Trapped as they are between guns from all sides, insurgency-ravaged Kashmir is a classic instance of missed opportunities even in the fourteenth year of turmoil. Apparently the main issue that seems to have brought subcontinent's Siamese twins - India and Pakistan - on the brinks of yet another war, it is getting complicated with every passing day.
When P V Narasimaha Rao offered autonomy with "sky as the limit" there were no takers. With over 35,000 buried in ubiquitous cemeteries, scores of groups crave for a political package but the BJP-led NDA has nothing but a "guaranteed for free and fair elections" to offer - a position that takes Kashmir back to 1987.
" Kashmiris are tired of violence," says Dr Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a law teacher at the University of Kashmir, "but there is no space available". At times, he says, it seemed that people were ready for some sort of compromise but New Delhi failed to utilize those opportunities.
In 1995, four former militant commanders entered into negotiations with the Ministry of Home Affairs. After two sessions, the channel was discarded. One of them, Firdous Sayed Baba, was nominated member to the state's Legislative Council. Imran Rahi, his colleague, recently floated the Peoples' Party with like-minded friends and is ready to contest polls "if it helps to settle Kashmir issue". But nobody is taking them seriously.
When National Conference (NC) returned to power in October 1996, greater autonomy for J&K was their main plank. The party submitted a report to the Centre seeking the restoration of autonomy. It was summarily rejected. "Had the report not been rejected, and negotiations initiated instead, NC would have been able to sell something to the people", says Meraj Muhammad, a college teacher.
Even in July 2000, when Abdul Majid Dar of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM) called a modus vivindi and sent his team for negotiations with MHA, they were exposed to the media first, a breach of the unwritten conditions. A situation developed that forced the HM leadership, apparently under Islamabad's pressure, to call it off. The moderate Dar, these days, is irrelevant to the masses even if he manages a vertical split in his outfit.
"Everyone who tried to show soft postures got politically marginalised or even got annihilated as they were seen more as traitors than leaders," adds Showkat. Many people here think Delhi lacks a policy on Kashmir. Apparently, it does not sound far-fetched as most of the postures the leadership adopted were of ad-hoc nature and fizzled out with the passage of time.
Since August 1998, less than 15 months after the most controversial 1987 polls, violence has been routine in 10 of J&K's 14 districts. People get killed and are dubbed either Indian or Pakistani agents, as the fence sitters are caught in the crossfire. Over 15,000 widows and 18,000 orphans are surviving with no assured source of sustenance. Society and the system failed to help the women whose husbands have disappeared in custody. Media terms them half-widows. The number of destitutes have increased manifold. Pandits have fled Kashmir and thousands are displaced within the valley. Material loss is in billions.
Abdur Rahim, a Budgam villager, says: "Whatever we had, we sacrificed. I do not think there is any kind of realization either in India or Pakistan". Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, former chairperson of the 23-party separatist alliance All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), echoes the same feeling: "Whatever the sacrifices we offer in the coming days, we may not take the movement forward beyond this stage". The APHC, he says," must explore all the possibilities and to broaden the base of interaction".
It was this understanding that Umer's APHC colleague, Abdul Gani Lone also believed in. A moderate voice that roared in the state legislature for over two decades was silenced in the sprawling cemetery at Eidgah recently. He had himself patronized an outfit called the al-Barq (the thunder) that introduced the foreign element in Kashmir militancy. However, well before 9/11 and 13/12, he had visualized the global shift vis-à-vis armed movements and started asking non-Kashmiris to leave.
"We knew, he was playing with fire. Already busy in cold war with India and Pakistan, he opened a militant front against himself", said an activist of the Peoples Conference, the party he founded in 1979. Adds a police official, who had interacted with the family days before his return from USA: "Sajjad told me that he was pushed back from Pakistan for his father's blunt statements. He was frightened. I recommended a strong security cover for Lone and his family".
The NC government, however, remained unmoved. They reduced his security cover from 13 to just four personnel. This was despite the fact that Lone was attacked eight times since 1995. In APHC, Lone was the only leader who knew the art of politics to perfection. That was perhaps why NC was literally frightened of him. "There were two players in the assassination of my father - killers who are invisible and the state government that was an indirect collaborator", says Sajjad.
Moving down south from Srinagar, people talk of massive militant movement. "Forests are full and they move in groups of 50 and more", informs a villager in Pahalgam. The ubiquitous security men do not offer a big challenge to the militants. "We have directions to take on them in small groups", admitted a middle rung police officer in Anantnag.
For over a month now, the south Kashmir villagers are clearing their vegetable gardens and orchards off the barbed wire that would protect the crop and demarcate their holdings. Troops know this is being done on the orders of the militants because it prevents their movement, especially during encounters. Most of south Kashmir is without barbed wires now.
In certain stretches of north Kashmir militants dominate the areas during night and the troops during the day. "Simply I can tell you, we become Indians during the day and Pakistanis during the night and we have no identity of our own", according to Abdur Rehman of Bangus hamlet in Handwara - the north Kashmir township that has the Rajwar belt, a place that continues to be called "Chota Afghanistan".
The fast approaching elections are going to be a bloody exercise. Early last year, the state initiated Panchayat elections. So far, almost half of the process was managed, with the half seemingly impossible. So far, 17 "elected" Panchayat members have been killed. These days, militants are choosing soft targets - activists of the ruling NC. Although a controversy is simmering within the separatist block over whether they should call for a boycott or simply ignore the issue, the results in both the cases are going to be the same.
The US-led war against terrorism was a great morale booster for the counter-insurgency grid. Instantly, the Fidayeen cult - that dominated the post-Kargil scene - turned inactive. Pakistan's ban on some ultra-right outfits Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Muhamad and arrest of their leaders demoralised the foreign element in Kashmir. Infiltration went substantially down and it was the soldier who would chase the fugitives.
"We have killed more militants than in the corresponding period last year. The infiltration might have also decreased but there have been more militancy related incidents than before," Lt. Gen. V G Patankare, Commander of the Srinagar-based 15 corps recently said. Since January over 700 militants were killed in the state against 1036 in 2001 and 830 in 2000.
It was in this situation that Prime Minister A B Vajpayee visited Kashmir. Says Prof. Saif-ud-Din Soz, former NC leader whose vote led to the fall of Vajpayee's earlier 13-days government: "The visit was a political disaster. The government of India is not serious about organising a political dialogue and has blunted all the opportunities. They want elections at all costs and this policy is suicidal and wrought with dangers".
Adds Mufti Mohammed Sayed, India's first Kashmiri Home Minister: "Centre is adopting a double standard when it comes to talks with Kashmir separatists. If they can talk to Naga militant leaders in Paris and Bangkok, why are they hesitant in talking to Kashmiri separatists". He and his daughter - leaders of Peoples Democratic Party - are the most mobile mainstream leaders in Kashmir. "You cannot ensure peace without involving Pakistan in talks process. New Delhi has many a time entered into a dialogue with Islamabad and it should not shy away from it now. Lahore bus yatra and Agra summit is a glaring example", he adds. This is exactly what the Hurriyat wants.
Recently when the Prime Minister invited the Hurriyat for talks, APHC Chairperson Professor Abdul Gani Bhat rejected. He said unless Pakistan is not involved, negotiations would lead nowhere. Privately they admit they would not mind, if a bilateral process - either Indo-Pak or Delhi-APHC starts first and later the third party joins.
"People are sandwiched between three guns - security forces, militants and surrendered militants. People want the violence to stop and peace to return. But they want a dignified peace", says Mufti. "We too want peace but not that of a graveyard," adds Professor Abdul Gani Bhat, the APHC chairperson.
Instead of dialogue, the two sides seem to be preparing for war, something even Kashmir's lone-war monger Dr Farooq Abdullah does not want these days. This is despite the fact that it is war-like situation on the LoC and IB in J&K where over a dozen people were killed in the recent shelling duels. Tensions have already sent over 30,000 migrants to Jammu.
"We have been facing a war for over a decade now. If a full-scale war breaks out, it will lead to widespread destruction. It is easy to talk of war, but very difficult to face it. We have seen it many times in the past when entire localities were set afire", says Noor Mohammed of Batamaloo, a Srinagar locality that was reduced to cinders in 1965. Delhi is pressing Pakistan to stop infiltration of militants into Kashmir. People who know the ground situation insist that if Islamabad is forced to accept this condition "even then militancy would sustain for next five years given the number of militants and weaponry available to them".
Published in Tehelka