If Delhi doesn’t act fast, none will be left at the negotiation table
FAZAL QURESHI is the latest of a long list of Kashmiri leaders who have been ruthlessly gunned down because they have dared to aspire to a peace with honour for the Kashmiris. He is also among the noblest of them. As he battles for his life in hospital the names and faces of some of his predecessors flit through my mind: Mirwaiz Maulvi Mohammad Farouq, gunned down on May 21, 1990; HN Wanchoo, the dauntless campaigner for human rights killed on December 5, 1992; Dr Abdul Ahad Guru, the eminent cardiologist, killed on March 31, 1993; Qazi Nissar assassinated on June 20, 1994; Abdul Ghani Lone on May 21 2002: Abdul Majid Dar shot dead on March 23, 2003; Mirwaiz Umar Farouq’s uncle Maulvi Mushtaq on May 29, 2004; the brother of Professor Abdul Ghani Butt, and now the dastardly attempt to kill Fazal Qureshi. Others, such as Butt himself and Shahid-ul-Islam, spokesman of Mirwaiz’s Awami Action Front, have narrowly escaped assassins’ grenades and bullets.
While some doubts still linger over the motives for the earlier killings, there are absolutely none about what has triggered the recent spate of assassinations. Each and every one has been designed to prevent Kashmiri nationalists from arriving at a peace settlement with New Delhi. Lone was killed because he had the courage, while still in Islamabad attending the marriage of his son Sajjad, to welcome Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s ceasefire offer of December 2000, and later urged the Hurriyat to fight the 2002 elections. The controllers who planned his assassination chose the 12th anniversary of Mirwaiz Maulvi Farouq’s death as a double-barreled warning to the Hurriyat to stay away from the 2002 elections.
The killing of Abdul Ghani Butt’s brother was intended to send him a similar message when he was the chairman of the Hurriyat council. Mirwaiz Umar Farouq lost his uncle because he ignored frenzied warnings from Muzaffarabad not to meet Deputy Prime Minister Advani for a second round of talks in 2004. He was rewarded for his temerity with the death of his uncle, the torching of his more than a century old school – the first for Muslim children in the valley — and a grenade attack on his home.
Fazal Qureshi, one of the gentlest of men, is battling for his life even as I write because he, too, had the temerity to come out unambiguously in favour of peace. At a conference in Srinagar on October 11, he laid out a blueprint for a resolution of the Kashmir dispute that endorsed the Manmohan– Musharraf framework for settlement. Qureshi pointed out that there were only minor differences between the rival proposals for autonomy, self-rule and azadi that were being put forward by the various political parties in the state, and that, collectively, these reflected the will of the people of Kashmir. The main difference between Hurriyat and the mainstream parties was that the former wanted Delhi to hold ‘trilateral’ talks with both Kashmiri leaders and Islamabad as it did not believe that there could be lasting peace in Kashmir without Pakistan’s acquiescence. He made it clear that while he was speaking on behalf of the Hurriyat Conference, these were also his personal views. It now seems that by doing so, he turned himself into a target.
Who planned this dastardly attack? If the past is a yardstick, then the ISI has to be the prime suspect. For, with possibly one exception, all of the assassinations listed above were carried out by organisations that enjoyed its patronage. What is more, these have been only the visible tip of the empire of fear that it has created in Kashmir. To cite a few examples of which I have personal knowledge, days before Musharraf’s foreign minister, Mian Mahmud Kasuri visited New Delhi in August 2004, one senior member of Geelani’s branch of the Hurriyat told a Pakistan High Commission official that ‘you can relay what I am going to tell you to the ISI and sign my death warrant, but I would urge you not to do so and to convey to the foreign minister that the Kashmiris want both your countries to arrive at a compromise solution that will allow them to live in peace’.
When Kasuri was followed by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz in January 2005, the Hurriyat leadership came down to Delhi to meet him but made no attempt to meet Dr Manmohan Singh. When they were warned that not requesting an appointment would be an insult to the Indian state and that Dr Singh, who had already met them three years earlier when he was the leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha, had set aside time for them, they confessed that they did not dare to do so because they had received explicit death threats from the other side.
However, so much has changed in Pakistan in the past year that conclusions drawn from its past behaviour could be entirely wrong. Since March, the Pakistan army has been in an all-out battle against the Taliban in the tribal agencies. The death toll in this war, of civilians and combatants, has climbed to nearly four hundred a week and the frequency of terrorist bombings is approaching Iraq at its worst. Pakistan has so far committed 2,50,000 soldiers to the war so far and is likely to commit another 80 to 1,00,000 in the coming months. This would constitute almost half of its total active and reserve strength. The last thing it wants or needs is renewed tension with India. The Pakistan foreign minister, Shah Mahmud Qureishi said as much in London on December 4: “We are facing a challenge but we cannot face it alone. We need a regional approach. India is an important regional player and it has to act responsibly.” This may be why there has not been a single terrorist attack in India after 26/11, making the past 13 months the longest terror-free period that India has known since 2002.
What is beyond doubt is that there are hundreds of militants of every persuasion who have a compelling need to keep the insurgency alive because it has become their livelihoods as well as their lives. The ones who will be most affected are the jihadis gathered in Muzaffarabad under the aegis of the United Jihad Council. Indeed, the attack on Fazal Qureshi has their stamp all over it. Whether they have been helped or encouraged by elements within Pakistan’s ISI is anyone’s guess.
In the end, it does not really matter who was responsible for the attack on Qureshi. The real reason why every Kashmiri leader who has had the courage to discuss peace with New Delhi has been cut down is the chronic indecision of India’s leaders and their inordinate fear of an imagined ‘Hindu’ and nationalist backlash if they make any concession to the separatists. It should have been obvious to the Home Ministry that the Kashmiri separatists could be persuaded to accept a settlement within the four corners of the constitution the moment they turned away from violence in 1995, for there can be no negotiated settlement of a dispute without a compromise. But government after government in Delhi has held talks with militant leaders and then done nothing. By doing this, they have discredited these leaders and exposed them to the charge of having sold out to ‘India’.
Over years of fruitless talks, a chronically disaffected Kashmiri urban intelligentsia has turned the manufacture of accusations of betrayal into a cottage industry. Lone was killed after months of incessant propaganda — that he was a turncoat who had sold out to the Indians — by Ali Shah Geelani from every mosque in the Valley. Geelani has been spearheading the same kind of attack on the Mirwaiz’s Hurriyat ever since it became known that it was engaged in ‘quiet negotiations’ with the Home Ministry. And Srinagar had hosted no fewer than five seminars denouncing Hurrriyat and the peace talks in the weeks before Fazal was shot.
It is time for New Delhi to acknowledge that its hands are not clean, and to bring negotiations to a conclusion before there is no one left to negotiate with.