A cooling-off in long-overheated Kashmir

Attacks on Indian forces persist; one rebel group pursues terms for talks.

It has earmarks of a shift in South Asia's biggest problem - the violent 11-year uprising in Kashmir.

In the space of a few days, a diplomatic logjam has broken. Indian officials and the most prominent militant group in Kashmir have agreed to a cease-fire and talks about the future of the scenic valley.

Delhi's surprising agreement to accept a cease-fire and dialogue with Hizbul Mujahideen opens a new and uncharted path in the troubled Himalayan region.

Kashmir has been the scene of two wars between India and Pakistan since 1947, not including last summer's mountaintop battles. And for the past decade, several hundred thousand Indian security forces have fought local Kashmiri separatists and Islamic mujahideen infiltrators coming from Pakistan - who both want the 98-percent Muslim valley to be independent from India.

Since Saturday, local militants and the numerous Indian security forces in Kashmir known as the Unified Command are in the first official cessation of hostilities since 1994.

In the midst of what seemed a summer stalemate, so unusual is the Hizbul cease-fire offer and so quickly has Delhi responded, that average Indians are blinking at a sudden change in the terminology used to validate the talks. After 11 years of calling the Hizbul a "terrorist group," officials now speak of the "Hizbul organization." A high-ranking security chief in Kashmir referred to "the peace process."

Whether deeply rooted dreams in Kashmir can be achieved - in which a resolution on the valley becomes a bridge for talks between India and Pakistan - it is too early to say. Yet it is not lost on observers that both Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistani chief executive Pervez Musharraf will be in the United States in September for the millennium session of the United Nations, and their first-ever meeting as heads of state is possible.

So far, the frenzied back and forth among militants, New Delhi, and Kashmir leaders has largely been positioning by each over how the cease-fire will play on the international stage.

For New Delhi, an agreement could further isolate Pakistan in the court of world opinion. India has long lobbied the US for Pakistan to be declared a "terrorist state." Since Hizbul cadres are largely local Kashmiris, Delhi could finger any militant activity after the cease-fire as a Pakistani-based "jihad."

"This is not about bringing peace to Kashmir," says Amitabh Matoo, a leading Indian foreign affairs specialist, about Delhi's willingness to talk with Hizbul. "At least right now, it is not a continuum leading to talks with Pakistan. It is about showing the world how many militants in Kashmir are from Pakistan and Afghanistan."

Yet by starting talks, India must venture further into the actual internal dynamics of Kashmir. Rather than dealing from afar with its proxy leader in Kashmir, Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah - who lives behind layers of security forces and is widely disliked in the valley - India may address issues close to the hearts and minds of the people.

Such a process will further enhance the position of the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference, some two-dozen Kashmiri leaders who speak for popular aspirations in the valley, and who have been regularly jailed. Some Hurriyat leaders want greater autonomy for Kashmir. Some want Kashmir to exist as an independent entity, and some want the territory to join up with Pakistan.

After President Clinton's South Asia trip in March, Delhi released the Hurriyat leaders from prison, and began hinting at talks with them - something inconceivable a year ago. One question for Delhi about the Hurriyat has been whether its leaders can "rein in" the militants conducting violence against Indian security forces. In this sense, the Hizbul cease-fire offer is an implicit answer by the Hurriyat to that question. It suggests a strong connection between the two groups.

The cease-fire offer dramatically put the ball in Delhi's court, gently forcing a response while at the same time avoiding a loss of face for India. Delhi has also made important concessions. For the first time, it agreed that talks on Kashmir do not have to take place within the confines of the Indian Constitution. Hurriyat leaders had long said only talks outside the Constitution could lead to the greater autonomy they desire. India will start talks outside the Constitution - allowing, essentially, talks about how to talk with the Hurriyat and the Hizbul. A similar formula now defines negotiations between India and separatists in the northeast.

In the coming year, the Hurriyat could well become a powerful new negotiating partner with the central government.

US officials have reportedly played a quiet background role in Kashmir developments, itself unusual since India has for decades opposed any third-party role in the region. For months, largely starting with Mr. Clinton's visit, steady international pressure on India and Pakistan has been exerted over Kashmir: German, British, and Australian diplomats have stated the difficulty for India to play a much-desired "great nation" role so long as the valley bleeds.

Several prominent Americans, including Rep. David Bonior (D) of Mich., and Farooq Kathwari of the Kashmir Study Group, an influential set of US diplomats and South Asianists, have shuttled between Islamabad, the Jammu and Kashmir capital of Srinagar, and Delhi in recent months. As the cease-fire was announced by Hizbul commander Abdul Majid Dar last week, Qazi Hussein Ahmed, the chief of the main Pakistani Islamic party Jamaat-e-Islami, was in Washington with State Department officials.

Three blasts in Srinagar Monday show that cease-fire plans are not liked by all groups. Experts say violence could well increase in coming weeks. There is also a strong move among hard-liners in New Delhi to continue a crackdown in the valley.

The Indian government has begun a series of exchanges and agreements on security issues with the government of Israel, for example. Delhi's Kashmiri issues are often viewed in parallel here to Israel's dealings with Palestinians. More cooperation, including the possible purchase by India of Israeli equipment and training, is expected.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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