Two days before Ramzan started, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh made a surprise announcement: government forces in Jammu and Kashmir will temporarily halt counterinsurgency operations to ensure the Muslim month of fasting passes off peacefully. It was a unilateral but conditional ceasefire about which the buzz had begun sometime ago and it came four days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi was scheduled to visit the state.

Given that the Modi government has always favoured using hard power in Kashmir, the decision was unexpected even though all mainstream parties had unanimously resolved at a meeting on April 9 to call for a ceasefire. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti led from the front, seeking this “concession” to ensure peace during Ramzan as well as the upcoming Amarnath Yatra. However, when her ally, the BJP, opposed the demand and even Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman rejected it summarily, there was little hope.

Although the Peoples Democratic Party and the BJP have worked out an Agenda of Alliance to guide the functioning of the coalition government, they have been fighting over contentious subjects such as the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, and talks with the Hurriyat and Pakistan.

In this context, the ceasefire offers a glimmer of hope to the common people. The mounting toll of local militants and civilians has become unbearable though a section of the Indian opinion holds that common Kashmiris, given how they have been resisting government forces of late, now “celebrate” the deaths for their cause. Indeed, despite Delhi’s poor track record handling Jammu and Kashmir, there are takers for its latest outreach.

Softening position

The ceasefire is a step back from the hard line that Modi has pursued so far. Only last year, he offered a stark choice to Kashmiris. “I want to tell the youth of Kashmir that they have two ways ahead,” he declared at a function to inaugurate a tunnel along the Srinagar-Jammu highway on April 3, 2017. “On one hand, you have tourism and on other hand you have terrorism.”

Ratcheting up the prime minister’s diatribe, the BJP and its ministers dismissed the groundswell of sentiment against India and justified the military approach of dealing with the boys with guns and the boys with stones in the same manner. This not only led to a few hundred militants getting killed in the nearly two years since Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was gunned down in July 2016, but also pushed more and more Kashmiri youth to take up arms. In 2018, with military operations taking a heavy civilian toll, a record number of young men have joined the militancy, often with societal sanction. In the first three months of the year, at least 35 youth picked up the gun while as many have done so after the April 1 bloodbath left 13 militants and four civilians dead in the Valley.

Saving lives

Avoiding civilian casualties while fighting militants is a test that the Indian security forces have consistently failed over the last couple of years, giving Delhi a diplomatic headache. With civilians coming out in ever greater numbers to help militants during gunfights, a ceasefire was perhaps the only way to tackle the situation in which killings have become the new normal. At the same time, it could provide a breather to the fast-shrinking mainstream polity in Kashmir. This explains why Mufti persisted with her demand despite opposition from the BJP and the security establishment. If, that is, the ceasefire is actually observed.

The militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba had rejected it within hours of it being announced and on Friday the United Jehad Council, the umbrella body of militant groups operating in Kashmir, rejected it as well. The separatist Joint Resistance Leadership comprising Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik took a dismissive approach, emphasising the need to instead find a permanent solution to the Kashmir dispute. There seems to be no application of mind on their part to respond in a strategic manner. It is a fact that Delhi cannot be believed, not least because it has long employed such moves as a time-buying tactic. But today, given the cycle of violence starts with government forces launching operations that lead to resistance from local people and invariably killings, the ceasefire could be an incremental step towards enabling a climate in which pressing issues such as the release of prisoners and the misuse of the Public Safety Act may be discussed.

The Joint Resistance Leadership has a responsibility towards people and their aspirations and it needs to handle that with care. The separatist leaders must focus on saving the lives of ordinary people, or else it may be concluded that they have a vested interest in perpetuating violence.

Pakistan’s signals

The ceasefire should also be seen against the backdrop of positive signals emanating from Pakistan in the past few months, including from the military. On April 15, Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Bajwa spoke about the military wanting “peace and dialogue with India”. Relating this statement in its May 3 report, the Royal United Services Institute observed that it has helped warm ties between India and Pakistan. The British think tank noted other efforts by the Pakistan Army to repair the relationship: inviting India’s military attaché in Islamabad to the Military Day Parade and agreeing to participate in joint military exercises with India and other countries in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in August.

More recently, Major General Asif Gafoor, the Pakistani military’s head of public relations, told visiting Indian journalists that the Pakistan Army was ready to join a dialogue with India. The two nations have reportedly even activated informal backchannels to talk to each other.

Whether or not all these developments can be connected, the fact is that the desire for creating a space for peace and reconciliation is not missing on either side. Pakistan is a stakeholder in the peace process in Kashmir and it seems willing to play a constructive role. Now, Delhi will have to go beyond this “symbolic gesture” of announcing a ceasefire and start talking about the political dispute. Only then can we move on from failures of the past.

Shujaat Bukhari is Editor-in-Chief, Rising Kashmir.