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Towards a ceasefire in J&K?

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Finally, after four bleak years of unremitting conflict, a small ray of light appears to be struggling to get through in Jammu and Kashmir. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s proposal for a Ramzan ceasefire, backed by a State all-party delegation, has gained some traction in the policy community. Though we are yet to see how Prime Minister Narendra Modi responds, there is little doubt that a ceasefire would be hugely welcomed, most of all by the Jammuites of the border areas and the Kashmiris of the Valley, who have had little respite from violence since 2014.

Yet there is a sting in the proposal. Ms. Mufti talked about a unilateral ceasefire as was declared by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in November 2000. In response, Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Rawat has asked who would then guarantee that the security forces would be defended from attack. The question is not idle. During the first three months of the 2000 ceasefire, casualties amongst security forces rose sharply, despite the fact that there was considerable public pressure on the separatists as well as Pakistan to reciprocate, including from the ‘azaadi’ constituency.

Gen. Rawat is right in anticipating that there will be continuing attacks on security forces under a unilateral ceasefire. Nevertheless, it is imperative to curtail the violence that people in Jammu and Kashmir suffer, and a ceasefire might provide the best opportunity to de-escalate. As the rising number of youth turning to arms attests, the last four years of counterinsurgency have not succeeded in ending insurgency. We could have learned this lesson from past experience too — the counterinsurgency of the 1990s did not end insurgency. But it did pave the way for a peace process and it was this peace process that made progress towards ending armed conflict until Pakistan’s then leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, put it on a back burner.

The 2000 ceasefire experience also showed that casualties among the security forces could have been minimised had more urgent attention been paid to tightening defence of security installations and personnel. The Vajpayee administration did not prepare for continuing attacks and the ceasefire created both resentment among the troops and an understandable but misplaced relaxation of alertness. Gen. Rawat and his corps commanders could work on plugging such lapses and the Modi administration could take rapid steps to improve working conditions for security forces, including shorter service periods in the Valley.

What impact will a unilateral ceasefire have on the ground? Clearly there will be immediate relief to the beleaguered residents of the State. But the ceasefire can only provide an opportunity for other steps to be taken, such as India-Pakistan talks, dialogue with the Hurriyat and allied groups, and backchannel negotiations for a reciprocal ceasefire by armed groups. It is not clear whether such initiatives are already in the pipeline or whether the State government has presented a road map of how to get them going. What is clear is that taking these steps is far more difficult now than it was in 2000.

Mr. Vajpayee’s ceasefire took place at a time when there were active negotiations at a multitude of levels — India-Pakistan, Hizbul-Indian Army, Hurriyat-India-Pakistan, civil society and even business groups. He was able to set off the rise in casualties during the ceasefire against the political gains of a peace process, which eventually led to a sharp decrease in violence.

That context is gone today. There is little public pressure on the armed groups. The impetus for peace has been replaced by communal stand-offs, anger and hatred. More civilians, militants and security forces have died in the first five months of 2018 than in corresponding periods for the previous decade. The State is polarised, and society has become increasingly lumpen, as the death by stoning of a young Tamil tourist and the communal mobilisation around the rape and murder of a child in Kathua indicate. In the Valley, alienation from India is as high as it was in the early 1990s, when insurgency took root.

For a unilateral ceasefire to have the desired impact, of paving the way for a sustained peace process, it will have to be accompanied by rapid action on two fronts: externally, wide-ranging peace talks between India and Pakistan, the Modi administration and ‘azaadi’ groups; and internally, peace-building on the ground by the Mufti administration and Opposition parties.

There are faint indications that Pakistan’s military might be nudged into curtailing support for armed groups. The announcement of a unilateral ceasefire would put considerable international pressure on Pakistan’s civil-military leadership to restore the 2003 ceasefire along the International Boundary and the Line of Control. Negotiations with armed groups to reciprocate the ceasefire will be more difficult to get started — there is no Majid Dar today, and here again Pakistan holds the key, with so many instigators lodged there.

The quid pro quo for Pakistan will be talks on Kashmir. This is a bitter pill for the Modi administration, which has opposed talks while terrorist attacks continue. One way out would be to encourage talks between Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s all-party delegation and Pakistan Parliament’s Kashmir committee. This would allow the Modi administration some flexibility. It has the added advantage of having been proposed by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq back in 2010.

Talks with the Hurriyat are also complicated. The Mirwaiz Hurriyat is vulnerable, and the Geelani Hurriyat that has some, albeit limited, influence on militants is under a new leader who refused to ask his son to give up arms — how is he to be persuaded to support a ceasefire? Will he be amenable to suggestions from the other members of the ‘Joint Resistance Leadership’ who have supported ceasefires earlier? And what about the Hizbul and other armed groups? Given the lack of youth leadership, despite the plethora of martyr icons, Yusuf Shah, aka Salahuddin, might be the best bet for the first port of call. Alternatively, there is our own short-lived initiative as interlocutors, of putting out feelers through militants safely lodged in jail, which aroused such a howl of protest that we were forced to abandon it.

Union Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has already opposed Ms. Mufti’s proposal as have Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office Jitendra Singh and the State Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)unit. Mr. Vajpayee was able to silence opponents within his party and alliance. There is little doubt that Mr. Modi could do the same, given that he is feted within the party and his allies in government would in any case support a ceasefire.

The question is, does he want to? The declaration of a unilateral ceasefire would undoubtedly be to his advantage in the Valley, where the BJP is reviled by many. But Mr. Modi is due to visit Kashmir on May 19, two days after Ramzan begins, and many in Kashmir hope that he might announce a ceasefire then. If he does not do so, he will again have shattered Kashmiri hopes and snubbed Ms. Mufti, as he did her father.

Yet Ms. Mufti also bears responsibility. If she has not done the groundwork to ensure that a unilateral ceasefire will soon be reciprocated, and a political process follows, then she too has played opportunist politics geared towards restoring the credibility of her failing administration. In that case she would have done better to seek common ground with her coalition partner to curtail the counterproductive counterinsurgency campaign and improve governance on the ground.

We can only hope that both the Chief Minister and the Prime Minister are in sync.

(The Hindu)

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