The table waits

Though militant groups in Kashmir have rejected the unilateral ceasefire announced by Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee as a conspiracy to "sabotage the movement", the 11-year-old armed struggle in the state may gradually be heading to the "negotiating table". The second in less than six months, the cease-fire signals the mounting pressure for a negotiated settlement on Kashmir.

The first ceasefire, announced by the guerrilla outfit, Hizbul Mujahideen, last July was short-lived, despite the Indian govern-ment's positive response of ceasing military operations; it failed because of Hizb's insis-tence on including Pakistan in the proposed talks. Interestingly, this time around the Hizbul Mujahideen has neither rejected nor accepted the ceasefire explicitly. On the other hand, militant organisations like the pan-Islamic Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Al Badr, the Harka-tul Mujahideen (HuM) and the Jaish-e-Moham-mad (JeM) of Moulana Masood Azhar (who was freed in exchange for the hijacked Indian Airlines plane), have intensified their attacks on Indian security forces. On 25 December, the JeM exploded a car bomb right outside the army headquarters in Srinagar.

Such activities may well be directed to-wards isolating the Hizbul Mujahideen. But this gambit may not fetch the desired dividend if the popular mood favours peace. And there is some evidence that the popular mood has made some difference. For instance, the separatist camp headed by the 23-party
forum—the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC)—which had dismissed the July cease-fire as a "step in haste", has been compelled by the overwhelming popular response to the Vajpayee peace initiative to accept it as a "positive change in the thinking of Indian leadership". That the Hurriyat's stance has the tacit support of Islamabad only reinforces the point.

Complementary developments at other levels have provided further momentum for peace. With Pakistan observing "maximum restraint" and pulling out troops from the line of control, the Hurriyat Conference has formally announced its intention of sending a delega-tion to Pakistan for parleys with militant leaders and the political establishment. Hurriyat's talks with the militants could be significant for the peace process, particularly if it succeeds in convincing the United Jehad Council (UJC) on the agenda for talks with India. Further, the proposed meeting of militant commanders in Saudi Arabia, for which the Hizb chief, Syed Salahuddin has already reached there, could push the process in a positive direction, given that the Hizbul Mujahideen's Commander-in-Chief (operations), Abdul Majeed Dar, has welcomed both the Indian and Pakistani initiatives.

Despite these optimistic trends, the pitch can still be queered. Precisely because the separatists want to go ahead with the initiative irrespective of what the militants think of it, differences have surfaced within the APHC. The hardliners, led by Jamat-e-Islami leader and former Hurriyat chairman Syed Ali Geelani, are adamant that India should first accept Kashmir as a dispute before tripartite talks among India, Pakistan and Kashmiris begin. The majority, moderate group is inclined towards bilateral talks with the Indian govern-ment first before involving Pakistan at a later stage. This faultline now divides the pro-Pakistan and pro-independence parties in the Hurriyat.

Senior Hurriyat leader, Abdul Gani Lone, while in Pakistan in connection with his son's marriage, opposed the presence of foreign militants on Kashmir soil, and spoke of "no freedom except that of religion" for those living in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. This certainly deepened the crisis within the Hurriyat, and was seen as an "achievement" for New Delhi. Apart from letting Lone visit Pakistan, the Indian government had also permitted two other Hurriyat leaders, Moulvi Abbas Ansari and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, to attend the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) conference in Doha last November.

These decisions are seen as a prelude to a long-term game the Indian government seems to be interested in vis-a-vis Kashmir. Observers in Srinagar see the ceasefire initiative as a "big risk" for the Vajpayee establishment as it has enabled the militants, particularly pan-Islamic outfits, to re-organise themselves in Kashmir Valley, without any significant reduction in civilian and military casualties.

To complicate matters, the Farooq Abdullah government in Jammu and Kashmir has played its card by announcing Panchayat elections in the state starting 15 January. The timing of the announcement, at a time when "serious" efforts are on to find a solution, suggest deeper motivations. It is believed that the central government's bid to arrive at a settlement with separatists has accentuated Farooq Abdullah's fears of a possible change of guard in Kashmir, engineered from New Delhi. The Panchayat election could be detrimental to the peace process if the militants train their guns on the candidates at a time when the ceasefire is still in place.

Nevertheless, if the Indian government allows the Hurriyat leaders to visit Pakistan to meet the Chief Executive General Pervez Musharraf and the militant leaders, a new chapter on Kashmir will be opened. This exercise will be reminiscent of the 1964 trip of late Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, who was sent by prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to talk to Field Marshal Ayub Khan.

The days to come are politically crucial for Kashmir, but much will depend on the mili-tants' conduct. If the Hurriyat leaders succeed in convincing the Pakistani establishment, it will have an impact on the leaders of those militant organisations over whom Islamabad has influence. Significantly, the Hurriyat Conference has already established contact with LeT chief, Hafiz Mohammad Sayeed and Hizb supremo, Syed Salahuddin, in Pakistan. If this momentum is sustained, a direct dialogue between New Delhi and the Hurriyat leaders is a possibility. This will not only give the latter recognition, but will also define their role in deciding an issue that has hung in balance 50 years too long.

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