by Indranil Banerjie
January 28th, 2011
The message from Islamabad is gaining in decibel: the generals want New Delhi to initiate talks with them on Kashmir. The latest in a string of couriers bearing similar tidings was the former Pakistan foreign minister, Mr Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, who urged the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, to travel to Islamabad for talks on Kashmir. It is impossible not to detect a touch of urgency in Islamabad’s texting. For, they have reason to be concerned.
When the Kashmir Valley erupted in revolt in 1989, the popular slogan was azadi, or independence. The most prominent militant organisation at that time was the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). Within a few years, however, a great change occurred in the armed struggle with the Hizbul Mujahideen, an Islamist organisation that unabashedly advocated the merger of Kashmir with Pakistan, emerging as the pre-eminent militant organisation in the state.
How this remarkable transformation occurred within the space of a few years has never been a secret in Kashmir. The sidelining of the JKLF and other pro-independence groups was carefully orchestrated by the Pakistan Army. Just as General Zia-ul-Haq had favoured pro-Pakistan Islamist groups in the Afghan jihad, his predecessors realised that the key to controlling the armed struggle in Kashmir was to pack it with men swearing allegiance to Muslim Pakistan. Accordingly, the Hizbul Mujahideen was created in 1989 and began operating in the Valley in parallel with the JKLF.
The pro-Pakistan camp used the age-old methods of coercion and assassination to purge the movement of the independent minded. Arif Jamal, a prominent US-based Pakistani journalist, in his book Shadow War: The Untold Story of Jihad in Kashmir, has painstakingly described how the Hizbul took control of the movement: “Hizbul Mujahideen operatives harassed, beat and murdered potential rivals, and the scale of the violence was enormous.
According to a Hizbul Mujahideen commander, the organisation eliminated some 7,000 political rivals. From the beginning of their campaign, Hizbul Mujahideen focused on disarming and kidnapping JKLF members, and many were brutalised in custody and beaten to death. According to Amanullah Khan, Hizbul Mujahideen eliminated more JKLF officials than Indian military agents had”.
According to Mr Jamal, “Hizbul Mujahideen militants also murdered some of the leading political leaders in Kashmir. They killed Dr Ahad Guru and Professor Abdul Ahad Wailoo (chief commander of Al-Barq, Al-Jihad and JKLF). Mirwaiz Farooq, a leading political personality in Srinagar, was also killed; Syed Ali Shah Geelani ordered his elimination”.
Recent admissions by key separatist leaders has once again exposed the role of pro-Pakistan forces in political assassinations, including that of Mirwaiz Mohammad Farooq, Abdul Ghani Lone and others. “No police was involved (in the killings)... It was our own people who killed them”, the former Hurriyat Conference chairman, Prof. Abdul Gani Bhat disclosed while speaking at a seminar in Srinagar in early January this year. He said that even his own brother, Mohammad Sultan Bhat, was murdered by his own people, by which he meant Kashmiri separatists.
Mr Bhat’s outburst rippled through the Kashmir Valley, prompting another separatist leader, Mr Sajjad Lone, to declare that “Truth, however bitter, must prevail”. Mr Lone’s father, Mr Abdul Ghani Lone, was among those assassinated. Although neither Mr Bhat nor Mr Lone specified who had ordered the killings, Mr Bhat maintained that everyone in Kashmir was aware who the killers were. Their fingers pointed squarely at the Hizbul Mujahideen, its Kashmiri leadership and their Pakistani handlers.
The timing of these disclosures is significant, for they suggest a change in Kashmiri perception. While the overall sentiment in the Valley remains anti-Indian, the pro-Pakistan slogans too have lost their resonance. A section of the separatist leadership is now signalling that it wants to be free of Islamabad’s dictations. By raising their voice against the assassinations and implicitly identifying the forces responsible, these Kashmiri leaders are attempting to distance themselves from pro-Pakistani forces that have held Kashmiri politics in complete thrall for more than two decades.
While India may not accrue any direct benefit from this development, it could help in creating an atmosphere for genuine talks with the separatists. For this to happen, New Delhi needs to ensure that the constant threat of political assassinations in the Valley is removed. Sadly though, New Delhi has consistently failed to protect those who favoured a settlement that even hinted at a possible diminution of Islamabad’s perceived interests.
Today, Kashmir politics is undergoing a significant transformation. Pakistan is no longer the role model or a mentor. During last year’s summer unrest, no pro-Pakistan slogans were raised. When Mr Syed Ali Shah Geelani tried again to champion Pakistan, he was heckled and his house attacked. The generals in Islamabad realise that to remain relevant in Kashmir politics, they must compel New Delhi to initiate talks on Kashmir. It is clear, however, that bringing Pakistan back into the Kashmir picture at this juncture would amount to giving away something for nothing. With a number of Kashmiri leaders, including some separatists, are challenging Pakistan’s frightening hegemony, it would be the supreme irony if New Delhi was to reintroduce Islamabad’s generals into the Valley’s political scenario.
* Indranil Banerjie is a defence and security analyst based in New Delhi