President Pervez Musharraf’s surprise initiative, revealed on October 25, to solve the Kashmir dispute which has plagued relations with India for almost 60 years, has plunged political circles in Pakistan into turmoil. The initiative, broadly speaking, is an examination of a number of options to effect a “change of status” for Kashmir, options which include independence, joint control with India and demilitarization. Arguing that the geo-political situation in the region has undergone a sea-change, Musharraf is thus departing radically from the standard insistence that a plebiscite be taken in Kashmir for people to decide their nationality. Instead, sensitivities to practical political and cultural factors should determine the issue, starting with establishing the religious and ethnic make-up of the seven regions of Kashmir, and moving on to demilitarization and possible change of status.
The initiative has the potential to break the stalemate on Kashmir, but aside from stiff internal opposition in Pakistan, the response from the Kashmiri political and militant groups will be crucial.
The reaction of the first of these, among the broad spread of the alliance of the 26 political, social and religious organizations in Kashmir, termed the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, has been nuanced. It ranges from rejection by Amanullah Khan, the leader of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front of the notion of joint Pakistani-Indian control, to cautious encouragement or a non-committal stance, pending a detailed response from India.
Syed Salahuddin, chief of the multi-party United Jihad Council and commander of its Hizb-ul-Mujahideen faction, conceded the possibility of discussing Musharraf’s proposals, but deplored the backtracking of the government’s stand on Kashmir, and insisted on any talks on status to include what he termed “representative” Kashmiri parties. But the tone of likely reaction was more readily illustrated by the powerful Islamist alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, which immediately rejected the proposal outright. A report by AFP quoted a militant from the outlawed Jaish-e-Mohammad as stating it bluntly: “For us nothing short of jihad on Kashmir is acceptable”.
The Musharraf proposal comes at a difficult time for Pakistan, and has the potential to spark off renewed violence. It comes only days after rebels in the Kashmiri town of Sarnal shot dead a former minister, Safdar Ali Baig, who belonged to the pro-India regional National Conference Party, and coincided with a bomb attack aimed at leaders of the National Conference who had come to the town to attend the ceremony of condolences.
It also comes at a time of increased activity among Sunni sectarian militant groups such as the outlawed Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and its splinter group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, who are intent on destabilizing Pakistan. Over the past month the country has been shaken by a renewed wave of violence against Shi’ite and Sunni Muslim gatherings. These have accounted for almost 80 lives in what appears to be an orchestrated attempt to stoke sectarian violence. The hand of al-Qaeda is visible in this, not least from the sophistication of the bombings and, more cogently, the increased use of the suicide attack against Muslim targets.
While the phenomenon of suicide attacks against non-Muslims was not unknown in Pakistan — the most high profile case being the May 2002 blast that killed 11 French engineers in Karachi — the first attack against Pakistan’s minority Shi’ite community occurred in July 2003, when Sunni extremists targeted a mosque at Quetta, killing 50 worshippers. Subsequently, President Musharraf himself has been targeted more than once by these tactics, as the militants see a threat to their existence in his co-operative role in the war on terror and his peace overtures to India. Having failed in their attempts to date, softer targets such as Shi’ite mosques have taken their place. These may, if attempted in sufficient numbers and for long enough, eventually tip the balance. But if the militants meanwhile prove successful in attempts against strategically more sensitive targets, such as President Musharraf’s corps commanders or government officials, their aims may be achieved more quickly. Vulnerable figures of influence would start to question how much their support of Musharraf’s politically controversial standpoint in Pakistan is worth it.
Now that President Musharraf is attempting a radical resolution in Kashmir, on the grounds of the geo-political sea-change, there is reason to temper the suspicion that Pakistan intends to continue unchanged the use of militant groups to advance policy aims in the disputed region. But the government’s tardiness in reining in the Kashmiri jihadist groups fully, let alone cutting them off altogether, may prove to have the capacity to rebound perilously on itself. The upsurge in suicide bombing in particular can be seen as a product of the government’s historical ambiguity. It was the radical Islamist Jaish-e Mohammed (‘Army of Mohammed’), launched in 2000 and still one of the best-funded groups in Kashmir, which was responsible for introducing the suicide bomber into the military struggle with India. Now its expertise is being tapped into by other jihadist groups in Pakistan. A political resolution in Kashmir, if it comes, threatens to be made at the cost of stability at home.