In Kashmir's recent history, rarely have either militants or policymakers demonstrated real courage. But two very brave decisions were made recently. The decision of the Hizbul Mujahideen to announce a unilateral ceasefire for three months, followed by an invitation from the Government of India for unconditional talks, will probably be remembered as one of the most courageous acts in recent years.
It is very easy to make war, even cowards can kill. But, to make peace requires real valor, and both the Hizbul - despite its history of terror - and the Government of India - despite its known ad hocism over Kashmir - have shown tremendous strength. The challenge is now to translate the Hizbul's ceasefire, and the government's offer of a dialogue, into sustainable peace on the ground, although there is some evidence to suggest that, at least in the short term, the violence by other groups may increase as a result of the ceasefire.
The Hizbul's decision for a ceasefire is important for at least three reasons. First, the Hizbul was easily the strongest Kashmir militant group operating in Jammu and Kashmir, as distinct from the primarily foreign groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayba, Harkat-ul-Mujhaideen or the more recently created Jesh-e-Mohammad. Although considerably weakened since its peak in the early 1990s, it still boasted of an impressive cadre of nearly a thousand militants.
After its decision to cease fire, there are no longer any Kashmiri militant groups of substance operating in the state. Recall that local arm of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), the other major militant group, had announced a ceasefire over five years ago. But this had led to a split within the JKLF with Yasin Malik, based in Srinagar, and Amanullah Khan, based in Rawalpindi, heading the two factions, with the former having renounced violence.
Second, the Hizbul had, at one stage, a huge following within Kashmir, and continued to have some influence on the Kashmiri mindset. The JKLF's support was restricted primarily to the urban areas, while the Hizbul's following extended to the rural areas. Due to its close connection with the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Hizbul was able to tap into a huge network of madrasas. The Hizbul also was one of the main sources of logistical support for the Pakistanis and Afghans who came as part of the Harkat or the Lashkar. The Amir of the Hizbul, Syed Salahuddin, was also the supremo of the United Jehad Council based in Pakistan.
With the decision to cease fire, not only will the network of Jehadi groups be considerably weakened, but also the ordinary Kashmiris can feel confident enough to openly reject the gun, which was not possible for fear of reprisals by the militant groups, especially the Hizbul.
Finally, the Hizbul's rise was rooted in the politics of J&K. Syed Salahuddin, also known as Yusuf Shah, had contested the 1987 elections to the J&K Assembly, and had lost, it is widely believed, because of massive rigging. The militancy was sparked off by the malpractices during that election, and the supporters of Salahuddin were among the first militants. The famous HAJY group (Hamid Sheikh, Ashfaq Majid, Javed Mir and Yasin Malik) that initiated the JKLF, for instance, were polling agents for Salahuddin. The Hizbul's rejection of violence, albeit temporarily, signals a gradual return of the disaffected to non-violent democratic politics, although from still outside the mainstream.
Why did the Hizbul choose to announce a ceasefire now? What were the motivations behind the decision? The most important factor was public opinion. Kashmiri public sentiment against violence is at an all time high, and militancy has lost the legitimacy that it had once acquired.
Majid Dar, the leader of the Hizbul who announced the ceasefire at a news conference in the outskirts of Kashmir, pointed out that a high-level team of the Hizbul had come back to the Valley about three months ago and held discussions with field operational commanders and other prominent Hizbul leaders. According to him, "The wishes of the people were also gauged, and it was realized that the desire for a peaceful solution among all sections of society including the local political leadership" was all pervasive.
No less important was the fatigue and exhaustion of the Hizbul cadre. For more than a decade, the Hizbul has faced the wrath of the Indian security forces, and faced heavy casualties during this period. They have not been able to replace their fast diminishing cadre, because Kashmiri youth are unwilling to join the ranks of the militant group.
Recently, the successes of the security forces against the Hizbul had increased, and - some believe - that had the operations against the military group continued with the same ferocity, the Hizbul would have faced extinction within a year or so. To add to its woes was the manner in which Pakistan's ISI was marginalizing it, and pushing forward the dreaded Lashkar and the Harkat, who were believed to have a more motivated group of Pakistani and Afghan fighters.
It is also possible that sustained pressure from the Americans on Pakistan and Pakistan's own desire to present a moderate face to the West (and to get India to the negotiating table) may also have contributed to the Hizbul's decision to cease fire. It may well be that the Hizbul's decision, primarily motivated by local factors, may have received some support within elements in the Pakistani establishment who were under pressure from the United States. This may have facilitated the news conference by Syed Salahuddin in Islamabad.
The real test of Pakistan's moderation is not, however, in the Hizbul's ceasefire, but only once the Laskhar and Harkat also announce a similar decision. On present evidence, however, these jehadi groups are likely to escalate the violence in order to demonstrate that the Hizbul's ceasefire does not count for much.
It was wise of India to offer to hold unconditional talks with the Hizbul. Any group who is willing to eschew violence should be welcomed to the negotiating table. And only when Pakistan is willing to similarly condemn all acts of violence, and stop aiding and abetting violence, should it be accorded a similar invitation.