Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s wish to get the Central government to announce a ceasefire with militants during Ramzan and the Amarnath Yatra has been shot down even before a formal appeal by an all-party delegation from the state, which she spoke of, could be made. Though twists and turns in political discourse are not entirely unknown and it is too early to presume the government has put the freeze on the ceasefire proposal, there is little to expect for a variety of reasons.
After an all-party meeting convened by her on May 9, Mufti announced that there was unanimity on the need for a goodwill ceasefire during Ramzan and a decision to send an all-party delegation to New Delhi with the appeal. The bonhomie sprung a surprise as Bharatiya Janata Party legislators and politicians, including Deputy Chief Minister Kavinder Gupta, were also in attendance at the meeting. Mufti’s Peoples Democratic Party is in a coalition government with the BJP in the state. A day later, however, the BJP leaders distanced themselves from the proposal, maintaining that there was no consensus and that the BJP would oppose such a demand “tooth and nail”.
Leaders of other political parties, too, maintained that while the ceasefire did come up for discussion and many backed it, the Peoples Democratic Party did not bring it up and no clear decision was taken. Whether Mufti propped up the theory of the all-party delegation to play to the gallery or to put pressure on the Centre, the idea has drawn flak in New Delhi.
It was probably no coincidence that the day after the all-party meeting, Army Chief Bipin Rawat told The Indian Express in an interview, “I want to tell Kashmiri youth that azadi isn’t possible. It won’t happen. Don’t get carried away unnecessarily. Why are you picking up weapons? We will always fight those who seek azadi, those who want to secede. [Azadi] is not going to happen, never.”
This was followed by a more emphatic no to the ceasefire proposal by Union Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on May 13. She, instead, spoke about dealing with “terrorism with a firm hand” and “taking action every minute”.
New Delhi’s hardline approach
New Delhi’s reaction was much on expected lines. Since coming to power in 2014, the Narendra Modi-led BJP government has ignored the state government whenever it has sought political concessions that could help win the confidence of the public. The Centre’s response to the floods in Kashmir that year probably set the tone. In 2015, after the formation of the Peoples Democratic Party-BJP coalition, New Delhi queered Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s policy of amnesty for prisoners detained under the Public Safety Act who did not face serious charges. Sayeed released separatist leader Masarat Alam under the amnesty plan but was forced to re-arrest him.
Then, during his visit to the Valley later that year, Modi publicly dismissed Sayeed’s advice to initiate a dialogue with Pakistan and Kashmiris. He declared, “We don’t need any advice from anyone on how to run Kashmir.” New Delhi had already set the terms of engagement despite the BJP inking an agenda of alliance with the Peoples Democratic Party. A hardline military approach continues to be the sole guiding principle in dealing with Kashmir.
Ceasefires in the past
But the BJP’s maximalist position may not be the sole reason for its dismissal of the ceasefire call. A history of peace overtures in Kashmir reveals the vulnerability of such goodwill gestures both inside and outside the state. Ceasefire announcements form a small part of that narrative.
The first unilateral ceasefire was announced by Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front chairman Yasin Malik soon after his release from prison in 1994, when the insurgency in Kashmir was still at its peak. Malik took a huge risk but New Delhi did not respond and the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, which was then an armed group, earned the wrath of other militant organisations. It maintains that over 500 of its men were killed by security forces after Malik’s announcement. The government’s intention was not to use the opportunity to start a peace initiative but to split and weaken the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front. This policy ultimately allowed militancy to be fully dominated by pro-Pakistan groups like the Hizbul Mujahideen.
In July 2000, the Hizbul Mujahideen announced a unilateral ceasefire but withdrew it two weeks later after failed attempts to initiate a dialogue with Delhi’s pointsman Kamal Pandey. Both India and Pakistan blame each other for sabotaging the talks. The ceasefire offer was the result of backdoor channel diplomacy but the haste with which it was made betrayed lack of clarity, thus unnerving other stake-holders. Conspiracy theories played their role in the imagination of the ruling National Conference, which was awaiting the Atal Behari Vajpayee government’s response on its autonomy resolution, as well as in the minds of militant organisations, which feared a “sellout”.
In November 2000, Vajpayee announced a ceasefire during the month of Ramzan and later extended it by five months. Several militant groups, including the Hizbul Mujahideen, called it a trap and did not reciprocate. The ceasefire did not help scale down violence but it provided space for political mobility on the peace process. Two prime reasons for the failure of this ceasefire were the skepticism of the militant outfits, primarily because Pakistan was kept out of the loop, and Vajpayee’s limitations of balancing his desire for going ahead with peace and the maximalist position of the hawks within the BJP. The gains were frittered away because the much needed diplomatic offensive between India and Pakistan, which could have provided the ceasefire greater stability, remained missing.
Past experience shows two basic problems with hasty ceasefire announcements. It is simply a goodwill gesture that is meaningless without back-channel understanding between India and Pakistan at one level and between India and the militant outfits at another. The trust deficit between New Delhi and Kashmir has widened greatly since 2000. The ceasefire announcements were ill-planned then. At this juncture, it may be a proposition even less easily achievable in view of the increased animosity and the absence of the notion of a workable goal. That clarity needs to come from New Delhi as well as Islamabad. It need not be emphasised, however, that a well-planned and effective ceasefire can be a major catalyst in bringing peace in the region.
Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal is executive editor, Kashmir Times.