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NEW DELHI — This year, there was an added significance in the sighting of the Ramadan moon, the new moon that marks the start of the holiest month on the Islamic calendar.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government had offered a monthlong unilateral ceasefire in Kashmir to coincide with the fasting and festivity that Muslims all over the world observe.

For the average Kashmiri, the ceasefire, now in force, seems almost like manna from heaven, given the 12 years of hostility between the Indian security forces and Kashmiri militants — supported clandestinely at first by Islamabad, and later openly — fighting for the state’s merger with Pakistan. The conflict has turned the beautiful valley, often described as “paradise on Earth,” into a smoldering wreck.

Whatever Pakistani strongman, Gen. Musharraf, and the hardcore militants contend, few can dispute that the struggle has changed in its essence.

For a long time, Kashmiris wanted either independence or accession to Pakistan. But here again, they tended to agree with what India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had said: “I would prefer Kashmir going to Pakistan rather than have an independent state between India and Pakistan.”

However, in recent months, Kashmiris’ disillusionment with Islamabad has become pronounced, and to state the reason would be to state the obvious.

What is more pertinent is that the armed conflict is no longer being waged by Kashmiris themselves. That has been taken over by Pan-Islamic fundamentalists, like Hizbul-Mujahideen and Lashkar-i-Toiba, who owe little allegiance to the Kashmiri cause. They are pure mercenaries who take up arms as a profession.

Although the mercenaries’ relationship with Pakistan is purely one of convenience — they use the territory for their operations against New Delhi — their close links with Afghan’s Taliban regime and Osama bin Laden are well documented.

In the given scenario, if it is not surprising that Vajpayee’s offer of ceasefire has been rejected by the Hizb as sheer gimmick, it is also not surprising that the All Party Hurriyat Conference, a loose conglomeration of separatists groups, some of whom have Kashmir’s interest at heart, has been less vocal about India’s latest initiative.

Some of the Hurriyat members know that the easiest route to power is through the Indian electoral democracy that their own Pakistani puppeteers will not provide. That the Hurriyat leadership is deeply divided must be one of the worst kept secrets in downtown Srinagar.

It is imperative that the Vajpayee administration — which overcame internal squabbling over its latest effort — moves on from here to cultivate the All Party Hurriyat Conference, even if that means displeasing the National Conference, the party in power in Kashmir and one of the partners of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition at the center.

A run through history provides clear evidence that the National Conference had consistently rigged elections in Kashmir to prevent the emergence of another democratic party which could have made all the difference in the valley.

Yet, the fact remains that however firm or sincere New Delhi may be in its quest for peace in Kashmir, Pakistan still holds the trump card. It has to decide whether it wants to reciprocate now by letting New Delhi succeed.

Islamabad knows that India has played its cards well: It has even enlisted the support of the powerful imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, Ahmed Bukhari, who till the other day was being dubbed a Pakistani agent.

The imam is being encouraged to establish links between Syed Salahuddin of the Hizbul-Mujahideen and other groups on both sides of the border.

To top it all, Musharraf must realize that he stands globally isolated as far as Kashmir is concerned, and that Vajpayee’s Ramadan offer has international sympathy and backing.

If Musharraf can get his country’s clergy to agree to end a war with India that was solely motivated by Kashmir, peace and calm can return to the valley, where ordinary aspirations have remained trampled for almost half a century.

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