Kashmir's former militants may reconsider the gun

Thirteen years into an election-fueled insurgency, Kashmir braces for polls.

As a former militant fighting for Kashmir's independence, Shahid-ul Islam knows how hard it is to convince his colleagues to give up the gun.

Last winter, after Mr. Islam gave a public speech extolling the virtues of "peaceful dialogue," two young assassins appeared at his home. Islam noticed one of them cocking a pistol underneath his traditional Kashmiri cloak. Bullets flew, but Islam managed to escape by throwing a pot of burning charcoal at them.

"I said peace, and I was shot at," says Islam, former supreme commander of Hizbullah – a Kashmiri militant group known for its violent attacks on Indian security forces, which have been stationed in Kashmir since 1947. Islam, who renounced violence after his arrest in 1997, now belongs to a separatist party that holds peaceful rallies.

Upcoming elections this fall – for all state offices, including chief minister – could be a turning point for the 25,000 former militants like Islam as well as 4,000 active militants in Indian-ruled Kashmir.

Elections are a particularly sensitive issue for many Kashmiris, since it was the 1987 state elections – widely considered to have been rigged by the central government in Delhi in favor of a few pro-India parties – that set off Kashmir's 13-year insurgency.

More than a decade of militancy has passed, with little to show for it except the deaths of some 40,000 Kashmiris, most of them by Indian troops and police in their bid to quell the rebellion. Nevertheless, few militants can stomach the notion of pursuing their political goals by running for state office under the Indian Constitution. The result is a state of neither war nor peace, where former hardliners are looking for any facesaving way to convince their militant brethren to drop their guns for good.

Today, India and Pakistan have stepped back from the brink of war, overall anti-Indian militant attacks have diminished since May, and infiltration from Pakistan, which also claims Kashmir, has been reduced. In addition, most opinion polls show that Kashmiris have lost all patience with the gun.

But neither India nor Pakistan shows any desire to alter its old positions, let alone move strike forces away from the cease-fire line that runs through the heart of the state. India, in fact, has only hardened its resolve, after a number of brutal terrorist attacks, including a May attack on a bus in southern Kashmir that killed more than 30 wives and children of Indian soldiers.

And while overall death counts are down, the militants have shifted to a systematic campaign to kill or threaten low-level activists and prominent political leaders who are participating in the elections. It's a far cry from peace, and Kashmiris fear it could be just the beginning of another decade of war.

"People are fed up with the gun, whether it is the gun of militants or the gun of the security forces, or the gun of some boy demanding money," says A.M. Mattoo, a professor of history at Kashmir University in Srinagar. "But today there is nothing going on [to capitalize on that fatigue.] It is only frustration."

The mood is especially stark among the former militants in the valley – 35 percent Hindus, 50 percent Muslim, and 15 percent Buddhists and others – who are now deciding whether to remain on their farms or return to militancy with renewed vengeance. The most prominent continue to support the goals of the Kashmiri freedom movement through peaceful measures. But their efforts are often poorly attended and undermined by militants.

Moreover, they have a mixed record of turning the popular tide against militancy, and convincing former colleagues to join the peaceful resistance.

Consider Javed Hussain Shah. In 1989, he was among the first Kashmiris to cross the Line of Control (LoC) into Pakistan to receive military training from Pakistan's military intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

After a five-year rampage against Indian Army and security forces, under the Hizbul Mujahideen militant group, Mr. Shah turned himself in to the Indian government and switched ideological colors. With much fanfare, he was inducted as deputy chief of the much feared pro-Indian counterinsurgency group Ikhwanis, which reinfiltrated militant groups and assassinated their leaders. Shah claims he's convinced 3,000 militants to turn themselves in. Critics say his methods of persuasion involved deceit and lethal force.

"Every day, killing is going on," says Shah, now a member of the upper house of Kashmir's state assembly, as well as head of two charity groups. "As per my own intelligence sources, any election is going to be a very tough time for Kashmir. There are hundreds of newcomers on the other side of the LoC: Sudanese, Afghanis, Chechens, Saudis, Al Qaeda. Nobody can stop them from coming across the border," and disrupting elections.

Other prominent former militants face substantial dangers in the public arena. Last May, Abdul Gani Lone, a powerful moderate among the Kashmiri coalition of separatist groups called All Parties Hurriyat Conference, was assassinated in Kupwara in front of a rally of 10,000 supporters. Just a few days before, he had said it was "not a sin" to run for office in the upcoming elections.

The problem, many former militants say, is that militants have sacrificed too much to hand over their guns, just for a possible replay of the rigged 1987 elections.

"It is difficult, but it is not impossible," says Imran Rahie, a former deputy chief of Hizbul Mujahideen and now head of the J&K People's Party, which seeks a referendum for Kashmiris to decide whether to accede to India, to Pakistan, or to become independent. "When they (the militants) see something is happening through peaceful means, we can encourage them and channel them away from the gun."

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