Kashmiris and the Pakistani elections

| | in Oped

The rhetoric generated in Pakistan’s ongoing election season is being disseminated in every Srinagar home, thanks to a flourishing cable TV network

Even as the issue of Kashmir is not discussed much prominently in the election rallies across Pakistan, the politically sensitive Kashmiris across the Line of Control are watching the general elections in the turmoil-ridden country keenly. These elections ring in the first of the four important events taking place in the region, the cumulative impact of which would be far reaching for the people of Jammu & Kashmir. After the formation of new government in Pakistan, the general elections in India and Assembly polls in Jammu & Kashmir are slated for 2014 along with the crucial withdrawal of the US-led Nato forces from Afghanistan.

Much before the election bugle was blown in Pakistan, the ground situation in J&K began to drift from the relatively calm and peace of 2012 to a tumultuous beginning in 2013.

In January, an Indian soldier was beheaded in Poonch sector allegedly by Pakistani troops. The incident put sudden brakes on the peace process between India and Pakistan and the old status quo was restored. In February, the central government took a calculated risk to secretly hang and bury the Parliament attack convict, Afzal Guru, in Delhi’s Tihar Jail triggering fresh spell of turmoil in Kashmir Valley.

Since the execution, the Valley has remained constantly under either curfew or separatist-sponsored shutdowns. The militants who had chosen to lie low for quite a long time also began to be conspicuous. In March, they carried out four attacks on security forces including a fidayeen attack in the Bemina neighbourhood of Srinagar. Eight security personnel were killed in these attacks. The attacks escalated in the wake of warnings issued by militant groups that the execution of Afzal Guru would be avenged.

Significantly, the previous National Assembly in Pakistan sparked off the present situation in the Valley by passing a resolution condemning the execution of Afzal Guru.  Though a counter resolution was passed in the Indian Parliament, the events brought the Kashmir situation back in focus.

The Pakistan factor has always remained very strong in the political affairs of J&K, especially in the Valley. Ingrained in the two-nation theory that formed the basis for the Kashmir conflict, the pro-Pakistan sentiment has been nurtured more by the leaders who eventually led the people to reconcile with the Union of India. In the present scenario, even as a Home Ministry-sponsored study has concluded that the youth in Kashmir are more inclined towards an independent Kashmir rather than its accession with Pakistan, the chanting of pro-Pakistan slogans at anti-India rallies has not altogether ceased.

Many observers believe that he internal strife in Pakistan, covering both sectarian violence and Talibanism, and the dwindling state of its economy, has diminished the appeal that Pakistan held to an earlier generation of Kashmiris.  Yet this scenario has not broadened the constituency for India.


Unpopular India

The main reason is that the Indian government used the iron fist to quell the 20-year armed rebellion followed by public uprisings in 2008 and 2010. Political interventions, such as the dialogue process with sections of separatists or economic packages, proved to be cosmetic overtures rather than serious steps oriented to winning hearts in J&K. 

It’s not unusual to see Kashmiris following the political futures of different Pakistani politicians. Each of the leaders there represents a certain kind of future for Indian Kashmiris. If Nawaz Sharif returns to power, it means the return of Punjabi aggrandizement. If Imran Khan takes the reins, the scenario may be altogether different. The Pakistani news channels, which take the slogans generated in Pakistan to every Kashmiri home via cable TV, make sure to pack in messages for Kashmiris. Efforts by Indian agencies to block these sources of information have not yielded results. Meanwhile, the newspapers of J&K merrily reproduce articles printed in the Pakistani press.

Most curious are the separatist leaders, many of whom have of late developed strong connections in Pakistan. Last December, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq led a delegation of the moderate faction of Hurriyat Conference to Pakistan and spent a fortnight there. The visit, at the initiation of Pakistani government, was aimed at restarting the dialogue process in Kashmir. Ironically, Mirwaiz’s effort was not recognised by New Delhi as he endlessly waited for an invitation from South Block to report back on his trip.

The Afzal Guru hanging ruined everything for those hoping for permanent peace. Observers say that New Delhi was not keen in engaging with a regime in its last days in Islamabad. This made many recall the manner in which India dragged its feet in the negotiations with Pervez Musharraf when the military ruler began to lose grip on the country in March 2007.

Musharraf’s out-of-the-box, four-point formula was the best bet for India to legitimise the status quo in J&K, and detract the UN resolutions. Unlike Mirwaiz, the hardine Hurriyat leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, neither appreciated Musharraf’s overtures nor made attempts to engage with the Zardari government. 

The Government of India facilitates separatist leaders’ Pakistan visits but simultaneously keeps a check on them. Prior to Mirwaiz-led delegation’s visit to Pakistan, his confidante, Abdul Ghani Bhat, spent several months in Pakistan and PoK to observe the political pulse.

He met with all the stakeholders in Pakistani politics. The meetings with the militant leadership including United Jehad Council chief Syed Salahuddin raised many an eye brow in India. Yasin Malik, the Chairman of the pro-Independence JKLF, also spent seven weeks in Pakistan. His mother-in-law is a senior leader of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaf. Malik plunged into controversy after Hafiz Muhammad Sayeed, the Jamiat Dawah chief, the mastermind of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, was spotted at his hunger strike at Islamabad protesting against Afzal Guru’s execution.

Interestingly, Malik’s passport on his return to India was not impounded as demanded by the BJP. Notwithstanding the fact that there was no headway on Kashmir under Zardari, the Pakistani government stuck to its “principled stand” on Kashmir unlike Musharraf who was willing to consider new ideas. The secessionism in Kashmir continued to receive “political, diplomatic and moral” support from the Pakistani government. The cross-LoC trade or movement of people continued mostly under Pakistani regulations. The Indian Army maintained that Pakistan did not close down military training camps for Kashmiri militants. That, observers say, refers to the fact Pakistan has not seriously demonstrated its intention to close the terrorism option.

The occurrence of a fidayeen attack in Srinagar after a lull of four years and the targetted killing of panchayat members indicates the re-emergence of militancy. The Indian government has also launched a counter-offensive. The Chief of Army Staff, General Bikram Singh, expects his field officers to remain aggressive. This points to the fact that the Army is determined to keep down the rate of infiltration across the LoC.

Therefore, while the Pakistani electorate casts its verdict for a new regime on May 11, the Indian Army would do its best to reinforce the status of the LoC as a de facto border. Political engagement with the new rulers in Pakistan would largely depend on the ground level situation in Kashmir, especially along the 720 kilometer long Line of Control.

            Khursheed Wani | (The writer is The Pioneer’s Correspondent in Srinagar)

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