up like Majid Dar; marginalised and with no visible political gains to show for it.

Other, more curious suggestions have been circulating.  It has been eight years since the JKLF was fighting India in Kashmir.  When Yasin Malik ended their armed campaign in 1994, few expected the pro-independence militants to surface again.  But a cease-fire is (but) a cease-fire, and Amanullah Khan's smaller, and largely Pakistan-based faction of the JKLF refused to follow suit.  He claimed several years ago that he continued to have armed supporters willing to fight in Kashmir.  This might well be more bluster than fact, but the potential for a revival of pro-independence militant group remains.  It would be difficult for India to portray pro-independence militants as Islamists, even if they were all Muslim.  It would be equally difficult for India to accuse Pakistan of fostering them, if all the militants were Kashmiri and equally committed to dislodging Pakistan from towns like Muzaffarabad.  Who knows, they might get support from unlikely quarters.  Enough disaffected ex-militants are seeking gainful employment in Muzaffarabad.  While interesting to examine, this prime example of Kashmir-linked conspiracy theory lacks legs.  Why would the JKLF throw away the benefits of being a political organisation by grasping once more for the gun?  How could another group claim a similar constituency to that of the JKLF?  And would Pakistan really want to nourish the nationalists that live closer to home in Mirpur and Muzaffarabad?

Efforts to curb Islamist militants in Pakistan are likely to bear fruit. Pakistan cannot, and will not, allow Afghan and Arab fighters to pursue their objectives in Kashmir.  But Kashmiri militants - and the Kashmir militancy - is another thing altogether.  India wants it ended; Pakistan fears the triumph of the status quo that would follow if it did.  Neither India nor Pakistan are likely to get what they want.  New Delhi has had a good run this past month.  It has translated, with relative ease, a terrible incident of terrorism into a rallying call for diplomatic action. Vajpayee has slipped into a George Bush suit, and found it remarkably comfortable. But it is not the total victory that more hawkish BJP strategists seek.  The Lashkar and the Jaish have been sacrificed by Islamabad, but as for the Hizb, only time will tell.  And India's moment of opportunity is running out with each passing day.

Pakistan has lost out too.  Musharraf would probably have taken action against Lashkar and Jaish within months; their actions during the first stages of the US action in Afghanistan guaranteed as much.  But instead of Musharraf gathering international praise for steps taken - yet continuing with the Hizb - the timing and scale of his moves since December have been dictated by Delhi (with a little help from its American friends).   What India has managed to do is damage the Kashmir militancy in an enduring fashion, at least on the international stage.  Militants with beards and guns fighting in Kashmir will be seen as terrorists by many, regardless of what they target or on what grounds they wage their war.   Their immediate utility past, Pakistan could choose in the months ahead to end it completely (bar a radical and disinherited fringe that will persist for several years more).

Ironically, an end to militancy - or at least a lingering decline - would only return Kashmir to 1988.  For sure, a generation has passed (many culled when Kashmiri separatism clashed with assertive Indian sovereignty).  But times don't change as quickly as blustering commentators would like. Normalcy, a vapid concept at the best of times, lacks meaning if it means business as usual. A serious process of engagement needs to begin with Kashmiris, including elements within the APHC, dispossessed Kashmiri Pandits, and important regions like Jammu and Ladakh.  Farooq Abdullah and the National Conference have a significant role to play.  After all, a reduction in militancy is not a solution to the Kashmir problem.  Relations with Pakistan have to improve, sooner or later.   If most Pakistanis - and successive governments in Pakistan (civilian or military) - actively oppose the status quo in Kashmir, militancy could return.  Hizb are at the heart of the Kashmir question.  Not because they are widely representative (they aren't even in the Valley).  Not because they have received support from within Pakistan.  But because the choices Hizb leaders make; whether to fight on, talk or settle - will determine much in the unsettled months ahead. Meanwhile, Vajpayee and his colleagues have a few weeks in which to make hard decisions of their own.

(Alexander Evans is a London-based specialist on Kashmir)

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