Two days before the holy month of Ramadhan a surprise announcement came from the Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh when he informed through his Twitter handle that the government forces in Jammu and Kashmir have been asked to halt the operations against militants. This, according to him, was to ensure that the month of fasting passes off peacefully. In a way, it was a unilateral but conditional ceasefire about which the buzz was already on. The ceasefire announcement also came just four days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Jammu and Kashmir.
Given the policy of using hard power in Kashmir for the last four years, this decision was unexpected even as an All-Party Meeting, comprising all mainstream parties had on April 9, unanimously resolved to call for the ceasefire. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti was leading from the front to seek this “concession” so that both the Ramadhan and the upcoming Amarnath Yatra pass off peacefully. However, the way her ruling partner Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) opposed it and even the Defence Minister Nirmala Seetharaman rejected it summarily, little hope was left. Both PDP and BJP have been at loggerheads over contentious issues such as Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), talks with Hurriyat and Pakistan, notwithstanding the agreement they had reached in the Agenda of Alliance.
Despite the scepticism from various quarters and even outright rejection, the announcement came as a glimmer of hope for the common people who have been suffering due to the continuous grind of violence. Death of both the militants who have joined the ranks in past few years and the civilians who become the collateral damage has become unbearable. Some sections believe that the way common Kashmiri has been resisting the Indian state, it has taken the fight to a different level and in some cases people don’t even shy away from celebrating the deaths for the “cause”. But that is perhaps not the majority view and despite Delhi’s bad track record in handling Jammu and Kashmir, there are takers for this latest move.
DEPARTURE FROM THE HARD LINE
The announcement not only refreshed the memories of the then Prime Minister A B Vajpayee’s non-initiation of combat operations (NICO) in November 2000 during Ramadhan after Hizbul Mujahideen’s ceasefire in July proved to be short-lived, it also brought back to focus the hard-line the incumbent PM Modi had been pursuing. As Modi arrives on a day long visit to the state tomorrow, the two choices he gave to the youth of Kashmir last year come to mind. “I want to tell the youth of Kashmir that they have two ways ahead. On one hand, you have tourism and on other hand, you have terrorism,” he said while inaugurating Chenani-Nashri tunnel on Srinagar-Jammu high on April 3, 2017.
Not only the diatribe that continued from BJP as a party, the ministers in the government have been continuously dismissing the upsurge of the sentiment on the ground. This not only led to killing of few hundred militants after the killing of Hizb commander Burhan Wani in July 2016 but opened the gate for more and more Kashmiri youth joining the militant ranks. With South Kashmir becoming the hotbed of militants followed by the operations that took a heavy toll on civilian lives, allurement towards violence backed by societal sanction has brought a record number of boys to the militancy fold since January 1. While the number has touched 70, what is disturbing is that the figure doubled after April 1 bloodbath that left 13 militants and four civilians dead. As per officials 35 youth joined the militant ranks after April 1.
AVOIDING CIVILIAN CASUALTIES
The Centre’s ceasefire announcement needs to be seen in a context. Avoiding the civilian casualties at the encounter sites is the test the forces have been failing and for New Delhi to face it regularly at the International level had become too difficult. With people’s unrelenting support to militants, this was perhaps the only way to tackle it. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has been finding it difficult to come out of this quagmire and the fast-shrinking space for mainstream in Kashmir is a worry that Center would not take lightly. Mufti’s persistence, despite strong voices of resentment from the BJP and the establishment, has paid off. Whether Delhi had its own compulsions to move in this direction and depart from its policy, the fact is that such a move was much needed to give a breather to the situation in which killings had become a new normal.
Militant organization-Lashkar-e-Taiba rejected the ceasefire offer within hours of its announcement and a similar reaction from United Jehad Council headed by Hizbul Mujahideen came yesterday. Pakistan has not spoken on the issue yet. However, the Joint Resistance Leadership (JRL) comprising Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik have come with usual dismissive approach conditioning it with the permanent solution. This is rhetoric and there seems to be no application of mind in responding in strategic manner. It is a fact that New Delhi cannot be trusted as its time buying tactic has been on for long time. But in this case the cycle of violence starts with the operations of forces that trigger anger and subsequently the killings. This could be an incremental step that can pave way for making this not only a permanent feature but also bringing other issues like the prisoner release, misuse of Public Safety Act etc in its ambit. JRL has a responsibility towards the people and their aspirations and that needs to be handled with care, but the focus must be that lives of people are saved. It should not fall in the trap that would lead to conclusion that they have a vested interest in violence.
VIBES FROM PAKISTAN
It is important not to see this move in isolation. In the past few months there have been positive signals coming from Islamabad and that too from the Army. On April 15, the Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa talked about dialogue with India to resolve all issues. In its report released on May 3, London based think tank- the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), stated bilateral ties between the two arch-rivals are warming with Gen Bajwa saying that the “Pakistan military wanted peace and dialogue with India”. It cited invitation to India’s military attaché at its Islamabad High Commission to the military day parade. It also pointed out that Pakistan would be taking part in joint military exercises with India and other regional countries, including China, under the banner of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in August this year. The latest in this series is the interaction Major General Asif Gafoor, the Director General of Inter Services- Public Relations (ISPR) Directorate had with a group of visiting Indian journalists in which he said that Army was ready to join the dialogue process with India. Pakistan Army also gave access to the visiting journalists to Waziristan. If the reports are to be believed informal channels between the two sides have also been activated and the messages passed on.
Whether these linkages can be stitched together or not, the ground for creating a space for peace and reconciliation is not missing on both sides. While Pakistan is an important stake holder in the process, New Delhi also will have to move beyond this symbolic gesture and start talking about the political issue. Then only can this move put the failed ceasefires of the past behind.