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WEB-ONLY EXCLUSIVE
Indian Cease-fire Offer Brings Renewed Hope for Peace in Kashmir
But guerrilla groups call for permanent political settlement
By MICHAEL FATHERS New Delhi

November 23, 2000
Web posted at 11:00 a.m. Hong Kong time, 10:00 p.m. EDT


The week began with hope -- India unilaterally announced a cease-fire in the war with Islamic insurgents in Kashmir for the holy fasting month of Ramadan. But before the new moon that heralds the start of the fast was even sighted, guerrilla groups had rejected the offer and five Indians were shot dead in the troubled disputed territory. The prospect of peace looked as distant as ever.

In Pakistan, guerrilla leaders meeting under the umbrella of the United Jihad Council rejected the offer as a political gimmick. "What is the point of the cease-fire? They [the Indian forces] stop killing for one month and then start killing again," said Syed Salahuddin Ahmed, chairman of the Council and leader of the oldest Kashmiri militant group, Hizb-ul-Mujahedin. The Pakistan government demanded that the cease-fire be accompanied by negotiations. If not, the offer was merely a tactical ploy by India as part of its efforts to impose a military settlement on the disputed territory, it said.

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In India, the government was being challenged by the Hindu religious right for jeopardizing the safety of the country's troops with its "untimely" offer to stop fighting. It seems not much had changed: It was the same old stalemate that has wrecked Kashmir peace overtures so often over the past 52 years from the time the subcontinent was divided into two nations -- India and Pakistan.

Despite the rejection, the setbacks and the hard-line positions taken on both sides of the Line of Control that divides Kashmir, there is a slight and perceptive movement underway. Whether that leads anywhere is open to question, but something is happening -- on both sides.

The offer by Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to suspend combat operations did not come out of the blue. The government has been searching for ways to reengage the militants since July when hoped-for talks on a cease-fire were stillborn. The cease-fire offer then from Salahuddin's Hizb-ul-Mujahedin, a group of mainly Kashmiri fighters as opposed to the Pakistani and foreign- dominated groups, was accepted by the Indians, but went nowhere when the guerrillas demanded that Pakistan take part. India refuses to talk to Pakistan on the issue until Islamabad stops arming and training the insurgents in Kashmir.

Various envoys are emerging to test the possibility of talks -- directly or otherwise -- between the two capitals. One is Syed Ahmed Bukhari, the new Shahi Imam, or "chief priest" of Delhi's historic grand mosque. He has been in touch with the Hizb-ul guerrilla leadership in Pakistan to discuss a halt to hostilities. He has also been talking to the Kashmiri political leadership in Srinagar, and was consulted by Prime Minister Vajpayee before he made his cease- fire announcement on November 19. Bukhari said Hizb-ul leader Salahuddin was still insisting that Pakistan be directly involved in any Kashmir talks with India. Bukhari responded by saying it was important to create a conducive atmosphere first, so that talks could take place. "I am trying to lead everybody towards peace, and [by] not suggesting any political solutions," he told TIME Asia.

The Hurriyat Conference, the political umbrella for pro-Pakistani and Kashmiri nationalist parties in Srinagar, sees the unilateral cease-fire offer as a positive step by India. But they argue a halt to the fighting --whether short- term or long-term -- would not end the dispute. Only a political settlement that involved all parties could do that, the Hurriyat leaders declared after a hastily convened meeting on November 21.

Outside India, contacts have been taking place between a leading Muslim cleric from Kashmir, Mirwaiz Omar Farooq -- who is seen as a political moderate -- and Pakistan's military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf. With a status in Kashmir similar to that of the Shahi Imam in Delhi, Farooq, the 26-year-old "chief priest" of Srinagar held talks with Musharraf in Doha, capital of Qatar, during a summit of government leaders from the Islamic states earlier this month. He came back to Kashmir with some surprising news: Pakistan was no longer insisting on implementation of long-standing United Nations resolutions which it had held were the basis of any peaceful settlement to the Kashmir dispute. "The general told me that if for any reason it was not possible to implement the Security Council resolutions on Kashmir, Pakistan will have no objection to holding tripartite talks [involving India, Pakistan, and Kashmiri representatives] to find an amicable, permanent solution," Omar told TIME. "The general seems to be flexible and realistic."

Perhaps, but India has yet to be convinced that Musharraf is prepared to put away his mailed fist and talk peace -- on their terms. India has remained inflexible in its public posturing over Kashmir. But this week showed that there are less rigid points of view emerging -- however slightly -- from within the ruling establishment in New Delhi that might give the long-suffering people of Kashmir hope again.

Reported by Yusuf Jameel/Srinagar

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