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The Rediff Special/Abeer Malik
Hizb offer a bid to reclaim primacy in J&K
It was Kashmir's best kept secret. The Hizbul Mujahideen's dramatic declaration of a three-month unilateral ceasefire to facilitate a dialogue with the Indian government has taken everyone by surprise. The media didn't have an inkling, the intelligence paraphernalia had no clue, and the state authorities were blissfully ignorant of the impending outbreak of a peace offensive by the valley's largest, most powerful militant outfit.
The full implications of this development will take some time to unfold. But one thing is immediately clear: that the Hizb, by asserting its 'Kashmiri', 'representative' character vis-a-vis the other militant groups, has sought to wrest the initiative from the so-called 'guest' [foreign] militants who have been dominating the decade-long underground separatist movement.
The Hizb 'operations commander', Abdul Majid Dar, who held the press conference at a hideout in Srinagar, said his outfit was in a better position to gauge the feelings and aspirations of the Kashmiris who, he acknowledged, crave peace and freedom from fear of the gun.
Before analysing the development, its delicate nuances in the highly complex situation in Kashmir need to be explained. That such a major announcement in the offing from the 'underground' militants was totally unknown to the valley's 'overground' world, which bristles with snoopers and soldiers, exposes the reality of the state of readiness at the ground level.
Local reporters, on receiving an oral invitation from the Hizb after a long time, did not believe it to be genuine. Some smelt a trap by pro-government surrendered militants to chastise pro-militant reporters. Others thought the invite could be a ruse by the underground movement to kidnap reporters to 'discipline' them.
Thus, only four relatively junior and presumably expendable reporters boarded the special vehicle parked in the press area at 1400 IST on Monday. None of the veterans mustered the courage to go for a tempting news scoop, certainly none from the national media or the television channels.
The suspense did not end with the thinly attended press conference and the safe return of the four. None of the news agencies rushed in to flash the news in the manner they usually do. It was too good to be accepted at face value. And therein lies the rub.
The Hizbul Mujahideen, a pro-Pakistan militant organisation, is closely affiliated to the Jamaat-e-Islami. Its commander, Syed Salah-ud-Din (real name Yousuf Shah), is based in Pakistan. In fact, he is also the outfit's most familiar face in Kashmir. Abdul Majid Dar, who held the press conference, was also in Pakistan for about four years. Some time back Indian security forces had even claimed to have killed him when trying to cross back into India. Dar, known to be a 'moderate' in his group, hails from apple-rich Sopore town in north Kashmir.
Dar's declaration set the valley guessing about its impact across the Line of Control, a key factor to reckon with. The Hizb is undoubtedly an organisation of Kashmiri militants, but it owes its power to Pakistan, which manipulated the balance of forces on the ground in such a way that the pro-independence Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front got marginalised after having pioneered the underground movement in the early Nineties.
Yet another aspect of the development is that the run-up to the recent change of guard at the head of the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference has revealed a vital ideological dimension that could be linked to the Hizb's ceasefire offer.
Former APHC chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani belongs to the Jamaat. Non-Jamaat elements in the conglomerate had been pressing him since April, when the change of guard was scheduled to take place, to step down. He resisted till he was sure none of the rival groups would step in.
Abdul Ghani Lone of the People's Conference was defeated by Prof Abdul Ghani Bhat of the pro-Jamaat Muslim Conference by three votes to four. The two contestants, Lone and Bhat, could not vote. Among those who backed Lone were Mirwaiz Umar Farooq of the Awami Action Committee and Yasin Malik of the JKLF.
The prospect of a dialogue between the separatists and the Indian government has been hanging fire for long. Prolongation of the run-up is beginning to expose the ideological heterogeneity of the Hurriyat. Against this background, the Hizb's offer of a unilateral ceasefire could well be intended to fortify the Jamaat's claim vis-a-vis its ideological rivals in the field.
The faith in the inevitability of dialogue stems mainly from the common feeling that the American pressure flowing from Bill Clinton's visit in February is at work in India and Pakistan. Kashmiris tend to draw inferences from the timing of the ceasefire declaration in Srinagar, which synchronised with the US visit of Pakistani Jamaat-e-Islami chief Qazi Hussain Ahmed. The qazi held talks with US officials, including Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Karl Inderfurth and Ambassador at Large and Co-ordinator for Counter-terrorism Michael A Sheehan.
Significantly, Dar said at his press conference that the Hizb wants to dispel the impression that it is part of the global (Islamic) terror campaign which, incidentally, has been top of the mind for American policy/decision-makers.
The Hizb's peace offensive comes well before Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's visit to the United States in September. India has so far warded off Pakistan's repeated offer of talks by pointing to the proxy war in Kashmir. The Hizb's declaration puts the ball back in India's court. Vajpayee will find it hard not to respond even as he prepares his own brief for the US visit, which includes a meeting with Clinton.
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