Last month, Noorjehan Baba left her home in Srinagar's Dal Gate area to start a new life across the Line of Control with the man who unleashed a war which claimed her first husband's life. Her husband, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen field commander Khurshid Baba, died in 1995, fighting the Indian forces in central Kashmir. For the next five years, Ms Baba retreated into a dark shroud which widows across South Asia are expected to do. Early this year, though, a family friend approached her with an offer of marriage. Her suitor was much older — but had wealth and status.
United Jihad Council chairman and Hizb supreme commander Mohammad Yusuf Shah's marriage to Ms Baba at his Rawalpindi home drew neither television crews nor newspaper reporters. It ought to have: that the 61-year-old jihad commander had love on his mind this summer, rather than war, tells us not a little about where Jammu and Kashmir is headed. Eight weeks after the November 2008 carnage in Mumbai, Shah told a rally in Muzaffarabad, “Jihad will continue until the independence of Kashmir.” Instead, violence in the State has diminished to an all-time low and the Hizb has all but disintegrated.
This is good news for India — but a serious problem for New Delhi's efforts at peacemaking in Jammu and Kashmir.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's low-key visit to Srinagar this week illustrates the rise of a new caution in New Delhi's policy on Jammu and Kashmir. In an address to students graduating from the Sher-i-Kashmir Agricultural University, Dr. Singh focussed on issues linked to development. For those hoping for a call to Kashmiri secessionists to renew their engagement with the government, there was only the repetition of a long-standing offer to “to hold talks with the representative of any group which shuns violence and terror.” Meaningful dialogue with Pakistan on the State, he suggested, would be “possible only when Pakistan doesn't let its territory be used for acts of terror against India”.
The Prime Minister's language illustrates the rise of a new pessimism in New Delhi on the prospects of a breakthrough in the peace process. In November 2004, during his first visit to Srinagar as Prime Minister, Dr. Singh called on young people to join him in the “adventure of building a new India and a new Kashmir.” The next year, he met twice with leaders of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference. He also initiated a consultation process with major political groups, and held separate discussions with secessionists like the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front's Yasin Malik. From 2006, New Delhi's envoy Satinder Lambah and his Pakistani counterpart Tariq Aziz started working to close a deal on Jammu and Kashmir's future.
That deal, though, was blown away by the storm winds that swept Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf from power in 2008. Pakistan's all-powerful military establishment has since made clear that it has no desire to make concessions on Jammu and Kashmir. Last year, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram initiated a process he called “quiet diplomacy”— a series of covert contacts with the Mirwaiz Umar Farooq-led APHC, which were first made public by this newspaper. That process has come to a grinding halt. Mirwaiz Farooq has closed the door on talks until a new consensus evolves in Pakistan; jihadists made their position known by shooting a key pro-dialogue leader, Fazl Haq Qureshi, in December.
Jammu and Kashmir's political landscape has been transfigured by the death of the war which began in 1988. Last year, the State saw 3.95 terrorism-related killings per 1,00,000 population including combatants, who made up over three-quarters of the dead. Its residents are now less at risk of terrorism-related death than citizens of many countries in firearms-related crime. In South Africa, there were 71.97 murders with firearms for every 100,000 of the population; for Colombia, the figure was 50.98; Thailand recorded 31.20.
India has a low-rate of firearms-related deaths; there were 4,101 killings of this kind in 2008, National Crime Records Bureau data show. But it is interesting to note that 19.8 of every 100,000 Indians were victims of a violent crime — a probability far higher than that of being killed in terrorism-related violence in Jammu and Kashmir.
Despite concerns at the continued operations of jihadist groups, violence in the State remains in decline. In 2007, there were 170 civilian deaths; last year, 83 were killed. The security forces and the Jammu and Kashmir police lost 79 personnel last year, down from 122 in 2007. Two years ago, 472 terrorists were killed; just 239 were shot dead in 2009. Improvised explosive device use fell from 56 in 2007 to 23 last year; grenade attacks from 107 to 56. Levels of violence were marginally higher in the first five months of 2010 than during the same period in 2009 — but infiltration has been lower, suggesting that no major escalation is imminent.
The decline in violence has, oddly, made it difficult for the two key actors in the peace process — the jihadists and Kashmiri secessionist politicians — to reach for New Delhi's olive branch.
Pakistan-based jihadists have found their political leverage within Jammu and Kashmir severely degraded. India's intelligence services estimate that there are between 500 and 600 jihadists operating in the State today — less than a tenth of the numbers in 2001. Ethnic Kashmiri jihadist groups like the Hizb no longer have the network and infrastructure to benefit from post-peace politics. Islamist elements in urban Kashmir are increasingly supportive of the global jihadist project of organisations such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, not the Jamaat-e-Islami linked, State-focussed politics of the Hizb. None of the five sons Shah left in Kashmir to be brought up by his wife Taj Begum when he left for Pakistan in 1994 has, notably, been drawn to their father's cause; three of them hold government jobs.
Last year, Shah expressly asked the Hurriyat leadership “not to take a hasty decision with regard to dialogue with Delhi, as bilateral talks had proved futile in the past.” In February, he asserted that there was “no option other than the armed struggle”.
Lashkar chief Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, for his part, called in a recent speech for closer jihadist-secessionist politics. “The first priority “is to end this [India's] tyrannical occupation, and to end it, it is critical that both armed struggle and political parties must be united.” “The most important thing,” Saeed went on, “is that the people of Kashmir, through their untold sacrifices in the struggle for freedom, have shown that they can give their all in the struggle against Hindu imperialism.”
In practice, this means the jihadists have thrown their weight behind Islamist patriarch Syed Ali Shah Geelani, whose Tehreek-i-Hurriyat has long rejected dialogue with New Delhi. Pressure from Mr. Geelani and the jihadists has made it difficult for the Hurriyat — the second key actor in the peace process — to move forward. It has deeper problems.
Ever since the Assembly elections were held in 2008, it has been evident to the Hurriyat that its constituency in Jammu and Kashmir is contracting. “Elections are ultimately projected as a sort of referendum by India, and that is why we have called for a complete boycott of such a process,” Mirwaiz Farooq said that November. He issued “a last call to the so-called mainstream politicians to join the separatist movement.” Humiliation followed hubris: starting from a week after the Mirwaiz held out his threat, well over half of registered voters in the State participated in the elections. Interestingly, more than 63 per cent of voters in Shah's home village, Soibug, defied the boycott call.
Last year's protests in Shopian against the alleged rape-murder of two south Kashmir women — later established as accidental deaths by the Central Bureau of Investigation — also demonstrated the Hurriyat's limited reach. Just 17 of 111 documented Shopian-related protests between May 30, 2009 and June 30, 2009 took place in rural and semi-rural areas. More than half of the rural protests, moreover, occurred in villages just outside Shopian town. Fewer than a dozen rallies drew more than 1,000 supporters.
Kashmiri secessionist politicians have come to realise that their political position rests on weak foundations. But they seem to have little idea of what to do about it. Torn between pro-dialogue realists like Butt and anti-negotiation hawks like Shabbir Shah, Mirwaiz Farooq has chosen to retreat into a shell. In a recent interview, he called on Pakistan to evolve consensus on its future position on Kashmir, a process that could, quite obviously, take years. He has also ruled out immediate engagement with New Delhi but offered no alternative.
Prime Minister Singh's speech suggests that New Delhi's patience has worn thin — and that might be just good news. Barring small pockets of Islamist-led protests in Kashmir's inner city neighbourhoods, the State government faces no major political challenge. It has, however, been unable to move forward. For more than a decade, democratic politics in Jammu and Kashmir has had to confront the prospect of a new dispensation emerging as a consequence of the peace process. Elected leaders have thus had little incentive to focus on the kind of long-term issues needed to institutionalise democratic governance. Instead of chasing the chimera of a historic peace deal with Pakistan and the secessionists, New Delhi seems to be realising that doing nothing might, paradoxical as it might seem, yield the best outcomes.