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Beat retreat

Demilitarising Kashmir may be well worth the risk, writes Prem Shankar Jha.
None | By Prem Shankar Jha
UPDATED ON MAR 24, 2007 04:42 PM IST

Ever since he became the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Ghulam Nabi Azad has missed no opportunity to remind the people of Kashmir that his primary allegiance is not to them, but to New Delhi.

He has done so again by brusquely rejecting the demand by his ally, the People's Democratic Party, that the maintenance of law and order be returned to the J&K Police and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act repealed.

This is not the first time that Azad has made this clear. Shortly after he replaced Mufti Mohammad Sayeed in October 2005, there was a noticeable hardening of the security forces' attitude towards the civilian population.

In May 2006, Azad decided, somewhat gratuitously, to observe Rajiv Gandhi's death anniversary in Srinagar Apart from locking up the city to make it safe for the VIPs from 'India', he managed to incite a terrorist attack that left six persons dead and several injured.

The city was locked up once again, at the height of the tourist season, to make it safe for the PM's round table conference on the peace process.

No one spared a thought for the discomfort of the Kashmiris and the huge loss of tourist income that resulted.

Azad is not the most astute of Indian politicians. It is possible that he rejected the PDP's proposal out of pique because PM Manmohan Singh invited Mufti Sayeed to a discussion without first seeking his advice.

But it is more likely that he has taken his cue from sections of the Indian security apparatus that have always distrusted Mufti Sayeed and Mehbooba Mufti, and now consider their support for demilitarisation to be a vindication of that distrust.

These sections first expressed their distrust of the PDP immediately after the 2002 elections, when they urged Sonia Gandhi not to enter into a coalition with it, and to opt for the National Conference instead.

The Mufti's party, they warned her, had done well only because it had entered into a tacit alliance with the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen.

His 'healing touch' policy, they warned, was a ruse for taking the pressure off the militants.

Were the PDP to come to power, it would undo all that the security forces had done to curb militancy over the last 13 years.

Today some of them are pointing to the congruence of the PDP's demand with Pervez Musharraf's advocacy of demilitarisation and the Hizb commander, Syed Salahuddin's declaration that demilitarisation was a pre-condition for a ceasefire in Kashmir, to accuse the PDP of working against national interest.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In the three years of Mufti Sayeed's government, militancy waned and the level of alienation from India declined sharply Lack of cooperation from the Centre frustrated many of the healing steps that it had contemplated, but overall, few Kashmiris failed to notice the difference between the PDP and its predecessor, the NC.

Not only had the elections been scrupulously fair, but it had brought to power a government that was distinctly 'theirs' and not 'New Delhi's'.

Self-rule within the Indian Union began to seem possible for the first time. As alienation declined, election turnout rose.

Five months after the Mufti handed over power to Azad, in three bye-elections, the turnout was 69.06 per cent.

This was 41 per cent higher than in the 2002 elections. Despite this impressive record, people at the highest levels of the Union Home Ministry and the Kashmir government continue to consider the Mufti as 'anti-national'.

The security establishment's reading of Pakistan's motives in stressing demilitarisation are equally off the mark.

After having promised Kashmiris for almost two decades that he would liberate them from the Indian yoke, Musharraf has not found it easy to explain his acceptance of the Delhi framework agreement of 2005.

He has, therefore, been looking for an alternative rationale for his climbdown and seems to have found it in 'demilitarisation'.

According to him, the presence of 400,000 security forces (Pakistanis have boosted the figure to 700,000) is the cause and not the consequence of the insurgency and terrorism that have wracked the valley and parts of Jammu over the last 17 years.

For, the presence of such a large number of armed men, with draconian powers of search, seizure and punishment, keeps the local population in a permanent state of fear and virtually guarantees frequent violations of rights.

The surest way to cut this vicious circle is to minimise contact between the security forces and the civilian population.

It is in this context that he suggested (and it was a suggestion, not a demand) that the army be pulled out of three towns Srinagar, Baramu11a and Kupwara.

A second reason for stressing demilitarisation is his awareness that of the four issues around which back channel talks are being held identification of areas between which boundaries are to be softened, demilitarisation, self-rule and joint management - demilitarisation is the only one in which the two countries can show results quickly And Musharraf needs quick results since he is facing a presidential and parliamentary election that could significantly reduce his powers by the end of this year.

He needs success in Kashmir to reinforce his position, but he also needs it to reduce the number of fronts on which he is facing a trial of strength.

Today no one in Pakistan harbours any doubt that the country's very existence is being imperilled by its involvement in the Afghan war and the US's increasing pressure on it to step up operations in the tribal areas.

It is because of this that Musharraf now has the full support of the armed forces establishment for his Kashmir policy While all this makes good sense from Pakistan's point of view, the underlying assumption that the Indian security forces are a part of the problem and not the solution is unacceptable to India.

Thinning the troops on the ground would be an open invitation to organisations like the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba and the United Jihad Council to step up terrorist activities in the state.

What's more, Musharraf's suggestion is simplistic since it overlooks his own frequent assertions that the terrorists who planned the bombings in Varanasi, Delhi and Mumbai, not to mention Samjhauta Express, are foes of the peace process and so, of both countries.

Demilitarising Kashmir could be an open invitation to shift their focus back to the Valley New Delhi has, therefore, been insisting that the terrorism must stop first for demilitarisation to begin.

The Mufti's variant on demilitarisation holds out the promise of breaking this deadlock. He has pointed out that the need of the hour is not so much a reduction of troops as bringing them back under civilian authority.

This can be achieved by repealing the Armed Force (Special Powers) Act and placing the responsibility for maintaining law and order squarely on the shoulders of the J&K Police.

The police will have the right to call out the armed forces, but only with the authorisation of the civil administration.

The J&K Police have been saying for more than two years that the level of militancy has fallen and their own anti-terrorism capabilities have grown.

Various separatist and militant leaders, including Salahuddin, have expressed a willingness to join in peace talks if there is a substantial move towards demilitarisation.

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