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Peace at a crossroads

The mileage counters of the Jammu and Kashmir peace process seem to have been reset to zero. Dialogue between the secessionists and the Government seems stalled, a consequence of both sides being unwilling or unable to make major unilateral concessions. Praveen Swami reports.

WILL THE DREAM COME TRUE? People in Srinagar demanding the opening of the road through Uri to Pakistan. — Photo: Nissar Ahmed

"MUZAFFARABAD", MUTTERS the traffic constable, startled by the question. Then he breaks into a wry smile and jokes back: "It's that way to Pahalgam, and that way to Gulmarg. Where's Muzaffarabad?"

Grime has not quite covered over the giant, green billboard on the busy Tourist Reception Centre Chowk in Srinagar but rain, snow and traffic have taken their toll. "Muzaffarabad 170," the yellow text reads — a reference to the ruling People's Democratic Party's promise to open the road through the frontier town of Uri into Pakistan. Less than a year ago, peace with Pakistan — and an end to violence in Jammu and Kashmir — seemed possible; enthusiasts even claimed it was inevitable. Today the fate of the billboard mirrors that hope of rapprochement with Pakistan: but battered as it is by violence, and threatened as it is by multiple crisis, it will take more than a few licks of paint to set right the peace process in Jammu and Kashmir.

Internal disarray

Over the last eight weeks, it has become evident that the peace process initiated by the former Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in April 2003 stands at a crossroads. Hardline leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani has re-emerged at the political centre-stage, giving Islamist terror groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Hizb-ul-Mujaheddin a new legitimacy and political voice. The centrist faction of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference with which New Delhi was engaged in dialogue is in internal disarray, with key figures silenced by sustained terrorist attacks. On top of it all, there has appeared to be a sharp escalation in terrorist violence. Central Reserve Police Force personnel have faced two suicide-squad attacks in Srinagar this month alone, and there have been several high-profile bombings and grenade attacks.

What has gone wrong? For one, Pakistan's strategic establishment seems determined to step up the heat to push the pace of India-Pakistan talks on Jammu and Kashmir. In an interview to The News earlier this month, the Pakistan President, Pervez Musharraf, made a candid admission that he had no intention of ending jihadi activities until there was a political resolution of the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir. "God willing," he said, "if we find a solution on Kashmir with India, all jihadi organisations will have to pack up." The unstated message was simple: that the jihad in Jammu and Kashmir would not be shut down until significant political concessions were made by India. General Musharraf has, on more than one occasion in recent months, expressed impatience with the speed of dialogue on Jammu and Kashmir, and pessimism about Indian intentions.

Unsurprisingly, given this hawkish position, cross-border infiltration has escalated sharply. India's Chief of the Army Staff, Nirmal C. Vij, recently told journalists in New Delhi that cross-border infiltration in recent weeks was almost twice as high as the same period last year, and was "increasing day by day". General Vij claimed that the Army had been able to interdict some 80-85 per cent of infiltration attempts, with the aid of electronic and physical fencing on the Line of Control. If these figures are correct — most experts do not believe interdiction is anywhere near as high as the Army claims — it would help explain why increasing infiltration has not translated into a sharp escalation of violence within Jammu and Kashmir. General Vij flatly asserted that infiltration was not possible without official Pakistani patronage.

Fraying at the edges

If infiltration is as high as Indian officials claim, it could have disastrous consequences. The ceasefire that went in place on the LoC in December 2003, a keystone of India-Pakistan détente, already seems to be fraying at the edges. On August 16, Border Security Force personnel at Mangoo Chak along the border in Jammu traded fire with a group of infiltrators who ambushed their vehicle within a few hundred yards of Pakistan-held territory. The incident could easily have escalated into a full-blown border clash — as indeed could have any of the 50-odd detected infiltration attempts that have taken place in August. The BSF Deputy-Inspector General of Police, P.K. Mishra, and the Pakistan Rangers commanding officer for the area, Colonel Rab Nawaz, met a week later to address the issue but no concrete protocols have been put in place to prevent a flare-up.

As yet, though, high infiltration has not actually meant a real escalation of violence within Jammu and Kashmir. Contrary to the impression conveyed by some reportage, there is no significant variation in the key parameters of conflict between 2003 and this year. The Union Ministry of Home Affairs internal data shows that the levels of violence from January to June 2004 are similar to those recorded during these months in 2003, as measured by five key indices — terrorists, civilians and security forces killed, and the numbers of attacks on civilians and forces [see charts]. All that seems to be going on in the course of the summer is the routine, seasonal rise in incidents of violence that have been witnessed each year since 1989. The rise in violence takes place as the snow in the high mountain passes across the LoC melts and infiltration from training camps in Pakistan becomes relatively easy.

For observers of successive peace efforts in Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan's continued use of terror as an instrument of political leverage is no surprise. Under intense pressure to de-escalate during the near-war that developed after the 2001 terrorist attack on Parliament, General Musharraf banned several terrorist groups and promised an end to infiltration. Within months, the terror camps were up and running again. Mr. Vajpayee's earlier, post-Kargil War decision to end offensive operations against major terror groups, notably the Hizb-ul-Mujaheddin, was met by Pakistan's intelligence establishment with an escalation of violence, intended to derail dialogue between New Delhi and pro-dialogue elements in the organisation. Each peacemaking effort, then, seems to lead Pakistan's military strategists to scale up violence — a means of making sure that the Islamist groups they support have a veto on the success or failure of dialogue.

Change in stance

What does seem to have changed is Indian tolerance of Pakistan-backed terror. Mr. Vajpayee, who staked his personal credibility on the peace process, overlooked such disruptions. The Congress seems to be considerably less patient with Pakistan's failure to deliver on its zero-infiltration promise made by General Musharraf. On August 21, the All India Congress Committee passed a resolution saying terrorism continued to be a menace as "it is aided and abetted from across the borders." Although Pakistan was not named, the resolution made clear that India seemed "to be dealing with a neighbouring Government that has failed or is unable to deliver on its promises."

Earlier, the Union Home Minister, Shivraj Patil, had said talks with secessionists would only be held within the parameters of the Constitution, something APHC moderates such as Umar Farooq believe is a repudiation of Mr. Vajpayee's promise to negotiate within the wider framework of insaniyat (humanitarian concern).

If New Delhi seems clear it will not tolerate continued violence, the Union Home Ministry seems confused on just what it wishes to do instead. N.N. Vohra, the highly-regarded career bureaucrat who was appointed the Union Government's official mediator on Jammu and Kashmir, appears not to have any clear mandate on just what he might offer the APHC moderates in order to restart a dialogue. In some senses, the problem is not just of the United Progressive Alliance Government's making.

At the outset of his mission under the National Democratic Alliance rule, Mr. Vohra is believed to have pushed hard for a dialogue with political parties in Jammu and Kashmir on greater federal autonomy, a key demand of the National Conference. This, Mr. Vohra had argued, would have compelled the APHC moderates to stay engaged with New Delhi, whatever the pressures on them from the Islamists — or risk a deal being cut that excluded them.

Now acutely sensitive to charges of being unpatriotic, the UPA Government seems unwilling to make a categorical declaration that future dialogue with the APHC will be unconditional. New Delhi might have been willing to make the concession if the moderates could deliver something in return, like de-escalation in violence. But the secessionist politicians simply do not have the necessary influence with terrorist groups. This leaves Mr. Vohra with few options, and some observers believe he will make a slow exit from the scene. Matters have not been helped by a series of apparently ill-thought through moves either.

Early in his tenure, Mr. Patil went along with efforts to open a dialogue with Mr. Geelani — a move that only served to alienate Mr. Farooq and other moderates. There has also been a series of ill-timed, off-the-cuff remarks. Mr. Patil's deputy, Union Minister of State for Home, Sri Prakash Jaiswal, for example, was reported as saying that the Government of India would negotiate with groups which had the authorisation of terrorist organisations — a remark read by moderate secessionists as a recognition of Mr. Geelani's Hurriyat faction.

Future uncertain

As things stand, then, the mileage counters of the peace process in Jammu and Kashmir seem to have been reset to zero. Internal dialogue between secessionists and the Indian Government seems stalled, a consequence of both sides being unwilling or unable to make major unilateral concessions. Both India and Pakistan seem to be having trouble making headway on the most apparently simple moves to defuse tension.

Late last year, Srinagar's elite was lobbying Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed's staff for a seat on the first bus to Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir. Now, Pakistan has made clear it will not accept Indian passport holders crossing the LoC.

India has, in turn, shot down calls for travel on local or international identity cards, noting that this would then involve putting up a border post to prevent out-of-state movement at Pathankot, on the Punjab-Jammu and Kashmir border — a de facto concession of sovereignty. Almost nothing, it is clear, is quite as easy or simple as it had seemed.

Like most things to do with Jammu and Kashmir, it is hard to predict what might happen next: peacemaking here has had a soap opera-like history, littered with unexpected comic twists and tragic denouements. What is starting to become clear, though, is that with a change of Government in New Delhi, one act in the bloody drama in Jammu and Kashmir has come to an end.

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