By announcing the conditional unilateral cessation of pro-active operations by security forces against militants in Jammu and Kashmir during Ramadan, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken a decision that is fraught with as much risk as a potential turnaround for the better. This is the first such peace initiative by the Modi government since coming to power four years ago. The last time such an olive branch was held out by the Indian government was also during the tenure of a BJP government headed by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee 18 years ago.
The Indian government's instructions to the security forces and the army not to undertake offensive operations during the period of Ramadan came following an appeal by the state Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti. Her appeal reflected the sentiments expressed at an all-party meeting she had convened on the issue about a week ago.
Mehbooba Mufti, whose People's Democratic Party shares power with BJP in Jammu and Kashmir, has of late been under mounting pressure to persuade the Indian government to halt anti-militancy operations through cordon and search, because of rising unrest in the state and increasing involvement of local youth in militancy, many of whom have lost their lives in anti-terrorism operations by the security forces. About 270 terrorists have been killed in 2017 and this year so far. Since January this year, an estimated 30 security men and many civilians have also died.
The announcement of the unilateral halt to anti-militancy operations also came ahead of Modi's visit to Jammu and Kashmir on May 19 when he is expected to lay the foundation of some development projects. The government took the decision after consultations with the security establishment which was not too keen about it, as it could provide terrorists the time to regroup after being under immense pressure from the security forces. The government is mindful of it and that is why the Home Ministry statement making the announcement public inserted a caveat making it clear that “if it is essential for protecting the life of the common people, the security forces will be compelled to take appropriate action” in the event of terror attacks. That caveat was aimed at addressing the concerns of the security set-up which is bearing the brunt of militancy.
The key question is, what are the chances of such a unilateral gesture by the Indian government bringing the desired results like creating the political space and a conducive atmosphere for initiation of a dialogue with the separatists—and give room to the right-thinking people of the state to isolate the militants and end the cycle of violence? The government said as much when it said that, “it should be our collective endeavour to isolate those who bring a bad name to Islam by their senseless acts of terror and violence…It is important that all peace-loving people should come together to isolate the terrorists and motivate those who have been misguided to return to the path of peace.”
The government earlier appointed its interlocutor Dinesh Sharma, a retired intelligence officer who has since long been associated closely with Jammu and Kashmir affairs, for exploring the possibility of dialogue with the separatists and a cross-section of the population there. But the rising level of militancy in the last few months has forced the security forces to hit back hard, resulting in shrinking space for dialogue.
With the cessation of anti-militancy operations, it is now for the political parties in the state and the Chief Minister in particular to try and reach out to the people who were upset with her party's link with BJP to rule Jammu and Kashmir. The Indian government's initiative should signal that Mehbooba Mufti has the clout to secure the concession from New Delhi. The initiative could also allow the state government to address the issues that people of Jammu and Kashmir have with the powers that be, whether its the Mufti administration or the Indian government.
The success of the Indian government's initiative will depend on how the separatist groups and militant groups respond to it. The mainstream political parties including PDP and main opposition National Conference have welcomed it. The separatist groups conglomerate leaders Mirwaiz Umer Farook, Yaseen Malik and Syed Ahmed Shah Gilani have dismissed the federal government's initiative as a “cruel joke” and wanted a “permanent halt” to the anti-militancy operations. Militant outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba also rejected the initiative. In fact, doubts already began to creep in soon after the government's gesture when two separate terror attacks took place in the state. That the government is conscious of this find reflected in the Home Ministry statement which said that, “over the last few years, terrorists have indulged in large-scale bloodshed not only in India but also in other parts of the World, even during this holy month.”
If the last such unilateral cessation of pro-active operations against terrorists by the Vajpayee government during Ramadan in 2000 is anything to go by, one has to keep their fingers crossed. The Vajpayee government had enforced the cessation in November during Ramadan and later extended it three times till May 30, 2001. But terrorists had kept targeting security forces and made a daring attempt to attack the airport in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir. Very little came out of that initiative by the government.
However, the situation in Jammu and Kashmir today is quite different from what it was 18 years ago or even earlier in the 1990s. At that time, most of the terrorists were from Pakistan but in the last four years most of the militants perishing in encounters with the security forces were locals. That is why one finds sizable turnouts at the funerals of militants and other civilians who are getting killed. More and more local youths are reportedly being drawn to militancy. According to one report quoting the state police, 18 militants were killed from April this year and an identical number joined the ultras during the same month.
It is at this juncture that the moderates among the separatists and the mainstream political parties and their elected representatives and other peace-loving constituents of the civil society in Jammu and Kashmir have to step in and convince those who have taken up weapons that the cycle of violence and bloodshed needs a break. The fear of militants' bullets had sent many peace-loving members of the civil society and elected leaders of political parties to go mum. But remaining silent is no longer an option and the public opinion needs to be mobilised in favour of peace to pave the way for a solution.
Then there is another angle to the militancy in the state. While welcoming the Modi government's initiative, Mehbooba Mufti pointed to another crucial aspect of India's peace efforts in Jammu and Kashmir when she expressed hope that Pakistan will respond positively to the Indian government's Ramadan initiative. Will the Pakistan army, which stands guilty of sponsoring cross-border terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir as also other parts of India, hold back the militants? Will peace again get a chance in the state?
But signals from Pakistan are far from encouraging, to say the least. A couple of days after India announced the conditional cessation of pro-active anti-militancy operations, four Indian civilians and a BSF jawan were killed in firing by Pakistan border guards targeting civilian hamlets in forward areas in Jammu district. Mehbooba Mufti herself said while India took the lead in starting peace initiatives with cessation of operations during Ramadan, Pakistan has shown no respect whatsoever for this holy month.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent to The Daily Star.