India, Pakistan and the Hurriyat Conference have all missed the chance of using the Kashmir election as a first step for peace. But the election still offers India the opportunity for a new beginning.
AS THE first phase of the Kashmir election begins, the circumstances are daunting. The mujahideen have fulfilled their pre-election threat to attack Kashmiri leaders as well as voters who might participate. They have assassinated over 40 political candidates and party activists in the past few months, from the veteran Hurriyat Conference leader, Abdul Gani Lone, in February, to the Kashmir Minister for Law and Parliamentary Affairs last week.
The assassinations were clearly directed at silencing the popular Kashmiri support for elections that pollsters had noted. Tired of a decade of conflict that has wrecked their lives, most Kashmiris saw the post 9/11 situation and especially the new international concern over violence in Kashmir as an added window of opportunity for the peace they longed for.
Separatists such as Shabir Shah and Abdul Gani Lone recognised the Kashmiri groundswell for peace well before 9/11 in fact, Lone campaigned actively for the withdrawal of "foreigner-militants" in 2000-01. September 11 strengthened the hands of moderates such as Lone but also increased the danger to them. Especially from the jehadis that Pakistan cut loose following pressure from the international community to rollback support for the mujahideen.
It was, too, the Kashmiri groundswell for peace that encouraged the international community to back the election, and embark on a series of last-ditch missions to persuade the Hurriyat to participate. Lone's own party, the People's Conference, decided to brave the militant threat by fielding candidates in the current election only to be forced by the Hurriyat to expel them for participating.
The Hurriyat's decision to call for an election boycott, supported by Pakistan, gave the militants the signal to embark on targeted political assassinations and a campaign of voter intimidation though localised violence, especially in the border areas of Jammu.
Yet, there is a lot riding on these elections, especially for the Hurriyat. The Indian Government has bound itself to discuss autonomy/devolution in Kashmir with the new Government that will be formed after the election. So, the current election is not only for a new administration which is surely the crying need for the Kashmiris but also for the representatives to official talks on Kashmir. The Hurriyat's failure to recognise this fact and make it a campaign platform, as many of the coalition's own members urged and some independents have done, is a costly mistake that further undermines its claim to represent Kashmiri aspirations. Pakistan too is making a costly mistake by rubbishing the elections. Opposition to a democratic process that will allow the people of Jammu and Kashmir to choose their own leaders a right Pakistan nominally offers in "Azad Kashmir" but denies to the Northern Areas will only cast further doubts on the military regime's intentions.
Islamabad is already under international pressure to rollback the Kashmir jehad and Pervez Musharraf could certainly have done more to restrain the mujahideen, especially the Muttahida Jehad Council that still operates freely out of "Azad Kashmir", and has offices in Islamabad and Lahore. Instead, mystifyingly, Pakistan has not only retreated to the chiefly rhetorical position of calling for a plebiscite, but is back to defending the "freedom struggle" that spawned the jehadis. The Kashmir election is now quite definitely going to be marred by more violence and a low voter turnout. India will, with some justice, lay the blame at Pakistan's door, but that is cold comfort for the Kashmiris.
As it should be for India. While the Hurriyat's and Pakistan's mistakes will add to the pressures on both, in a wider view India's mistakes are the most costly because it was in the strongest position to achieve its goals. For the first time in 50 years, the international community as a whole was inclined to the solution that India has long proposed, to turn the Line of Control into an international border and devolve powers internally. But India was once again slow to avail of the opportunities this offered.
By allowing the latest of many initiatives, the Kashmir Committee, to lose credibility just when it was gaining the confidence of the separatists, the Indian Government weakened its own goals. The election could have laid the foundation for a peace process had it been accompanied by wide-ranging talks between the Indian Government and Kashmiri leaders. In the absence of such talks, the focus will have to shift to the post-election situation.
The new Government that will be elected in Kashmir will inherit the burdens of the old one. How much the State Government, or the Central Government, can achieve will be limited if the cycle of insurgency and counter-insurgency continues, as it has been allowed to thus far. The search for a ceasefire is paramount, though it has been suspended since the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee's efforts of 2000-01. Both the Indian and the Pakistani Kashmir Committees could be useful here, as could the Hurriyat and other separatist leaders. The Indian Government should allow the request of Pakistan's National Kashmir Committee to visit Delhi, on a Track II trip to start off with if need be. Second, it should begin building a cross-party consensus on autonomy/devolution in Kashmir after the elections. Having promised to discuss the issue with elected representatives, the Government needs to clarify what exactly is or should be on offer, and then work on a package together with the representatives of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. Simultaneously, it needs to hammer out an all-party consensus for autonomy/devolution in Jammu and Kashmir.
Most important of all, the Central and State Governments need to tackle the alienation that people in the State have expressed for years. In New York last year, L. K. Advani was asked at a meeting whether his Government had considered the issue of winning Kashmiri hearts and minds. Thus far, the Government, and Mr. Advani's Ministry, in particular, have shown little concern for that question. Yet, without a policy to build confidence in the State and at the Centre, the pressure on the mujahideen in Kashmir and in Pakistan will remain weak and fitful and India will remain vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
At a minimum, the Centre should intervene with the State Government to secure the release of political prisoners, and the speedy and fair trial of those accused under POTA or the Public Safety Act. More importantly, demilitarisation of civilian areas which has already begun to some extent and police reform should be at the top of the agenda.
Sooner or later the Indian and Pakistani Governments will have to renew the talks that fizzled out at Agra last July. It is widely rumoured that there may be some level of official talks at the end of this year, after a new Pakistani Government is in place, though this of course will depend on whether Pakistan opts for a consistent policy to tackle the Kashmir jehadis. Given Pakistan's retreat into hardline positions, India might be tempted to adhere to its own hard line of "no talks without an end to cross-border terrorism". But that would be to mistake the nature of the beast.
Pakistan, as India well knows, has a huge and unenviable task in tackling its jehadis. It would be wise to consider what inducements New Delhi can offer to encourage Islamabad in this task, as well as to consider what kind of security cooperation the two countries could engage in to protect Kashmiri lives. If the case for intelligence or anti-terrorism cooperation were built on the protection of Kashmiri lives, Pakistan might find it hard to resist.
In the meantime, India would do well to begin a rapprochement inside Kashmir. Indeed, the Government will go into talks with Pakistan on much stronger grounds if there is some hope in Kashmir. India, Pakistan and the Hurriyat Conference have all missed the chance of using the Kashmir election as a first step for peace. But the election still offers India the opportunity for a new beginning.
The writer is Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, New York.