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Setting Terms for Kashmir Talks

Author: Radha Kumar
January 25, 2003
The Hindu


THE INDIAN Government and the political leaders are known for taking a big gamble, and then failing to keep the pot warm for the win. Holding elections in Jammu and Kashmir under the threat of mujahideen attacks was a big gamble for India - and the country paid a heavy price when more than 800 civilians, political workers, election officials and security forces were killed.

Nevertheless, most people agree that the results were worth the price. Kashmir today has a coalition Government and a State Assembly in which all the major groups have a stake, except for the separatists. The new State Government is trying hard to give the separatists a stake too, with a "healing touch" policy that has won accolades both at home and afar. But the Union Home Ministry seems to have adopted a dual policy of offering talks to the separatists while continuing to withhold civil rights from them, denying Yasin Malik medical treatment abroad and suspending Mirwaiz Umar Farooq's passport. True, neither has been exactly helpful when it comes to getting a peace process started. Indeed, the Mirwaiz's recent reference to "our boys with the guns" on the BBC's "Hard Talk" raised eyebrows in the West as well as in India. But, as we know, few, if any, of the Kashmiri mujahideen are his boys. A rhetorical statement that does the Mirwaiz and the Hurriyat more damage than it does India is hardly a reason to refuse him a passport.

This is the latest of a series of decisions indicating that the Indian Government has opted to combine the healing touch policy with isolating its opponents, whether Pakistani or Kashmiri, by alternatively strong-arming and ignoring them. It is certainly true that the secret of a successful peace process lies in isolating the hard liners, but the means of doing this is by involving those that can be involved and dealing fairly with those that cannot. Isolation allows the hard liners to go unchallenged - involvement makes them accountable to norms and standards that they would otherwise avoid, and in the process it also gradually erases the hard lines. This is one of the biggest lessons to be drawn from the successes, and even more the failures, of other peace processes such as in Northern Ireland.

Until the late 1980s, the British tried to go it alone in Northern Ireland. They were able to contain the Irish Republican Army through military means and intrusive intelligence gathering, from spies and informers to road cameras and searchlights. By keeping the death count low, they ought to have established one of the key conditions for a peace process to get started. But the means they used aroused as much resentment amongst the Catholics as they did relief amongst the Protestants. At the same time they also attempted to isolate the Sinn Fein through withholding its civil rights - refusing, for example, to let the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, travel - moves that were widely perceived as a blot on British democracy, and prevented peace from returning to Northern Ireland.

By contrast, when Ireland and the U.S. persuaded Britain to let Mr. Adams visit the U.S. and participate in peace talks, the IRA was rapidly isolated and the Sinn Fein began to consider interim solutions that have, over time, radically altered its claims. Today the Sinn Fein is the member of a coalition government under British sovereignty, with open borders to Ireland. True, the coalition has failed to work and Northern Ireland seesaws between brief periods of self-rule and longer periods of direct rule by Britain. But the pressure is now on Northern Ireland's rival ethnic nationalists to fix their problems, not on London. The IRA has maintained a ceasefire and is committed to decommissioning. And the British Army is no longer hated as before.

Admittedly, the Hurriyat is not the Sinn Fein. Its members still oppose peace talks - or hedge them about with so many conditions that they cannot be started - and they do not have the influence over the militant groups that they once had. Nor are the Kashmir mujahideen the IRA. Unlike the IRA, they have refused feelers for a ceasefire. Radical Islamists - mostly non-Kashmiris - have dominated the mujahideen since the late 1990s, and have launched new and hideous campaigns to impose the burkha on women and exact revenge on alleged informers.

These are factors to India's advantage. Kashmiris increasingly resent the mujahideen and the Hurriyat has been severely weakened by its dependence on them, and on Pakistan. India could perhaps go it alone in Kashmir, if India were willing to sustain a healing touch policy in the face of militant threats, or reduce the violence to a bearable level.

But India's security forces are not equipped to contain violence through military means and intelligence. Thousands of troops have died in Kashmir, and are still dying. Though the Indian Army is beginning to modernise, it will take time for the security forces to develop effective containment strategies. In the interim, the Government's tough counter-insurgency offers little incentive for any mujahideen to cease fire, let alone decommission, and is always open to abuse of human rights.

Even with incentives, the Indian Government cannot win a comprehensive ceasefire without Pakistan's help, and this has not been available. Unlike Ireland, which actively developed a peace process with Britain, Pakistan continues to block peace initiatives in Kashmir. The release of Hafiz Sayeed and Masood Azhar indicates that Pakistan has again reverted to promoting jehad in Kashmir. Hard as it is to swallow, this means India will have to grasp at smaller straws for peace than Britain or Ireland did, rather than asking for the bundle. Yes, Pakistan could drastically reduce mujahideen attacks in India and Kashmir, and yes, it is immoral that it uses jehad to keep Kashmir in conflict and bring India to the negotiating table.

But the only way to get Pakistan to stop is step by step, as India's own recent experience shows. The Indian Government took a big gamble when it deployed half a million troops on the border with Pakistan following the attack on India's Parliament. The gamble paid off when the Pakistani Government arrested thousands of Islamic radicals and drastically reduced logistical aid to the mujahideen.

These gains were frittered away when the Indian Government failed to respond with incentives that could have been used to push Pakistan to take the next important steps - to charge the arrested, close down training camps and tackle the Haqqania, Muridke and Banuri jehad centres. Had India quickly restored the contacts that were snapped after the Parliament attack and offered talks on de-escalation, especially cooperation to permanently end violence in Kashmir, Masood Azhar and Hafiz Sayeed might not be free today.

Instead, by the time India did offer to restore snapped contacts, Pakistan's position had hardened again - with the result that over 800 people died during the Kashmir elections.

Despite these unpropitious conditions, India took another big gamble, this time with the healing touch policy in Kashmir. Its gains stand similarly at risk if India pursues a policy of isolating Pakistan and the Kashmiri separatists. Instead, India should call on Pakistan and the separatists to help restore human rights in Kashmir by working for a comprehensive ceasefire, especially as this would enable India to roll back its counter-insurgency.

India has been burnt by past initiatives to achieve a ceasefire. The Agra summit and the failed ceasefires of 2000 showed that Pakistan and the Pakistan-backed mujahideen seek photo-ops rather than concrete agreements to make peace. But today the international community stands ready to use leverage over Pakistan for substantive change, if India will accept that this change will only come step by painful step. The single most important element for the "healing touch" policy in Kashmir is to end the violence. Why refrain from a little bet on talks for a ceasefire - and civil rights for all - when undertaking the big gamble of winning Kashmiri hearts and minds?

The writer is an Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, New York.

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