10/01/2016 12:55 PM IST | Updated 23/01/2017 11:04 PM IST

Why Are We Under-Playing The Kashmir Angle In Pathankot Attack?

NARINDER NANU via Getty Images
Indian police personnel stand alert near the airforce base in Pathankot on January 5, 2016. Umbrella group of Pakistani proxy jihadist outfits fighting in Indian-controlled Kashmir, the United Jihad Council, claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement issued to the media on January 4, after a weekend of fierce fighting with insurgents left seven soldiers dead. AFP PHOTO/ NARINDER NANU / AFP / NARINDER NANU (Photo credit should read NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI--It is strange that both the government and the media have been under-playing the Kashmir angle in the Pathankot attack. The terrorist strike on the Indian Air Force base near the border in Punjab has been blamed on the Jaish-e-Mohammed, but what is the Jaish-e-Mohammed?

The JeM is a militant organization whose stated purpose is to take Kashmir from India, and has had a long history of militancy in Kahsmir. Focused on fidayeen suicide attacks, its wings were clipped in 2003 after some of its members turned against Pakistan.

Released in exchange of 155 passengers on board Indian Airlines flight IC814 in December 1999, Azhar gave a speech in Karachi on 5 June 2000, in which he said, “I have come back and I will not rest in peace until Kashmir is liberated.” The group is active in the Kashmir Valley even today.

The group has also released an audio, mocking India’s poor response to the Pathankot attack, adding, 'Indians who kill unarmed Muslims in Kashmir are now dragging their own dead'. India TV ran part of the audio clip.

Since a section of the Jaish-e-Mohammed had in the past turned against Pakistan itself, the Pakistanis could well argue that these terror attacks – in Pathankot and Mazar-e-Sharif – cannot be blamed on the ISI. Regardless of who took the call to carry out these strikes, it is clear that they wanted it known that it was about Kashmir, and Afzal Guru.

The ghost of Afzal Guru

Similarly under-played is the news that the terrorists in Pathankot spoke of Afzal Guru. They told Rajesh Verma, the Punjab Police SP’s jeweler friend, that they had come to take revenge for India’s hanging of Afzal Guru.

Indian intelligence agencies say the Jaish has created a squad named after Afzal Guru.

Phone intercepts made by Indian intelligence revealed that the Jaish-e-Mohammad has vowed to carry out 13 terror attacks in India to take revenge for the 13 years Afzal Guru spent in jail.

Even the Jaish audio clip posted on its website, eulogized Afzal Guru.

Afzal Guru, an Indian national of Kashmiri origin, was hanged in 2013 for his involvement in the 2001 Parliament attack. Many in Kashmir, and even some in India, said that Guru was innocent. The Parliament attack of 2001 was blamed by India on the Jaish-e-Mohammed, along with the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

In the attack on the Indian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, also suspected by India to have been carried out by the JeM, the terrorists wrote in blood, “Revenge for Afzal Guru.”

That we are being repeatedly told by the terrorists that they were taking revenge for Afzal Guru, is an indication that they really want us to know this. We don’t want to hear it lest we are forced to admit that by hanging Afzal Guru, we gave anti-India jihadis in Pakistan a ready-made martyr. It cannot be emphasized enough that Afzal Guru was a Kashmiri, and that there was widespread resentment in Indian-administered Kashmir against the Indian government for hanging him.

Pindi to Pathankot via Muzaffarabad

Despite all these statements, the Jaish-e-Mohammed is stopping short of clearly taking credit for the attacks in Pathankot and Mazar-e-Sharif. The responsibility for the attacks has been taken by the Muzaffarabad-based United Jihad Council, a conglomerate of Kashmir-centric militant groups.

The “Highway Squad” that the UJC claims carried out the attack, is a reality that the Kashmir Valley was familiar with in the ‘90s. The statement accused India of “Pakistan-phobia” in “accusing Pakistan for every attack” and thus “malign(ing) the Kashmir freedom struggle”.

The UJC spokesperson further said, “The attack on Pathankot Air Base from Kashmiri Mujhadeen carries a message to India that no security establishment and garrison are out of reach from militants. Instead of accusing Pakistan, India should read the writing on the wall and without wasting any time should provide an opportunity to the people of Kashmir to decided their future.”

The very obvious attempt is to say it was “Kashmiris not Pakistanis”, but that is all that the Indian government and media has read in this statement. Since the UJC operates out of Muzaffarabad with the blessings of the Pakistani establishment, it is unlikely that such a statement was made without a go-ahead from the Pakistani deep state, if not under orders from them. In other words, the Pakistani deep state is trying to say Kashmir, Kashmir, Kashmir. This import of the statement remains true regardless of whether the UJC did or did not bloody its hands in Pathankot.

The JeM and the UJC are obviously friends. In 2014, the Jaish and Syed Salahuddin of the Hizbul Mujahideen, also the chairman of the United Jihad Council, came together in Muzaffarabad to release a book supposedly written by Afzal Guru. The event was addressed by Maulana Masood Azhar over video, marking his first appearance in a decade. Again, it is unlikely that Azhar came out of such long hiding without a nod from the Pakistani establishment, and it is even more unlikely that the Pakistani establishment did not notice this.

The road to Islamabad goes via Srinagar

The conventional wisdom in India is that the Pathankot terror strike was meant to derail a revived comprehensive bilateral dialogue process between New Delhi and Islamabad. That is only part of the story. From Muzaffarabad, Bahawalpur and Mazar-e-Sharif, in the name of Afzal Guru or more directly, the message is Kashmir.

Many would say Kashmir is just a ruse, as is Afzal Guru. The consensus is that the Pakistani establishment, to maintain its supremecy in Pakistani politics and economy, cannot afford to not have the excuse of a perpetual threat from India. For that reason, it will always thwart any possibility of normalization of relations with the excuse of Kashmir.

There may be truth in this, but even if Kashmir is an excuse, the excuse is there, the excuse is used to mobilise young men in Pakistan to go blow themselves up before Indian military installations.

The India-Pakistan comprehensive bilateral dialogue process that External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj announced in Islamabad, does contain Jammu & Kashmir as one of the issues the two sides would simultaneously negotiate along with terrorism, trade, visas and everything else. Why then are these terrorists and their bosses harping on Kashmir?

Take away the Kashmir excuse

In Srinagar, the UJC statement is being interpreted by many as asking New Delhi and Islamabad to show sincerity and transparency in negotiating Kashmir, and involve Kashmiri separatists as the third party. The UJC has in the past also opposed the Manmohan-Musharraf four point formula to resolve the Kashmir dispute, after initially supporting it . That is some indication of how much the UJC parrots the Rawalpindi line – and that’s why we cannot ignore what it says.

It is noteworthy that Nawaz Sharif drew a lot of flak in Pakistan that the Ufa joint statement did not include the word “Kashmir” though it did say “all outstanding issues”. Kashmiri separatists and Pakistani hardliners have also been unhappy over New Delhi’s insistence that Pakistani diplomats and visiting officials cannot meet Hurriyat leaders in New Delhi before heading into the conference room with Indian officials.

Essentially, the terrorist groups and their handlers are saying let’s talk about Kashmir first and foremost, and let’s do so on our own terms. Just as, in India, the debate is Talks vs Terrorism, in Pakistan the debate is Talks vs Kashmir – the common fear being that normalisation of diplomatic relations will somehow displace the real agenda both want to talk about.

Since a terror strike will make India go back to the “stop terror before talks” line, the militants groups – whether or not under the tutelage of the ISI - are able to stall talks since they don’t like how Kashmir and Kashmiris aren’t the focus of these talks.

India has been downplaying the Kashmir angle in the Pathankot strike because it wants to pretend Kashmir isn’t a problem. India is the ostrich with its head in the sand.

The first step to solve a problem is to acknowledge that there is a problem. The Modi government would do well to heed advice from former RAW chief AS Dulat, who has written in his book of the importance of talking to Kashmiris, as Atal Behari Vajpayee attempted to.

Before talking to Pakistan, India needs to engage with separatist groups in Kashmir, as well as address the separatist sentiment amongst the general public in Indian-administered Jammu & Kashmir. New Delhi needs to actively take measures to win over the trust of the average Kashmiri Muslim, for which it needs to think beyond the carrot and stick policy of guns and jobs. It needs to be recognised that Kashmir Valley is living in the aftermath of a bloody conflict, one that it is not sure is over. New Delhi needs to practice policies of reconciliation in Kashmir.

By doing so, it would begin to take away the Kashmir excuse.

Contact HuffPost India

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