Separatists split over backing for poll
The Kashmiri separatist movement has plunged into turmoil after a member group decided to back candidates for this month's state assembly elections that the alliance has vowed to boycott.
The All-Party Hurriyat Conference, which had decided to snub New Delhi by not taking part in the elections, is meeting today to decide the fate of its renegade member, the People's Conference.
The break in ranks threatens to snowball into the worst crisis for the Kashmiri separatists since the alliance was formed in 1993.
Observers believe the People's Conference's action signals the escalation of internal strife among the separatists over political tactics.
Last May, moderate separatist leader Abdul Ghani Lone was assassinated, allegedly on orders from the alliance's militant wing, after he toyed with the idea of participating in the elections.
In an apparent show of defiance, Lone's two sons, Sajjad and Bilal, who assumed leadership of the Peoples Conference, are backing five candidates across north Kashmir.
Officially, the five are standing as independents. But observers believe they are the People's Conference's proxy candidates.
Analysts say the ruse is necessary to spare the candidates from the wrath of militant groups that want all Kashmiris to boycott the elections.
The separatists hope that their non-participation will turn the elections into a flop that will embarrass New Delhi and cast doubt on its credibility and claim over the strife-torn Kashmir Valley.
Hurriyat leaders have branded the Lone brothers traitors and accused them of betraying the Kashmiri freedom movement.
Observers say the huge number of people at the rallies of the People's Conference candidates has only fuelled the militant leaders' outrage.
In public, the Lone brothers are keeping up the pretence that their party is not participating and that the five candidates will be removed. But the Hurriyat leaders remain sceptical. For instance, they have noted that hundreds of People's Conference workers are busy rallying support for the five candidates.
Analysts say filial loyalty is one key reason behind the Lone brothers' breaking ranks with the Hurriyat.
The brothers strongly suspect pro-Pakistan elements in the Hurriyat are responsible for murdering their father, according to analyst Kanta Bajpai.
Another reason is that the Lone brothers feel that since Kashmiri separatists will have to deal with New Delhi sooner or later, it is better to make the most of the fresh opportunity offered by the polls.
Mr Bajpai believes the brothers probably think it is important not to be excluded from any post-election talks over the state's long-term future.
Finally, American and European pressure on the separatists to participate may be another reason.
If separatists join in they can reasonably ask the international community later to put pressure on New Delhi to make concessions. If they proceed with the boycott, the separatists also run the risk of being perceived as anti-democratic spoilers.
While the Hurriyat has been thrown into disarray, the news is welcome in New Delhi.
With the Hurriyat saying a categorical no and moderate leader Shabir Shah also staying away, New Delhi had feared elections may look farcical.
With the People's Conference action, New Delhi can now be more confident of telling the world that its acceptability in Kashmir Valley appears to have improved, albeit very marginally.