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Volume 4, No. 8 - June - July 2005

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SUMMER MAYHEM: The Dances of Death and Dialogue in Jammu & Kashmir

Even as President Pervez Musharraf was finalising his preparations for talking peace with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last month, the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) had set about realizing a rather different agenda. Late on the night of April 14, a group of LeT terrorists entered the home of Mohammad Shafi at the village of Bathoi, near Mahore in Jammu province. Shafi had opposed jihadist groups in the area; that evening, he paid for it with his life. Later that night, the terrorists made their way to the nearby home of Qmar-ud-Din, where, this time, they chose to behead their victim. Roshan Din, their third victim of the night, was also ritually decapitated.

Last week's high-profile bomb attacks in Srinagar have punctured the post-summit euphoria, and some commentators have started to wonder if dialogue and death can coexist. Is violence, as many recent reports suggest, escalating? If so, why? Does this violence have the support of Pakistan's Government, or is it carried out by Islamists opposed to President Musharraf's efforts to make peace with India? And could the ongoing violence derail the peace process? It takes little to notice that the questions now being asked are not just the outcome of the bombings, but also of decades of mistrust: is Pakistan really willing to sever its relationship with jihadi groups, or does it still see their activities as a negotiating tool? In other words, is the peace process for real?

A simple answer exists for at least the first of these questions, whether there has been an escalation in violence: No! March, the last month of this year for which reliable data is so far available, saw 25 civilian fatalities; February, 20; and January, when no-one was speaking of high levels of terrorist violence, 40. 9 security force personnel and 62 terrorists were killed in March; 10 and 44, respectively, died in February, and 23 and 60 in January. These are the lowest figures recorded for these months since the early years of terrorist violence in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). By way of contrast, fatalities were almost twice as high in March 2004, and more than twice as high in February 2004. What seems to be underway now is the routine summer-time escalation of violence - a cycle linked, among other things, to the symbolically-important shift of Government offices to Srinagar, and to the melting of the snow on the mountain passes across the Line of Control (LoC).

Having said this, it is also important to note that the longer-term reduction in violence does not mean that peace has broken out, at least yet, in J&K. It is only by the exceptionally ugly standards set in the State through this decade and a half of horror that two thousand deaths a year can be described, as officials are fond of doing, as a situation approaching normality.

Where, then, do things stand? Violence in Jammu and Kashmir has been in steady decline since 2002, the year when the fallout from the terrorist attack on New Delhi's Parliament House took India and Pakistan to the edge of war. The decline has been dramatic. Where 3,505 incidents of terrorism-related violence were recorded in 2001, last year saw well below 2,000. And where 2001 had witnessed the worst-ever bloodshed in the state - 3,796 fatalities were recorded - that number was down to 2,016 in 2004. Given the early-year trends, and the fact that infiltration by terrorists across the LoC has been extremely low this year, it seems likely that 2005 will see a continuation of the declining trends witnessed since the end of the India-Pakistan 'near-war' of 2002.

Little noticed and even less commented on, though, terrorist killings continue to be an aspect of everyday life in J&K, the peace process notwithstanding. Many of the recent targets have been low-level functionaries, propelled into office by the State's moves towards bringing about village and town-level democracy. Earlier this month, for example, terrorists killed the head of the Pattan Municipal Committee, Mian Muhammad Ramzan. An opposition politician, the Awami National Conference's Muhammad Jabbar Khanday, and Itiqullah Shah, a nephew of Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, were also assassinated on May 3 and May 2, respectively. Most victims, it needs to be underlined, were just ordinary people, going about their everyday business.

In a recent interview, Sardar Mohammad Abdul Qayoom Khan, the veteran politician from Pakistan-administered Kashmir, made the pithy assertion that the Kashmir "jihad has become a business now". To use Khan's metaphor, then, the jihad business is slow - but the jihad factory is up and running. At a time of India-Pakistan détente, this begs the question: why? Students of terrorist violence would have little trouble arriving at an answer. As the scholar Stephen Cohen has pointed out in his recent book, The Idea of Pakistan, terrorism serves objectives that transcend its military significance. Its principal purpose is, instead, to transform the ways in which civil society comprehends reality, through "a theatrical performance of increasingly unimaginable horror". As the India-Pakistan dialogue proceeds, jihadi groups are certain to use violence to secure representation at the negotiation table, directly or through proxy. Hard-hit by aggressive counter-terrorist operations, which have decimated their field leadership, jihadi organizations need to demonstrate that they can still wield coercive authority over civil society. With Pakistan having scaled back support to terrorist groups, it is also essential for their leadership to show signs of life to their increasingly-sceptical supporters.

Is there hope? It would appear so. General Musharraf may or may not have arrived in New Delhi with a new heart - looking into people's souls is a business best left to clerics - but his actions have indeed given evidence of something more meaningful: a new pragmatic mind. The United States has placed intense pressure on Pakistan to cut back its support for the jihad in Jammu and Kashmir, fearful that another crisis in South Asia might derail its objectives in Afghanistan and elsewhere. More important, Pakistan is confronted with multiple internal challenges, from both Islamists and nationalists like those fighting Pakistani forces in Balochistan. It cannot afford an external crisis as well. Even the prospect of an India-Pakistan war imposes disproportionate costs on Pakistan, and could undo the fragile economic gains General Musharraf's regime has succeeded in securing. Pakistan, then, needs peace for hard-headed reasons, and not for some emotive urge for 'reconciliation' with India.

Pakistan seems unwilling, however, to altogether demobilize its secret army. While cross-border infiltration has dropped sharply, training camps continue to exist as does much other jihadi infrastructure. The April 7 issue of the LeT affiliated magazine Ghazwa carried advertisements for a new network of schools which would give students a modern education, but "also prepare your children for jihad". The same issue also proclaimed the LeT was recruiting cadre from amongst Muslims in India, for a war it believes is not just for the liberation of J&K, but against 'Hindu' India as a whole. Although it is unlikely that General Musharraf has any real love for the Lashkar - Ghazwa, for one, attacked him in no uncertain terms for omitting the ritual credo Bismillah before the text on his official website - he cannot do without groups like it, either. For all its military influence in J&K, Pakistan has little political clout. Its most visible supporter, the Islamist leader Sayyid Ali Shah Geelani, has failed to create a significant mass constituency for his Tehreek-e-Hurriyat. Centrists in the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) have long been disenchanted with Pakistan. As such, Pakistan has little choice other than to seek representation through the jihadis.

It is not, however, a policy without risk: as the December 2001 attack on Parliament House illustrated, any level of terrorism contains within it the risk of calamity-inducing crisis. Is this a reason for India to go slow on, or pull back from, the peace process? Quite the contrary. Pakistan has long seen the jihad in J&K as a cost-free method of securing leverage - or, if nothing else, imposing costs upon its historic rival, India. After the Pokhran II nuclear tests of May 1998, Pakistani strategists came to believe this enterprise could be sustained in perpetuity at little cost. Now, it is starting to become clear, the jihadis have inflicted costs on Pakistan, too: economic, social and institutional. Constructive engagement will bring home the fact that ending violence in J&K isn't a concession to India, or even to the long-suffering people of the J&K: it is, in fact, an issue that concerns Pakistan's own future as a viable, modern nation-state.

COURTESY: South Asia Terrorism Portal

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