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India & Kashmir Trip Report

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The political season is in full swing in New Delhi.  Important state elections in a few months will be followed by national elections in 2004.  Do not expect the Government of India to pursue risky new initiatives in the interim.  This is not good news for the Bush administration, which has asked India for troops in Iraq, help in stopping Iran’s nuclear program, and improved ties with Pakistan.  All of these requests pose risks for the coalition government led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, which would prefer to tread water on difficult issues, especially Kashmir.  This places the initiative on matters of war and peace on the subcontinent in the hands of Islamic extremists.  

Citing continued Pakistani-abetted violence in Kashmir, Vajpayee’s government is expending little effort in trying to normalize relations with the much-vilified Pervez Musharraf, Islamabad’s latest Army Chief-turned-President.  Musharraf, whose intelligence services continue to maintain shadowy links to militant groups engaged in violence across the Kashmir divide, makes for a more useful foil than a negotiating partner. 

During most of 2002, India dealt with severe terrorist provocations by mobilizing its Army to wage war.  This year, the Vajpayee government has sheathed the sword and taken small steps away from confrontation.  These steps provide an alternative to both war and normalization of ties with Islamabad.  Because Pakistan-supported infiltration and acts of violence continue, New Delhi can postpone for as long as it wishes a serious and sustained engagement with its troublesome neighbor, while easily fending off feeble U.S. efforts to promote dialogue.  Washington’s political capital is being spent on other, more pressing matters, such as gaining support for the stationing of Indian troops in Iraq or rolling back Iran’s nuclear program. 

New Delhi is now parrying these requests without breaking a sweat.  With respect to Iran, the Vajpayee government is clear about not wanting to have another nuclear-armed state in the region, but not at the expense of worsening ties with Tehran.  In the case of Iraq, New Delhi’s rejoinder is that its troops are heavily occupied with the task of fighting terrorism in Kashmir.  This is an indirect, but unmistakable jibe against the Bush administration’s prior efforts to convince Musharraf to stop permanently infiltration.  The pledge, extracted by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage from Musharraf in June 2002, was central to Vajpayee’s public rationale for not moving from mobilization to war.  Implementation of this pledge was, however, short-lived, as cynics predicted.

New Delhi then lowered its expectations on how much leverage the Bush administration had on Musharraf as long as Operation Enduring Freedom against the remnants of al- Qaeda is underway.  Indian government officials have viewed subsequent media reports of Pakistani transfers of nuclear bomb-making equipment to North Korea and Iran, as well as the resurgence of Taliban-related activity along Pakistan’s Afghan border, as confirmation both of Musharraf’s duplicity and of U.S. leniency.  India has well-trained troops to spare for Iraq, but the Bush administration’s war is deeply unpopular, especially with India’s large Muslim minority, and few see anything to be gained by coming to Washington’s aid. 

During the election season, India’s policies toward Pakistan and Kashmir rely heavily on optics rather than substance.  In April, Vajpayee extended another hand of friendship to Pakistan during a speech delivered in Kashmir’s summer capital, Srinagar, but there was little follow up.  Modest steps, such as the exchange of high commissioners, has not led to a resumption of dialogue.  Piecemeal gestures continue, like the allowance of young Pakistani cricketeers to visit India, but the foreign ministries of both countries have again affirmed their skills at delay, diversion, and denial of constructive bilateral diplomacy. 

The “we’re ready but they’re not” refrain has many variations.  India’s ready for trade and the resumption of commercial airline over-flights.  Pakistan is protective of its market and does not wish to give New Delhi more of a foothold in Afghanistan by means of Indian Airlines flights.  Pakistan wants a resumption of dialogue, but India’s foreign minister has told his counterpart not to bother to extend a formal invitation for Vajpayee to attend a regional summit next January in Islamabad, even though India has previously agreed to attend.  There is no desire to see a photo-op of Vajpayee shaking hands with Musharraf, the perpetrator of cross-border terrorism. 

After Vajpayee’s opening in Srinagar, Musharraf responded with a private offer of a comprehensive cease-fire, which suggested more of a crackdown on militant groups operating on Pakistani soil in return for Indian initiatives in Kashmir.  The particulars of this proposal, conveyed in June, have yet to be revealed.  Subsequent Indian press accounts characterized Musharraf’s offer as being limited to a cease-fire along the Line of Control dividing Kashmir, which was promptly rejected by New Delhi as being utterly insufficient.  We will not know whether Musharraf’s offer was real or cosmetic, but we can reasonably assume that the manner of its disposal will confirm to senior Pakistani Army officers that New Delhi is not serious about improving bilateral ties.

When Pakistan seeks to get India’s attention, it does so in Kashmir.  This stunningly beautiful but tormented region enjoyed a period of relative calm this summer.  Tourism increased fivefold from 2002, prompting a cover story in an Indian travel magazine to declare “A Paradise Regained. The Valley is Back on the Map.”  New Delhi projected a return to normalcy in Kashmir, which the new state government led by Mufti Muhammed Sayeed attributed to its “healing touch” policies.  A procession of high-level politicians visited the state to affirm these gains.  

Normalcy ended on September 13th, when twenty-five people were killed and another twenty-five were injured in clashes between militants and security forces.  Srinagar had a very ragged edge this day, with the sound of gunfire, troops on heightened alert and helicopters buzzing overhead.  The most dramatic event of the day was the political assassination of Kuka Parray, a former militant-turned-state legislator, whose feared militia forces were responsible for killing at least two thousand militants, their sympathizers, and innocent bystanders.  Needless to say, Kuka Parray was a polarizing figure — a marked man as well as one for whom much was forgiven in a place where fighting fire with fire has become a creed rather than an aphorism. 

Several anti-India Islamic groups claimed responsibility for the killing of Kuka Parray, which sent shock waves through the Valley.  The headline in the local paper, Greater Kashmir, read “Counter-Insurgency Orphaned.”  The day after the assassination, moderate separatist and opposition leaders were a distracted and worried lot:  If such a feared and heavily protected figure could be gunned down, a man whose militia served as a shield against militancy, who would be next?  Were they, too, on the hit list?  And given their opposition to political authority in the state, who would help defend them from assassination attempts? 

This being Kashmir, a conspiracy theory was circulating to explain Kuka Parray’s assassination, which came at a surprisingly unguarded moment when he was not traveling, as usual, in his bulletproof car.  Some theorized that the state government was behind the hit, since he was becoming a rising power and a political threat.  Harsh logic points to a more obvious explanation – that Kuka Parray paid in kind for the punishment he had meted out.  As to the timing for the upsurge in violence, there were many possible reasons, including the killing by Indian security forces two weeks before of the top commander of Jaish-e-Muhammed, one of the most feared militant groups, and the impulse to belie official declarations of a return to normalcy.

The upsurge in violence might also be linked to a fissure within an amalgam of separatist leaders, calling themselves the Hurriyat.  A former chairman of the Hurriyat, Sayed Ali Shah Geelani, known for his hard-line, pro-Pakistan views, had been progressively sidelined by a moderate faction that was showing signs of softening their stance against a dialogue with New Delhi.  Geelani then convened his own supporters to declare themselves the true representatives of the Kashmiri people.  The split in the Hurriyat has done severe and perhaps irreparable damage to its claim, supported by Islamabad, as being the legitimate voice of Kashmiris.  The division within the Hurriyat’s leadership council is bad for Pakistan’s intelligence services, but growing moderation within the conglomerate would be worse.  Kuka Parray’s assassination will stifle moderate voices, embolden Geelani, and once again leave New Delhi without interlocutors among the separatist leaders.

Another possible explanation for rising violence might be the end of the tourist season.  The ultras have shown far more tactical flexibility than New Delhi.  They might have learned that violent acts that keep tourists away do not win hearts and minds of the long-suffering masses.  In other words, normalcy in the Valley might well have had more to do with the tactics of militant groups than with the initiatives of the new state government or the security forces.

There is still no light at the end of the tunnel in Kashmir.  Instead, there is a real possibility that alienation and militancy will become a permanent feature of daily life.   New Delhi’s strategy is to wear down and wait out the militants, while co-opting separatist leaders with inducements of a better life.  This strategy assumes that the passage of time benefits the security forces, and that beleaguered people will support those who receive Delhi’s largesse. 

These assumptions are questionable.  Indian security forces can cut down militant commanders, but they haven’t been able to win hearts and minds.  Nor can heavily compromised political leaders engineer a return to normalcy in Kashmir.  Under present and foreseeable circumstances, normalcy will be defined by fear and violence.   

The situation in Kashmir will not improve with an extension of current policies or by treading water. But neither Pakistan nor India is likely to reassess their Kashmir policy anytime soon.  Pakistan’s generals appear to believe that they can successfully manage their support for militancy without provoking a split with Washington or a war with New Delhi.  Put another way, if the “freedom fighters” hurt India more than Pakistan, they are well worth supporting in covert ways.  For its part, New Delhi will continue to pursue policies that wait out the opposition and ward off third party involvement, including the United States, placing a higher value on military control than on a risky political settlement.  With Washington preoccupied elsewhere, the initiative in Kashmir now rests in the hands of the militants.

 

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