A glossy hoarding board that advertises for Airtel, India’s fastest-growing telecom company, currently sits atop Srinagar’s Central Telegraph Office, in the busy commercial hub of Lal Chowk. To a great extent, it symbolises the paradox of change in Jammu & Kashmir. On 31 July 1988, Kashmiri militants bombed the Central Telegraph Office (CTO), heralding the start of armed resistance against the Indian military presence in J & K. Nearly everyone still traces the insurgency’s start to what is popularly known as the targhar, or telegraph, office blast. Today, despite a nearly four-year-old bonhomie between India and Pakistan, the CTO complex remains heavily guarded, its security precautions engulfing most of the road area.
The central targhar today houses the government telecommunications company, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL). In 2003, state police officers resorted to force to quell a frenzied crowd of mobile-phone-seekers near the CTO, after New Delhi belatedly allowed cellular service to start up in the state. Then- Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed termed the launch the “beginning of peaceful days”. Today, BSNL subscribers can be seen queuing up at the CTO building to pay their phone bills, and the combined revenue of BSNL and Airtel in J & K has grown from INR 600 million in 2003 to around INR 2 billion. Nonetheless, a vast spread of sandbags and barbed-wire coils remains around the CTO, and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) officers continue to point their automatic rifles at passers-by.
Such security measures can be seen dotting the length and breadth of the Kashmir Valley, as well as parts of Jammu, including Doda, Rajouri and Poonch. The latest attempt by the Indian Home Ministry to set up review panels to figure out how to trim the security presence in the area has not yielded results. Indeed, little has changed since a European Union delegation in 2004 memorably noted that “Kashmir is a beautiful prison.” Around 600,000 troops currently guard this prison. In addition there is the state’s own 65,000-strong police force and 25,000 of what are known as ‘special police officers’, who are generally taken from the ranks of former militants. There are also an estimated 3000-5000 pro-government, army-protected gunmen, officially known as ‘friendly militants’, as well as around 5000 gunmen engaged in various government-sponsored village defence committees.
Lieutenant General A S Sekhon commands the Indian Army’s 15 Corps, the largest counter-insurgency force in Kashmir. On 29 March of this year, Lt Gen Sekhon, although publicly pessimistic about Islamabad’s commitment to dismantle the militant infrastructure it supports, stated in Srinagar that infiltration from across the 740-km by 35-km Line of Control had effectively reached zero. But such statements have been made time and again over the years, and today checkposts as massively guarded as the Lal Chowk CTO are found throughout and deeply impact daily life throughout India-administered Kashmir (heretofore referred to as ‘Kashmir’, unless otherwise required). For instance, local legislators recently estimated that close to 80,000 students in the Kashmir Valley have to pass through heavy security barricades every day on their ways to and from school.
A few paces down from the Central Telegraph Office, a swanky, multi-storey mall is being built, exuding a perfect ‘metro’ look. Besides a business hotel, it will house branches of two international banks and will generally cater to fruit merchants and the Kashmiri executives of Indian pharmaceutical companies. Following the step-up of armed resistance in Kashmir back in the early 1990s, all the nationalised banks closed shop here, leaving the market wide open for the local J & K Bank, which has gone on to become one of India’s leading banks. While the arrival of the new international entries is being billed as a sign of returning normalcy, government statistics report that investment proposals worth INR 20 billion are currently gathering dust. In the meantime, despite being offered fat sops – incentives and a decade-long tax holiday – to set up shop in the Valley, major manufacturing companies have moved to the neighbouring yet relatively peaceful Jammu, Kashmir’s summer capital.
Along Srinagar’s fashionable Residency Road, one can find several other recently constructed high-rise structures, housing business centres and plush restaurants. The owners of these complexes have decided not to put up garish, backlit signboards, a practice that is otherwise widespread in more-peaceful areas. One leading businessman in Kashmir, Mansoor Ahmad, explains why he believes that erecting a backlit board is a waste of money in Srinagar: “What is the fun of having illumination when there is no movement during the nights?” Indeed, life here remains squeezed solely into the daylight hours. Even the bustling markets around Lal Chowk close down immediately at sunset.
Despite the lack of nightlife, tourists have continued to flock to Kashmir, providing a crucial injection of cash into the economy, with more than 700,000 tourists visiting Kashmir in 2005. Although a series of bomb attacks on tourists in 2006 affected this influx, police suspect the assaults were actually due to a rivalry between tour operators from Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh. With recorded daily killings in Kashmir now down to three, from 10 in the early 1990s, such prospects have looked set to brighten further.
Although Kashmir’s tourism department had been gearing up for a massive campaign to woo tourists in 2007, this plan was affected like so many others by the disclosure of police involvement in a series of ‘fake encounters’. In January and February, the bodies of five men, alleged by the police to have been foreign militants, were exhumed around the Ganderbal area in Srinagar district. Forensic testing subsequently found the men to have been civilians, allegedly murdered in staged gunfights by policemen for rewards and promotions. These dramatic findings triggered a mass movement, challenging the entire counter-insurgency process. The case went to the heart of an extremely sensitive issue for Kashmiris: according to Parveena Ahangar, the chairperson of the Srinagar-based Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), more than 8000 youths have disappeared in military custody since 1990.
The exhumations and subsequent uproar have also spawned a larger political movement that has brought together people of traditionally opposed points of view. While the ‘anti-India’ forces – including the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), a conglomerate of secessionist outfits – championed the cause of ending bloodshed by withdrawing troops from populated areas, elected ‘pro-India’ leaders espoused the same cause on the floor of the State Assembly. A loose consensus between these ideologically differing forces (including the pro-India National Conference, Congress party and People’s Democratic Party, as well as the APHC, the J & K Liberation Front and others) is continuing to evolve around the demilitarisation issue. These forces differ on the interpretation of demilitarisation, however, an idea that was originally floated by Pakistani Prime Minister Pervez Musharraf in October 2004 (and then suggested by him again in November 2005 on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly) and that more recently became a part of his four-point ‘Kashmir formula’. Yet the majority of Kashmiris still feel drawn towards autonomy, mainly due to the continuing high level of militarisation. Despite official statements that only 1500 militants are active in the state, a substantive part of the inhabited areas remains inaccessible due to massive army presence.
Following the political clamour over reduction of troops, in March 2007 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh set up three committees under Defence Minister A K Antony, tasked with looking into the troop-cut demands. In Kashmir, the move has been received with scepticism, with many arguing that New Delhi has a history of burying issues by constituting committees. APHC leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and the main opposition National Conference have maintained that the move is nothing more than an eyewash.
Catch and kill
Ever since Partition left the fate of J & K unresolved, Kashmir’s political landscape has remained stuck between two radically differing positions: one aligned with Pakistan, the other aligned with India. A third opinion, favouring complete independence, was a late entry, coming into being around 1990. Pro-Pakistan forces, such as the underground guerrilla movement al-Fatah, the political outfit Plebiscite Front, the People’s League and other groups, remained active throughout the 1950s and 1960s, espousing the cause of separation from India. Ghulam Rasool Zahgeer, Ghulam Muhammad Naikoo, Fazal Haque Qureshi and Shabir Ahmad Shah were prominent figures of al-Fatah, and Shah and Qureshi continue to run separatist outfits.
Following his landmark accord in 1975 with New Delhi, Sheikh Abdullah, the state’s then-chief minister who had been newly freed after a prolonged detention, suddenly became a despised figure among the separatist forces, although he continued to think of himself as part of the section opposed to New Delhi. The secessionist demands, which had been largely political in nature, eventually assumed a militant bent following Sheikh Abdullah’s death in 1982. The anti-India forces, in a bid to legitimise themselves, contested the polls in 1987, which witnessed mass rigging in favour of the ruling party, led by Sheikh’s flamboyant son, Farooq Abdullah. Contesting candidates, including India’s most-wanted militant commander, Mohammad Yusuf Shah (aka Syed Salahuddin) were arrested and ruthlessly abused in detention.
The way this movement for political rights was diverted by the Indian state was what triggered the insurgency in 1988. At that time, the Soviet army was withdrawing from Afghanistan, and Zia ul-Haq had turned his sights on Kashmir. Many observers continue to believe that General Zia’s death in a mysterious plane crash – barely a fortnight after the CTO blast in Srinagar – squandered Pakitan’s military scheme of a covert war against India. He had wanted, it is said, a low-key insurgency to force New Delhi to agree to talks on Kashmir. Suddenly, there was a free-for-all in Kashmir. Government administration collapsed, and Farooq Abdullah flew to London as his party, the National Conference, became an object of hatred. Jagmohan, Kashmir’s hardliner governor, was appointed by New Delhi as an emergency administrator. Under his regime, a mass exodus took place of about 100,000 Pandits, members of Kashmir’s minority Hindu population. Today many believe that Jagmohan encouraged this dislocation so that, with the Hindus out of the way, security forces could be freely unleashed on the Muslim population of the state.
In response to the increasing insecurity, in 1990 Kashmir came under presidential rule. From the early to the mid-1990s, Kashmiris saw some of the worst repression and an estimated 25,000 deaths. Also in 1990, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which had been in force in parts of India since 1958, was extended to J & K. Paramilitary troops subsequently carried out repeated massacres, resorting even to direct firing on unarmed anti-India demonstrations.
While armed resistance enjoyed massive popular support in Kashmir during those years, the insurgency was unable to score a significant military victory against the Indian state. On the one hand, resistance fighters were being countered militarily by the Indian Army. On the other, by the mid-1990s, internecine battles had led to the emergence of a government-sponsored civil militia, the Ikhwan, built on the strength of the ranks of dissident militants. The Ikhwan was under the leadership of one of Kashmir’s best-established militant commanders, Muhammad Yusuf Parray (alias Kuka Parray). The outfit included an estimated 3000 gun-wielding youths, who carried out large-scale killings of perceived sympathisers of militants.
The pressure on militants thus increased, eventually forcing the pioneer Kashmiri militant group, the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), to announce a unilateral ceasefire in 1994. The JKLF subsequently came aboveground and became a major constituent of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, which had come into being following the assassination of Kashmir’s chief cleric and pro-Pakistan leader, Moulvi Muhammad Farooq. Farooq’s 14-year-old son, Umar Farooq, who had just graduated from a Christian missionary school, was anointed as his successor, thus becoming the first chairman of the APHC amalgam (see accompanying interview).
In league with the Ikhwan, the Indian armed forces wreaked havoc during counter-insurgency operations, perpetrating massive human-rights violations – a crucial issue for the APHC. New Delhi chose to suppress popular anger in the state with ever-more-stringent laws – in addition to the AFSPA, these included the Public Safety Act, the Enemy’s Agent Act, the Arms Act and the Anti-National Activities Act. These measures induced a sense of impunity among the military forces, and the events of the latter years would come to resemble a direct war between the Indian state and the people of Jammu & Kashmir. Herding of residents during crackdowns, random arrests, torture and other repressive measures became the norm – so much so that even if militants did commit rights violations and executions, these became overshadowed by what in Kashmir came to be known as “state terrorism”.
Seeing no tangible results from its military approach, New Delhi then veered towards political solutions. That is what led it to hold elections in 1996 when, with the active help of the Ikhwan, Farooq Abdullah was brought to power. This was a direct challenge to the APHC, which was working to keep its mass movement alive. And in this, Farooq Abdullah contributed to the cause of separatism by raising a special task force from out of J & K’s local police cadres in 1996. This force not only provided further impetus to the Ikhwan, but also launched a ‘catch and kill’ campaign against anyone with suspected involvement in the insurgency.
Four major events had, in quick succession, greatly impacted the Kashmir situation. First was the nearly all-out war between India and Pakistan over Kargil Heights during 1998. Second, the bloodless military coup took place in Pakistan on 12 October 1999, orchestrated by an apparently moderate General Musharraf. Third, in November 2000, Atal Bihari Vajpayee offered the Non-Initiation of Combat Operations (NICO) agreement, a cautiously termed ceasefire with Kashmir’s militants. Finally, in September 2001 came the attacks in the US, the reverberations of which are still being felt in Kashmir today.
9/11 and Kashmir
Farooq’s regime collapsed in 2002, soon after the attacks of 11 September 2001 and the commencement of the US military campaign in Afghanistan. Since 9/11, both the complexion of Pakistani support to the Kashmir movement and politics within Kashmir have undergone a significant change. Gen Musharraf’s newfound flexibility post-9/11 came in handy to local political actors – especially those who were pro-India – seeking to connect back to the Kashmiri masses, the armed uprising having made them widely despised figures. What had been conceived as a political arrangement in 1996 took a beating in what was widely seen as a fair election in 2002. Although managing little over a dozen seats in J & K’s 87-member legislative assembly, former Indian Home Minister Mufti Muhammad Sayeed came to power on a semi-secessionist agenda, largely exploiting people’s anger against Farooq and his repressive methods.
Barely two months after 9/11, five armed men stormed into the Indian Parliament. Although quickly subdued, the ensuing gunfight claimed the lives of nine armed guards, a gardener, and five of the attackers. The assault triggered a hysteria of patriotism throughout India, stoked by the then-ruling National Democratic Alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party. After a media frenzy, the government chose to mobilise troops against Pakistan, and both countries quickly had their armies staring each other in the face over the Line of Control. Even by that time, however, the Musharraf regime had become so crucial in the US-led ‘war on terror’ that, after nearly a year of tense standoff, Washington, DC was able to quietly persuade both countries to withdraw their armies to peacetime positions. But militancy and excesses by security forces continued largely unabated in Kashmir.
Against the backdrop of these incidents, the steady emergence of India as an economic giant, coupled with the US’s increasing interest in Southasia, contributed to the peace agenda becoming more dominant in political discourse on Kashmir. On 23 November 2003, Gen Musharraf announced a unilateral ceasefire along the Line of Control, to which India reciprocated. Hundreds of thousands of families living along this battle line have since received a modicum of respite, with farmers able to resume cultivation, children able to go back to school, and long-split families able to reunite.
Leaving behind the well-beaten tracks of bellicose posturing, Gen Musharraf and Prime Minister Vajpayee co-signed a historic declaration in January 2004, on the sidelines of the SAARC Summit in Islamabad. The present peace process is rooted in that declaration, and has since led to several confidence-building measures, including new bus services between Azad Kashmir and Jammu & Kashmir, as well as a series of talks between New Delhi and secessionist leaders.
During his talks with Prime Minister Vajpayee, Gen Musharraf put in writing his 12 January 2002 promise that he would not allow his territory to be ‘misused’ against Pakistan’s neighbours. Observers found this declaration vastly significant, as it indicated Islamabad’s climb down from its traditional policy on Kashmir, which had always hinged on the UN Security Council resolution of 1948-49 regarding the holding of a plebiscite.
The declaration has significantly solidified a long-shaky peace process. This can be seen particularly in the fact that even the July 2006 Bombay train bombings, which killed around 180 Indian citizens, and this year’s explosion on the crossborder Samjhauta Express, which killed dozens and wounded hundreds, were not able to derail the process. Gen Musharraf’s follow-up on the declaration culminated in his four-point formula for Kashmir, announced in December 2006. These points included demilitarisation, allowing free movement between Azad Kashmir and Jammu & Kashmir, providing all Kashmiris maximum self-governance, and jointly managing the defence and foreign affairs of these two entities. In short, Gen Musharraf proposed a concept of shared sovereignty that would help placate the alienation felt in Jammu & Kashmir, where he believes the people need a solution that infuses a sense that they are no longer ruled by New Delhi. To implement this plan, Gen Musharraf is willing to negotiate for Azad Kashmir, which has no record of insurgency or revolt against the state of Pakistan.
Some see international pressure behind both Gen Musharraf’s insistence on demilitarisation and India’s cautiously milder response to his pleas. There is a general impression that George W Bush’s administration has been asking Gen Musharraf to increase troop levels in Waziristan and other loosely governed tribal areas and that the general might have told Washington that he could not move his forces away from the Line of Control unless New Delhi cut down on military installations there. Additionally, observers also surmise that Gen Musharraf’s push for a solution on Kashmir might also be timed keeping in mind the presidential elections. A ‘resolution’ on this intractable problem might help bolster his popularity, currently at low ebb.
Whatever be his compulsions, Gen Musharraf’s approach has nevertheless come as a political breather for the Kashmir Valley’s pro-India politicians. Nearly all of those figures are now openly supporting the ‘Pakistani line’, in an attempt to renovate their support bases. This new dynamic has almost blurred the lines that used to divide the Kashmiri polity between pro-India and anti-India camps in J & K; with a few exceptions, all are now for demilitarisation and self-governance. At the same time, it is not easy to gauge the popular sentiment. Although pushes for self-governance and demilitarisation have gained momentum, and while many have started to expect relief from these proposals if they are ever implemented, the majority of Kashmiris in J & K (except for the elite intellectual and business sections) remains alienated from India. However, most observers currently believe that the proposals of demilitarisation and self-governance could help to subdue much of the remaining popular anger.
No groundswell in the Valley
Optimistic observers insist that the emerging geopolitical dynamic in Southasia will lead to a resolution of the Kashmir situation in the foreseeable future. Proposals for an alternative settlement of the dispute abound, and media reports suggest that a “status quo plus”, if not more than that, is in the offing. Of late talk of soft borders, crossborder trade, peoples’ exchanges and joint management of disputed territories on either side of the LoC has become a staple of almost all the political players. While Mufti Sayeed and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq are actively pitching for a substantive cut in the number of Indian troops in Kashmir, others are also more or less following the same tack. Pro-India leaders, including Farooq Abdullah, have called for an unconditional dialogue with the Azad Kashmir-based militant leadership.
To all of this, New Delhi has responded cautiously. Manmohan Singh has initiated a series of roundtable meetings, which is meant to bring together all political camps. Three of these meetings have now been held. But the roundtable process has not been able to impress the secessionists, who want a cut-and-dried agenda for the resolution of the Kashmir issue, and are averse to the omnipresent discussion of economic and social concerns. For these reasons, all secessionist leaders but one stayed away from the 25 April 2007 roundtable meeting in New Delhi. Hashim Qureshi, primarily known for his role in the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane in 1971, was the only secessionist who participated (see accompanying interview).
Last year, Prime Minister Singh constituted five working groups, with the aim of drawing up a plan to rehabilitate the victims of violence in Kashmir, and to suggest measures for good governance. At the late-April roundtable, those groups finally presented their proposals. But although these included some additional confidence-building measures, such as creating ‘dignified’ living conditions for those Kashmiri youth who are “ready to eschew violence”, a groundswell for peace remains conspicuously absent in Kashmir. The daily life of the people remains unchanged, with no trimming of the Indian troop presence on the roads and in orchards, office buildings, markets and residential areas.
If anything, public protests – against land acquisition by the Indian Army, fake encounters and the government’s failure to provide jobs – are becoming increasingly routine. While the Indian leadership was preparing to host the 14th SAARC Summit in New Delhi in early April, downtown Srinagar remained restive for almost a week. Residents took to the streets, alleging that troops deployed in area bunkers had been harassing local women. One legislator attempted to calm the crowd, assuring it that the matter would be taken up at the highest levels. “What peace process?” demanded one resident, “What ‘Musharraf’s four-points’? Nothing gives us relief from all this.”
In the absence of a mechanism to compensate for the losses wrought by a decade and a half of violence, proposals from Pakistan and packages from India sound hollow to the people of Jammu & Kashmir, who remain victims of an unresolved conflict. While broaching proposals of joint management of all of Kashmir, and various other options, leaders in New Delhi and Islamabad will have to understand that what they offer to Kashmiris will not matter as much as how they offer it. One young separatist leader, Sajad Lone, whose father Abdul Ghani Lone was assassinated in 2001, believes that as long as New Delhi continues to negate the sacrifices of the people in Kashmir, any offer, howsoever attractive, will be regarded as a hoax. “When New Delhi and Islamabad start projecting the peace process as being a result of their respective leaders’ sagacity and statesmanship, people get excluded,” he said. “What is in it for the people? I believe that as long as people are not made stakeholders in the peace process, it will continue to be vulnerable.”
The popular mood in the Valley has been sceptical ever since the peace process started. If the summits and declarations do not affect the present scenario on the ground, and if the barbed wire and bunkers surrounding the CTOs of Kashmir continue to inspire a sense of living in a ‘beautiful prison’, the optimism that is flying high right now is likely to come crashing to the ground.
Riyaz Masroor is based in Srinagar and reports for BBC. He is also political editor of the Daily Greater Kashmir.