22 January 2001

Kashmir peace initiative hangs in balance

22 January 2001
The Times of India

Kashmir peace initiative hangs in balance

By Siddharth Varadarajan

NEW DELHI: With just days to go before its unilateral ceasefire ends, New Delhi's fledgling peace initiative in Kashmir stands precariously poised. Boxed in from all sides, the advocates of an extension of the ceasefire within the government must contend with the unhelpful silence of Islamabad, the implacable hostility of Pak-based militant groups, divisions within the Hurriyat Conference and the growing demand within India that the security forces be given a ``free hand''.

``Pakistan and the jihadi groups must realise time is running out,'' said a senior official involved with the peace initiative. ``If the ceasefire cannot be extended, it will take two or three years before the opportunity for a political approach arises again. Whether it's Musharraf or Salahuddin (Hizbul Mujahideen leader), there has been no flexibility at all. They are sticking to the demand of tripartite talks or nothing''. He said Pakistan should know that ``we have the option of ending the ceasefire. They are wrong to assume our initiative stems from military weakness or fatigue.''

At the same time, there is some concern that any heavy-handedness by the security forces will cost the country dear in the long run. The recent custodial killing of two prisoners has led to widespread public demonstrations, and officials fear the return of the `crowd' - largely absent as a factor since the early 1990s - may add a new punch to the militants' campaign.

Though there are divisions within the government on the ceasefire and the granting of passports to Hurriyat leaders - the external affairs ministry, for example, is wary of allowing them to go to Pakistan - institutions like the Army and intelligence agencies, usually the most hawkish, are the ones in favour of the peace process. ``But we have to get some opening from the other side,'' said the official.

On the passports issue, sources familiar with the Hurriyat's internal politics contend that the main roadblock is the opposition of two senior APHC leaders to the participation of Syed Ali Shah Geelani in the delegation. ``Their fear is that with Geelani going, the jihadists will hijack the entire show,'' a source said. ``Also, they aren't sure how the Pakistani government will receive them. If Musharraf refuses to endorse the ceasefire on their appeal and they come back empty-handed, the popular allegation in the Valley that they are `stooges of Pakistan' will get confirmed.''

At the same time, the Vajpayee government appears to be in a quandary over the passports issue. There is, for example, a concern that granting passports could amount to recognising the Hurriyat as the representatives of the Kashmiris. The MEA is especially worried that a high-profile Pakistan visit might undo New Delhi's efforts over the years to delegitimise the Hurriyat in the eyes of the international community and, especially, the US.

Even those in favour of issuing passports, say the main issue is peace. ``If facilitating peace means giving them passports, so be it,'' said an intelligence official. ``But the focus has to be on what exactly they will accomplish over there.''

The most optimistic scenario is that they could get Gen Musharraf to call upon the militant groups to respect the ceasefire, in return for which, Prime Minister Vajpayee would invite Pakistan's chief executive for talks. And the pessimistic scenario? ``We'll be back to the days of Robin Raphel'', said an external affairs ministry official, ``with the US promoting the Hurriyat once again''.

Meanwhile, an upcoming conference to be held in Jammu will provide an opportunity for the Union government to demonstrate its political skills. G M Shah, the former J&K chief minister, has invited Hizb chief Syed Salahuddin, `Azad Kashmir' Prime Minister Barrister Sultan Mahmood, JKLF leader Amanullah Khan and a host of Kashmiri militant and political figures from across the Line of Control to attend a two-day Kashmir conference on February 10 and 11 on the theme, `In Search of Peace and Solution'.

The others invitees are Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, leaders of the Hurriyat Conference, and Kashmiri Pandit and Ladakhi Buddhist representatives. The organisers hope that if Salahuddin and others want to come from Pakistan and take part in the conference, the government of India will grant them the right of safe passage.

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