Kashmir - Why the talks failed

Patron Lt Gen (Retd) SARDAR F.S. LODI analysis why the negotiations broke down.

Hizbul Mujahideen, the most powerful Mujahideen Group operating inside Indian occupied Kashmir announced a unilateral ceasefire on Monday July 24, 2000, at a news conference on the outskirts of Srinagar, the capital of Indian-occupied Jammu and Kashmir. This statement took the people in India, Pakistan and Kashmir somewhat by surprise, by its suddenness and the uncertain future implications that were likely to flow from it. The announcement was certainly a move in the right direction and should have been welcomed by all those who favour a negotiated settlement of the long outstanding dispute between India and Pakistan that has cost the lives of thousands of innocent Kashmiri civilians.

Abdul Majid Dar chief commander of Hizbul Mujahideen said, “we want to show the world that we are not hard-liners and we are flexible in the search for a solution.” Dar announced that the ceasefire would initially run for a period of three months and called on the Indian security forces to respond in kind. He wanted no force to be used against the Mujahideen and no excesses carried out on the Kashmiri people. The surprise ceasefire announcement came a few days after the election of Prof. Abdul Ghani Bhatt as the new chairman of All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC).

Dar also rejected the views being put across by India to the world, that the freedom movement had lost grassroots support in Kashmir in recent years and was now dominated by foreign mercenaries. “The fact is that this is an indigenous movement and all the Mujahideen commanders with me are locals. At the press conference Dar was accompanied by his four senior commanders, who were all local Kashmiris and not carrying any weapons for the conference. Dar said his decision was based on a grassroots survey conducted by his group and he had the consent of the local people.

In New Delhi the Indian Prime Minister welcomed the ceasefire announced by Hizbul Mujahideen leader and said he was willing to talk with any group for resolving the Kashmir issue. He, however, stressed that any discussion could only take place within the framework of the Indian constitution. This was apparently for home consumption to allay the fears of the more extreme elements in his coalition government. Similarly the Indian Home Minister who is also in charge of Jammu & Kashmir said that the government was prepared for dialogue to give more power to Indian-occupied Jammu & Kashmir, but ruled out full autonomy.

The initial reaction of the United States government was that it will welcome any move that leads to a lowering of violence. The State Department official referred to President Clinton’s statement that there could be no military solution to the Kashmir problem and that any solution must be part of a process that took the aspirations of the Kashmiris into account. He denied that there was any connection between the ceasefire announced by the Hizbul Mujahideen in Indian-occupied Kashmir and the visit of Jamaat-i-Islami Chief Qazi Hussain Ahmed to the United States.

The Hizbul Mujahideen rejected the Indian government’s offer of talks within the Indian constitution explaining that they did not recognize the Indian constitution. New Delhi consequently was forced to radically change its former stance and offer talks without any preconditions. India also announced that it was suspending military operation against Hizbul Mujahideen. How the Indian Army would distinguish between the Hizb freedom fighters and its own underground militants was not explained. There were, however, encouraging signs discernible on both sides despite the diversity of their views, aims and objectives.

The Indian National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra put in his bit, by suggesting that the constitution of India would indeed form the cornerstone of any negotiations. “Surely any representative of the government of India cannot be acting outside the constitution,” Mishra said. But the Prime Minister of India, Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee, the top moderate in the BJP-led coalition government who initiated the Lahore peace process last year, was firm in his views. Mr Vajpayee said the main touchstone for peace talks should not be the Indian constitution -which precludes discussion of Kashmir’s secession — but “insaniyat” (humanity). “Leave the constitution. Talks should be held within the limits of insaniyat so that violence is stopped and no more blood is shed.” This was a most significant development and augured well for the future.

This was for the first time in 11 years since the armed uprising in Indian-occupied Kashmir started in 1989, that India had found it expedient to talk to the Kashmiri freedom fighters and that too outside their constitution. This was an encouraging sign and showed that Vajpayee-led India, could when required, be amenable to a peaceful dialogue to solve an outstanding issue. It was hoped that the talks would eventually bring peace to the people of Kashmir who had undergone untold suffering over the past fifty-three years.

The ceasefire by the major Mujahideen group in Indian-controlled Kashmir was a very bold and significant move, and no doubt the result of months of behind the scene effort on the part of India, Pakistan and the people of Kashmir. This had undoubtedly been achieved with some prodding and help from the United States who are keen that peace returns to a nuclear South Asia. President Clinton had said in a joint statement on July 4, last year, after meeting the Prime Minister of Pakistan, that he would take a personal interest in encouraging an expeditious resumption and intensification of those bilateral efforts, once the sanctity of the Line of Control has been fully restored. During the US President’s visit to South Asia he had also stressed the urgent need for a dialogue between the two antagonists.

India’s willingness to open a dialogue with the largest group of Kashmiri freedom fighters was surely an admission that the struggle being waged for the past 11 years against Indian military occupation was by the people of Kashmir themselves. Indian claims of cross-border terrorism was a propaganda effort to discredit Pakistan, and divert world attention from the grave human rights’ violations and other atrocities being committed by over 700,000 strong Indian security forces against the Muslim civilian population of Jammu and Kashmir.

Mr Advani the Indian Home Minister had said in New Delhi on July 29. “Many may not be aware that the Hizbul members, though pro-Pakistani, are mainly Kashmiris.” He went on to say: “We have no hesitation in talking to our own people, even though they may have strayed into the path of militancy.” It seems to have taken a long time for this realization to have dawned on the Indian authorities in New Delhi. It was an open admission by the government of India that the people of Kashmir had taken up arms against the Indian occupation forces in Kashmir.

It was unfortunate that over ninety civilians both Muslims and Hindus were killed on the eve of talks between the Indian Home Ministry officials and the Hizbul Mujahideen. This act of senseless killing, should be condemned in the strongest terms by every peace loving person. The Indian Prime Minister Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee was statesman enough to announce that the talks with the Mujahideen would be conducted as scheduled despite the killings. He of course blamed Pakistan for the tragedy. Pakistan has denied the accusation and demanded an impartial international inquiry to confirm the facts. This is a reasonable demand and should have been acceded to.

The Hizbul Mujahideen is by far the largest group fighting in Indian-occupied Kashmir and no other small group can operate in Kashmir without their cooperation and some assistance. It is, therefore, evident that the freedom fighters were not responsible for the killings. In any case the Mujahideen never target civilians and at least 15 of those killed were Muslims. Some of the Indian newspapers had reported that most of the pilgrims killed at Pahalgam was due to cross fire of the security forces, probably due to panic. The area is very well protected during the pilgrimage season. There is also a strong possibility that the extreme Hindu fundamentalist groups allied to and part of the BJP-led coalition government, may have been trying to scuttle the talks and resume the confrontational mode again due to their hatred for anything to do with Pakistan and Muslims.

The first meeting took place between the Hizbul Mujahideen and Indian Home Ministry officials at the Nehru guest house, located beside the picturesque Dal Lake in Srinagar. It was stated that these talks were taking place to work out the modalities of a ceasefire that should hold for at least three months. The next meeting was to take place between a team of six persons from each side. This was a good beginning and it was hoped would be taken to its logical conclusion as the Indian Home Secretary Mr Kamal Pande had termed the first meeting as “positive.”

There was, however, a fear that India may only be trying to divide the Kashmiris politically as she had not included the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) in the talks, who represent the people and public opinion in Indian-occupied Kashmir. To the APHC India had only offered talks within the Indian constitution whereas for the Hizbul Mujahideen, no conditions had been laid. Others felt that India was probably only trying to lower the tempo of Mujahideen activity to gain time, which she feels is on her side. These misgivings could well have been due to the long years of mistrust between the two countries. It was, however, felt that the peace process should be given a good try, whatever, the reasons attributed to it.

It seems that the present Indian government of Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee is making a genuine effort to reach an amiable solution to the problem of Kashmir. The APHC leaders had been released from captivity by India recently to create a conducive atmosphere for the talks. Another important change discernible is the transfer of India’s top military commander in Kashmir. The former corps commander in Srinagar Lt. General Kishan Pal was associated in the peoples mind with suppression and atrocities and was also the architiect of the policy of ‘Hot Pursuit’, or armed crossing fo the Line of Control in Kashmir. He has been replaced by Lt. General John Ray Mukherjee, a Christian officer, who is also Chief of the Unified Command in Kashmir. An officer belonging to another persecuted minority community in India would show some compassion towards the Muslim civilian population of Jammu & Kashmir.

Pakistan’s official reaction and stance to the unilateral ceasefire and the initiation of talks that could lead to far reaching developments in Kashmir was absolutely correct and well in keeping with the wishes of the people in Pakistan and in Kashmir. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Abdus Sattar stated the government’s position when he said that it is for the people of (Jammu and Kashmir) and their political representatives the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) to make judgement with regard to the manner in which their struggle is to be waged. Pakistan attaches great importance to a dialogue to solve the Kashmir problem as stated often by General Pervez Musharraf the Chief Executive of Pakistan. He is also reported to have told his colleagues that whatever is acceptable to the people of Kashmir would be acceptable to Pakistan.

On 31st July 2000, the Chief Executive of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf had suggested signing of a no-war agreement with India. In an interview to the London-based Arabic daily ‘Al Hayat,’ he asked India to sign an agreement for preventing wars between the two countries instead of New Delhi’s insistence on signing a pact on no first use of nuclear weapons. This was a good suggestion, which would have deleted war as an option in South Asia creating a tension free atmosphere conducive for peace negotiations. India’s response to this offer was as negative as it had been to the first one nearly 40 years early by Field Marshal Ayub Khan. Another peace signal from Pakistan was being ignored by India to the surprise of many at home and abroad.

After the first meeting between the Indian government and Hizbul Mujahideen, which the Indian Home Secretary had termed as “positive”, there was some delay in the next meeting. The Hizb commanders were not aware of the reasons and said on August 6, in Srinagar: “The meeting may have been delayed but Insha Allah, the meeting is expected to take place this week.” They were, however, in for a surprise because the next Indian move was a great disappointment for all concerned.

The Indian Prime Minister Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee on returning from a trip to Indian-occupied Kashmir said in parliament that there were no conditions for the unprecedented peace talks which got under way last week, but added that any accord would be bound by the constitution “No preconditions have been put on the talks,” Mr Vajpayee told the upper house of parliament. “We will talk within the constitution, but if somebody wants to raise other issues, are we going to stop talking? I don’t know what shape these talks will take but we are ready to take the peace process forward.” He made it clear that there was  little to gain from resuming dialogue with Pakistan as long as it supported Mujahideen activities.

The constitution of India holds the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir as an inalienable part of India. Because of this, any talks within the constitution would have to exclude the United Nations Resolutions demanding an impartial plebiscite in the state, or liberation of Indian-occupied Kashmir. The Hizbul Mujahideen in their statement issued in Srinagar on August 6, said New Delhi’s insistence on a solution within the constitution had snuffed out hopes of an early settlement of the Kashmir dispute. It went on to say that it was seriously considering, whether to continue with the temporary ceasefire it had declared unilaterally on July 24.

Chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) Prof. Abdul Ghani Butt while talking to newsmen in Srinagar on 28 July had already voiced his doubts and concern about the forthcoming peace talks with India. He had said: “Keeping in view the historic insincerity of India, Hizb should never have announced a unilateral ceasefire.” He went on to describe India’s attitude by saying that after the announcement, the house of Abdul Majeed Dar was raided by the Indian security forces and also of his friends and relatives.

Prof. Ghani showed surprise at India’s unwillingness to talk to Pakistan about Kashmir when he said: “Kashmir is a disputed issue and its solution lies either in the UN resolutions or tripartite talks involving India, Pakistan and Kashmir people.” He went on to say: “India has been talking with Pakistan even during the Kargil conflict, then what is wrong if India, Pakistan and Hurriyat talk simultaneously. “But India seems adamant in slowing down or completely blocking the peace talks for the solution of the Kashmir problem.

In view of India’s uncertain attitude and her government’s changing policy of talks within the constitution, altered to talks outside the constitution under ‘Insaniyat’ or humanity, changed again to the constitution after the first round of talks. The Hizbul Mujahideen called off their ceasefire on August 8. The hope of further talks ended because “Vajpayee’s statements had been contradictory. In one breath he talked about dialogue on the basis of humanness, but in the same breath he spoke about negotiations within the framework of the Indian constitution” Another reason given by the Hizb commander was India’s “rigidity” in not accepting tripartite dialogue with Kashmiris and Pakistan.

India had certainly derailed the peace initiative said the Hizb representative and added, “We have demolished the Indian propaganda that we are against a peaceful settlement of the Kashmir problem.” Pakistan said on August 8, hours after the Hizbul Mujahideen revoked its 15-day ceasefire, that the negative and transparently insincere response by the Indian Prime Minister and other officials had destroyed the possibility for a peace process. A Pakistan foreign office spokesman called on India to engage in a “meaningful” and result-oriented” dialogue with Pakistan and the Kashmiri leadership.

The United States expressed regret at the decision of the Hizbul Mujahideen to end its unilateral ceasefire. “We regret the decision reported by the Hizbul Mujahideen and we urge all sides to nurture and continue the process of peace,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. “We welcomed the initiative of discussion between India and the Hizbul Mujahideen, and we encourage their resumption,” he said.

It must be appreciated that the core problem of Jammu and Kashmir that has been the greatest source of friction, confrontation, wars and loss of lives between India and Pakistan for the last 53 years cannot be solved in one meeting or a short period of time. There will be encouraging statements by leaders followed by depressing denials. Political compulsions and personal political survival will also play their part. In many cases public opinion in both the countries will need to be changed, maybe by 180 degrees. These will take time, effort, a political will and considerable patience and must, therefore, be accepted as a part of the peace process.

Mr. Vajpayee’s statement in Pahalgam that the talks would be on the basis of humanity and not the constitution was a courageous move. On returning to New Delhi he reverted to the earlier stance and again talked of the constitution. These variations and contradictions are no doubt a part of the political process, at least one hopes they are. Similarly the statement by the Muttahida Jehad Council (MJC) terming the cease- fire announcement by the Hizbul Mujahideen as an unauthorized move and a tactic to sabotage the freedom struggle, is another example. Some in the country are still very sceptical of Indian moves, as trust is lacking owing to years of confrontation and strife.

The problem that India is facing today in a BJP-led coalition government is that of the Hindu religious fundamentalist parties which are supporting the government. This is in addition to the BJP’s own fundamentalist thinking. Over and above this the government of India has built a war and hate hysteria in the country against Pakistan, particularly after the Kargil episode. These are now becoming a hindrance in the peace process and are included in the political compulsions which may be forcing the hand of Prime Minister Vajpayee away from the peace talks.

Hopeful signs of a thaw in the status quo have, however, recently been emanating from India. Prime Minister Vajpayee said in New Delhi on August 10 that India was ready to discuss bilateral issues with Pakistan irrespective of the form of government in Islamabad. This is a welcome change. “This is the first time in many months that India has indicated its willingness to talk to Pakistan on bilateral issues,” said Mr Pranab Mukherjee, senior Congress party leader.

New Delhi had been maintaining so far that talks with Islamabad cannot be held until Pakistan stops its support to the Kashmir freedom fighters. The new Indian thinking is a welcome departure. On August 13, Prime Minister Vajpayee while flaying a Mujahideen attack on a security forces convoy in Indian-occupied Kashmir said New Delhi was still ready to hold peace talks with them. In reply the Hizbul Mujahideen negotiator said in Srinagar on August 16 that the group would soon resume a dialogue with India which had collapsed earlier.

When all is said and done it is the will of the nation that will count. At present there seems to be a political will on either side of the border to settle the Kashmir problem and bring peace to South Asia. Will the leaders rise to the occasion and forge a lasting peace with honour and dignity for the people of Jammu and Kashmir, which is acceptable to them. India and Pakistan are parties to the dispute and, therefore, cannot shirk their responsibility. It is incumbent on them to open a meaningful dialogue and initiate a move even though slowly, towards a peace process. This is the desire of the peoples of South Asia and that is the direction in which their salvation lies.