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AUGUST 11 , 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 31 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Prospects For Peace — Maybe
What is behind a militant group's ceasefire offer?
By ANTHONY DAVIS

First, there were cracks in the ice. Not long after the visit of U.S. President Bill Clinton to India in March, the New Delhi government released several jailed leaders of Kashmir's separatist council, the All Party Hurriyat Conference. Late spring and early summer brought a further thaw as back-channel contacts between New Delhi and the Hurriyat moved into higher gear. Then on July 24, it was as if an iceberg had broken free of the decade-old pack ice of revolt and repression in Kashmir: The state's largest guerrilla faction, Hizbul Mujahideen, declared a three-month ceasefire to open the way for substantive peace talks with the Indian government.

The move was as unprecedented as it was unexpected. Hizbul Mujahideen, the military wing of the Islamist Jamaat-i- Islami party, was set up with the active assistance of Pakistan's military intelligence back in 1990 on a platform of Kashmir's accession to Pakistan. Today, its membership — thought to account for 850 of the 2,000 militants in Indian Kashmir — consists almost entirely of local Kashmiris. That is in stark contrast to other major guerrilla groups in Kashmir, which recruit mainly Pakistanis and Afghans. "Unlike the others, Hizbul does have real roots among the local population," notes one Indian security official.

Hizbul's ceasefire offer — which immediately triggered cries of betrayal from other militants — came with the rider that any talks should be unconditional. In other words, New Delhi should drop its insistence on holding talks only within the ambit of the Indian constitution — which holds that all Kashmir is an inalienable part of the Indian Union, thus debarring Pakistan from any role in negotiations.

How far talks can progress under these circumstances is an open question. But what is not in doubt is that India's security and intelligence apparatus on the ground in Kashmir is keen that the ceasefire should hold and that the militants be drawn into a process of negotiation. With many in the region eager for peace, that process would then gain its own momentum. The Indian military announced it would reciprocate Hizbul's offer. One Indian official was quoted in the press as saying: "We will not attack them . . . [New Delhi] should not waste this opportunity." Hizbul then nominated its emissary to work out details of a long-lasting ceasefire: Fazal Haq Qureshi, a 56-year-old leader of a faction in the Hurriyat.

What lay behind Hizbul's surprise move? As the group's commander in Kashmir Abdul Majid Dar explained, at one level the group was concerned over the perception of the Kashmiri struggle as a terrorist movement. Indian intelligence sources believe the turnaround may have been largely prompted by strains between the faction's leadership and Pakistan's military intelligence. As they argue, Islamabad's Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate (ISI), which provides logistical support for guerrilla groups in Indian Kashmir, has been increasingly dissatisfied with Hizbul's "performance" and has cut back on funding accordingly.

For its part, Hizbul's leadership has been aggrieved by growing ISI backing for non-Kashmiri factions, not least the new and overwhelmingly Pakistani Jaish e Mohammad, headed by Maulana Masood Azhar, the Pakistani firebrand who was released from jail in India following the hijack of an Indian jetliner last December. "There's anger in the valley over the intrusion of foreign militants," says one senior intelligence official. "The people are upset and Hizbul is upset."

Maybe. But most analysts are skeptical that Hizbul, whose top leader Syed Salahuddin remains in Pakistan, would have taken such a step without what a Pakistan diplomat describes as "a nod from certain quarters." Translation: Pakistan's military, under pressure from Washington to dampen the Kashmir conflict and keen to display flexibility, has little to lose by switching to a dual-track strategy. This would involve holding out peace feelers through Hizbul, while at the same time maintaining the military option through other militant groups. Should India fail to respond adequately, Hizbul could then return to the fold, having exposed India's "intransigence." As an Indian diplomat put it: "For Pakistan, it's win-win situation. They've placed the ball in India's court."

Reining in the infuriated factions may not prove so easy, however. The United Jihad Council, the militants' umbrella grouping based in Pakistan-administered Azad Kashmir, promptly sacked Syed Salahuddin as its chairman, expelled Hizbul and vowed to continue the armed struggle. That was no idle threat. In a transparent effort to derail any peace talks, attacks were stepped up, the worst outrage coming on Aug. 1 with the slaughter of 33 mostly Hindu civilians. With hardliners reacting in these terms, the modalities of establishing Hizbul-New Delhi talks will be tricky enough; finding common ground on which to keep them going will be harder still. In the mountains of Kashmir, some ice, it seems, never melts.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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