30 December 2000

Beyond the Ceasefire: Move quickly on the political front

30 December 2000
The Times of India
Beyond the Ceasefire
Move Quickly on the Political Front


BOLD and innovative though it is, the Indian government's unilateral ceasefire is floundering on the mistaken assumption that Kashmir is primarily-if not exclusively-a military problem.

For the past 10 years, New Delhi has essentially pursued an armed solution to the problem in the state. When it found that this solution was not yielding quick-or even satisfactory-results on the ground, the political decision was taken to alter its form. The Ramzan ceasefire
announced by Prime Minister Vajpayee may now have stretched into a second month but what it represents, in essence, is a change of battlefield tactics. There has been no political initiative of comparable magnanimity. Granting some Hurriyat leaders-who are all Indian citizens-passports that should never have been denied them in the first place can hardly count as a concession.

Though there has been some back-channel engagement with the Hurriyat and with elements of the Hizbul Mujahideen, the government is still quite far away from conceiving a broad political framework within which the Kashmir problem can peacefully be resolved. We are not talking about an endgame here-whether Kashmir will remain an integral part of India forever, join
Pakistan or go independent-or even about the willingness of militant groups to `talk about talks'. What is needed is for New Delhi to recognise that there are concrete political steps it can take to alter the parameters of the problem.

Without a quick move on the political front, the government might be forced to return to the battlefield. It is clear by now that the ceasefire has led to a quantitative and qualitative escalation in militant attacks. Whether this is the product of the security forces having relaxed their grip or of militant groups anxious to demonstrate their contempt for the ceasefire is immaterial. In the absence of tangible political gains on the ground, public opinion, political parties and even the security forces are bound eventually to seek a revocation of the ceasefire.

Fortunately for the government, the security forces do not have a uniform view on the matter. If some commanders argue that a ceasefire allows militant groups to recoup and position themselves for future attacks, others believe that a hands-off policy weakens the insurgency both physically and psychologically, `softening' the homegrown militant and distancing him from the foreign mujahids. Nonetheless, the consensus seem to be that military means alone cannot solve the problem. This view was explicitly stated by Army chief Padmanabhan shortly after he took over in October this year.

But it is one thing to say that military means alone cannot solve the problem and another to admit that the manner in which the military solution was pursued in the past has contributed to the intractability of the problem. Thanks to a more enlightened approach, there have few major
incidents of human rights violations in recent months. Even so, the previous incidents-the killing of civilians in Bijbehara and Sopore, the disappearances-are like open wounds that continue to fester with each passing day that the guilty go unpunished.

Rightly or wrongly, the majority of Kashmiris in the valley see the Indian security forces as an occupying power on whom no laws or rules of engagement apply. Though the Army has moved to court-martial soldiers in some cases, the vast majority of rights violations by the security forces go uninvestigated. The National Human Rights Commission is denied jurisdiction and the judicial system has become a helpless spectator.

The most recent example was what happened at Pathribal-Panchalthan this year. After fierce protests in which unarmed civilians were fired upon and killed at Brakpora on April 3, the government agreed to exhume the bodies of five persons it claimed were militants responsible for the Chittisingpora massacre in March this year. All five bodies were claimed
by relatives and DNA samples were sent for testing. But as yet, there has been no move to try for murder in an open court those who were responsible for the fake encounter.

If the government wants to give an impetus to its ceasefire, it should make Pathribal a test case of its sincerity. A swift and transparent trial followed by exemplary punishment of the guilty would go some distance towards convincing Kashmiris that there is rule of law in this country.

Second, the government should realise that its policy of denying passports to Kashmiri leaders is not only illiberal and undemocratic but politically counter-productive as well. The government's view is that the Hurriyat Conference is a puppet of Pakistan. If that is so, the fact that
the Hurriyat leaders lack passports has clearly not been a hindrance for the puppet-master. New Delhi's decision to allow several Hurriyat leaders to travel to Pakistan is perhaps a belated recognition of this fact; even so, its reported refusal to grant the most pro-Pakistani leader of them all, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a passport smacks of bureaucratic myopia.

Third, New Delhi should make it unambiguously clear that its invitation for talks is completely without any riders or conditions. The government's initial response to the Hizb's ceasefire offer was a mature one which avoided any mention of the Indian Constitution. But two days later, the
waters were muddied by senior government officials insisting that any dialogue had to be within the four walls of the Constitution. By the time Vajpayee clarified matters, it was too late. Hardline elements within the Pakistani establishment were able to make use of the conflicting
statements to get the Hizb to back off.

On their part, the Hurriyat leaders must also rise to the occasion. When they go to Pakistan, they should ask Gen Musharraf - who recognises them as the authentic voice of Kashmir - to get all the militant groups to agree to a cease-fire and to think about settling their differences with New Delhi across a negotiating table. If Pakistan agrees, a major roadblock in the struggle for a peaceful solution will have been overcome and the path would be clear for Islamabad and New Delhi to also resume their dialogue.

But more than Pakistan or the militants, it is the ordinary Kashmiri that New Delhi needs to convince. Once the Kashmiri starts having faith in the Indian government's initiatives, Islamabad and the jihadis will have to fall in line.

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