INDIA AND PAKISTAN FEUD OVER KASHMIR ELECTIONS
by Aman Singh
American Reporter India Correspondent
New Delhi, India
NEW DELHI, August 25, 2002 -- The forthcoming general state elections in Jammu and Kashmir in September have embroiled not only the two newly-nuclear South Asian powers - India and Pakistan - but also the entire international community in a sea of confusion.
Fears of war that appeared to be fading a month ago were suddenly rekindled after hard-line Indian Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani warned on a three-day visit to Britain last week of a possible "limited war breaking out" with Pakistan, and later refused to initiate even a low-level peace process. Advani's words came as a shock to those mounting efforts to bring about peace on the subcontinent.
Insisting that General Musharraf was not the problem, Advani said it was not "any one individual ... but whosoever comes to power in depends upon an anti-India stand."
He also denounced "Pakistan's continuing subversion" of the "ongoing process of democracy and normalization in J&K" (as the Jammu and Kashmir territories are known) and invited "Indian (based) embassies of various countries to send observers." U.S. Deputy of State Richard L. Armitage visited the subcontinent last week in the latest effort by the United States to make peace between the two nations, but the new elections feud flew directly into the line of diplomatic fire.
The Jammu and Kashmir elections are to be held in four phases on Sept. 16, Sept. 24, Oct. 1, and October 8.
Armitage, caught between India's anger and American interests in Pakistan, insists that Pakistani infiltration is down, and has told India he believes "it is not only up to Pakistan to reduce infiltration at the border."
The emphasis on Armitrage's most recent visit was to prod the Indian government to ensure a plausible result that yields a more representative government in the state. The Indian side conveyed to Armitage that the international community must ensure that Pakistan keeps its promise to the United States to put a complete and permanent stop to the export of terrorism to India.
India announced three de-escalatory steps with respect to Pakistan in June after hearing Armitrage's assurances that, while the U.S. acknowledges that Pakistan has reneged on its promises, it would spur Pakistan to stop the infiltration of what India calls Muslim terrorists. Armitrage was told categorically by Indian officials that Pakistan was bent upon sabotaging the September-October elections in Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan insists the separatists are freedom fighters and has generally declined to accept responsibility for their bombs and ambushes in the two Himalayan states.
Meanwhile, Indian officials say that infiltration by Pakistani-backed militants in the state has declined, but not stopped. Their position is that they will not engage in any dialogue with Pakistan over the future of Kashmir until cross-border infiltration of Kashmiri separatists stops completely.
Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes said India had definite reports that Pakistan intends to step up violence in J&K to disrupt the Assembly polls, asserting that armed forces would act decisively to "overpower" such attempts. He also went on to declare that the government in its possession had "innumerable intercepts" between militant headquarters Line of Controlated in Pakistan and groups active in Kashmir.
Fernandes said these messages gave instructions to militants on ways to disrupt elections, how to get rid of candidates and eliminate campaigners. Asserting that the government would take no chances whatsoever with elections in the state, the Defense Minister also said that if necessary, it would consider keeping the forward deployment of troops on the borders even beyond October.
He added that although the past few months had seen a 20 to 30 percent drop in infiltration, with the elections coming, Islamabad had stepped up efforts to send mercenary militants into the state, citing specifically an abortive bid on Aug. 17 to send 18 mercenaries late on a Saturday night across the agreed Line of Control, or miltary boundary, in the Kupwara district of the India-Pakistan border.
Two weeks ago, Musharraf began the current exchange of allegations and counter-allegations when he condemnded the scheduled elections in a speech on Pakistan's Independence Day. He appeared to invite India's wrath, and Advani responded with equal acerbity. on India's Independence Day, Aug. 15, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee accused Pakistan of hewing to a double standard, and promised his country that "elections in Jammu and Kashmir would be fair and free."
Urging the electorate in the state to come out and vote in large numbers, the prime minister said the polls would provide an opportunity to the people of Jammu and Kashmir to create a better life for their children.
India's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MEA) also expressed dismay over Musharraf's "continued negative posturing" and his repeated attempts to "heighten tensions by provocative language."
"His denigration of the electoral process in J&K confirms India's concerns that Pakistan intends to sabotage the J&K election," an official statement said. Foreig ministry spokesperson Nirupama Rao described his address as "recycled, hackneyed thinking."
"We have taken note of his intention to disrupt the peaceful election in Jammu and Kashmir and to continue his hostile postures towards India. The Government of India will take necessary measures to counter Pakistan's design," she said.
Calling Musharraf's speech "empty rhetoric," Rao said "It is becoming increasingly clear, as we had suspected all along, that Musharraf has no intention of putting an end to the involvement of the Pakistani state and its agencies with terrorism, including cross-border terrorism. Our past skepticism, based on the wide gap between his words and actions, has once again been justified."
She also referred to Musharraf's promises of January 12 and May 27, when the Pakistani prime minister spoke of ending cross-border terrorism and infiltration.
"He has only repeated the time-worn and frayed formulations about so-called self-determination, and ]the] core dispute." Rao added, "Perhaps it is the contrast between free and fair elections in J&K within the framework of India's democracy and the national elections in Pakistan conducted by a military regime that worries him. Conduct of peaceful elections in J&K is linked to Pakistan's peaceful conduct, and this responsibility Musharraf does not seem to want to discharge," she said.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell declared that Kashmir is on the "international agenda" earlier this year, and called on India to allow international observers during the elections while urging Pakistan to "maintain peace" at election time.
Each side has offered its own "spin" of Powell's comments, with Pakistan boasting of U.S. support for the plebiscite in Kashmir. At the same time, opposition parties in India's parliament have criticized the government for allowed the issue to be internationalized.
While Powell's stated reason for his visit was to ensure that the military situation did not deteriorate before October, when elections were due for both to the Pakistani parliament and the state legislature of the Indian portion of Jammu and Kashmir, the two sides don't agree to tripartite solutions. Musharraf's speech on that subject came in for a scathing response from India.
After the United States and European Union pressed Pakistan to see that the state assembly elections are not disrupted, India also asked Islamabad to ensure that there will be no violence in the state committed by "cross-border forces in the run-up to the poll process."
The most emphasized point at the recently concluded ASEAN Regional Forum, and at the post-ministerial meeting in Brunei, and in statements by the American Secretary of State Colin Powell and the European Union, is that the onus is on Pakistan to ensure that no violence is created in Jammu and Kashmir during the "run-up" to the elections.
As part of his promised "free and fair elections in J&K" last month, the first step the government has taken towards fulfilling this promise is setting up of the Kashmir Committee. The Committee, headed by former India Union law minister Ram Jethmalani, arrived in Kashmir's capital, Srinagar, last week on a two-day visit to the Valley.
The mission, seeking peace with separatist leaders, was called a "tamasha" (farce) by the state's Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah. Vajpayee responded by saying as part of his speech said those who call the J&K elections a farce must look within.
"I repeat, Kashmir is an inseparable part of India and will remain so. Kashmir is not a piece of land for us, it is an enduring symbol of our secular traditions," he said.
Besides Jethmalani, the Kashmir Committee comprises of M.J. Akbar, the editor of Delhi newspaper The Asian Age, Dileep Padgaonkar, executive managing editor of The Times of India and senior Supreme Court lawyer and former law minister Shanti Bhushan.
In tune with the promises that the Union government is making, the Hurriyat Conference and the J&K Democratic Freedom Party (JKDFP) have also formally accepted the invitation for talks extended by the Kashmir Committee, but ruled out any participation in the forthcoming assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir.
What no one seems to have taken into account is the fact that Pakistan and its alleged proxies, the separatists known as the Hurriyat, as well as the jehadis - Muslim funamentalists - that control it, fear the elections for a reason that for them is perfectly legitimate. An independent poll held earlier this year by Mori International in the state said nearly two-thirds of residents wanted to stay in India, and fewer than 10 percent wanted to secede to join Pakistan.
If Pakistan leaves Jammu and Kashmir alone, India believes the state will slowly limp back to normalcy. It says that is exactly the reason that Pakistan and the Hurriyat will not allow the elections to be a legitimate success.
Moreover, for the first time in 13 years of conflict, the Hurriyat has accepted an offer of talks mediated by a non-governmental organization. The Kashmir Committee is trying to ensure maximum participation of various political organizations in the assembly elections, and the general council of the Hurriyat advised its seven-member executive committee to commence talks on the "real issue of Kashmir."
While the Hurriyat hopes to impress on the Kashmir panel the need for tripartite talks involving Pakistan, according to Bhat, they also demand the unconditional release of separatist leaders Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mohammad Yasin Malik and Sheikh Abdul Aziz, all Hurriyat executive members.
In another resolution, separatist party leader Shabir Shah said the party made a fervent appeal to the separatist leadership of J&K to speak in a united voice. His J&K Democratic Freedom Party has also appealed to all the migrants to return to their respective homes.Shah has at the same time urged the Union government not to ignore Pakistan while making efforts to resolve the Kashmir issue, claiming Islamabad's participation as 'pivotal in any purposeful and durable talks or negotiations'.
The talks that consequently followed were termed as "positive" by Shah, and Jethmalani waxed eloquent, saying, "I am glad to report that we have not reached a deadline. The dialogue will continue till the basic issue is thrashed out. We discussed every aspect of the problem. This dialogue must be sustained and continued."
The Chief Minister, however, apparently did not see anything positive in the whole exercise. "I am a spectator watching the tamasha from a distance," he said, upset over over the committee's decision to hold parleys only with separatist leaders. He also said, "It is a chess game... . Let us watch whose horse will fall, and whose king would be checked successfully," to a private news channel.
Shabir Shah, on the other hand, said he was happy with the way the talks were progressing. "I am ready to meet the prime minister and his deputy if conducive conditions are created for a peaceful settlement of the Kashmir issue," he added. "I told the [Kashmir] committee members that all jailed separatist leaders, including Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Mohammed Yasin Malik, must be released and the Disturbed Areas Act must be withdrawn. We leave it to them to convince the prime minister," he said.
Addressing a press conference in New Delhi, Chief Election Commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh said a lot of work was underway to get the electoral rolls in proper shape in time for the election. The counting of votes for all constituencies will take place on October 10 and the entire electoral process will be concluded on October 12, Lyngdoh said.
Special arrangements are being made in Delhi, Jammu, and Udhampur for those who were forced to migrate from the valley by the terrorism there. These include a large number of Kashmiri Pandits the original residents of Kashmir, who have now almost deserted the state for safer pastures like Delhi.
Asked whether people would come out and vote, Lyngdoh remarked that the situation in the valley was not normal and while adequate security arrangements would be made, it would take some courage on the part of the voters to exercise their franchise.
Meanwhile, on the issue of international observers, Lyngdoh saidthe day is gone when "the white man could come and tell you what you are doing is right or wrong. The era of headmasters is over." He asserted that the Election Commission of India was one of the best and most respected institutions of its kind in the world.
"I have had talks with the election commissions of the UK, Canada, and Australia," he said. "They have expressed their desire to come and see elections in Kashmir." They could visit the state in their individual capacity, he said, but he ruled them out as representatives of their respective commissions.
Interestingly, the state's Chief Minister has now changed his stand and agreed to the imposition of Governor's rule in J&K if the All Party Hurriyat Committee (APHC) agreed to take part in the elections. He added, "They would also hold talks with APHC to solve the hindrances they have in not participating." However, despite successful talks between the Committee and the JKDFP, the group returned without ooperation from the Hurriyat and now suggests a postponement of the elections.
Advani has however, diminished this suggestion saying that the elections would not be deferred at any rate now "since the dates have been fixed." He also has asked Pakistan to keep away from the poll process in J&K and "desist from vitiating the atmosphere in the run-up to the assembly elections."
"We expect that our neighbor will not try to interfere in the poll process and create an atmosphere wherein the people face problems," he told reporters on his return from Britain. Advani said he was given an assurance that Britain would help in whatever way possible.
On his visit to the UK, Advani expressed the hope that the close relationship India has developed with Britain would be consolidated. Neither India nor its counterpart in the Bush administration has taken into account that the coming Jammu and Kashmir elections cannot be a part of a solution in a vacuum, when the problem continues to foment the fires unchecked from across the Line of Control.
Meanwhile, with Pakistan having accused India for the latest attacks on Christianj churchwes in the region, the international community is once again on its toes trying to keep the scene calm as not only the J&K Assembly polls but also the General elections in Pakistan are also due in October. With somewhat subdued relations that India and Pakistan were forced to conform to following a spate of "official visits by international administrators" this year, the situation in the Asian subcontinent is once again back to "square one" with both sides slewing the blames for a "determinedly unfair elections" on each other with a couple of weeks to go before the polls.