An olive branch is offered in Kashmir

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 November, 2003, 12:00am

Kashmir's main separatist alliance has declared its readiness to talk to India's government on the future of the troubled state.

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the leader of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference and a chief Muslim cleric of Kashmir, told the faithful during prayers at a Sringar mosque yesterday that the group would talk provided there were no preconditions.

'India and Pakistan have both failed to resolve the Kashmir dispute. It is up to Kashmiris to do it and do it through dialogue,' he said.

New Delhi made an offer to talk last month following the failure of two earlier efforts. The Hurriyat dismissed the previous person appointed to start talks - a retired civil servant - as lacking in authority. Heeding the objection, the government announced that Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani would lead negotiations.

This set off a commotion within the 25-party group, which had split weeks earlier into hardline and moderate factions. The hardliners, led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani, had refused to talk without Pakistan.

Mr Geelani has since become even more intransigent. He says he will talk only if the government passes a resolution in parliament categorising Kashmir as 'a disputed territory'.

But the moderates, led by Hurriyat chairman Maulana Abbas Ansari, decided to carefully assess an offer that, on the face of it, provides the best chance in a while to break the deadlock over the fate of India's only Muslim-majority state.

Before committing themselves though, Hurriyat leaders spent a month finding out what Kashmiris thought of the offer. While they did this, Mr Advani threw a spanner in the works by remarking that the agenda he envisaged was a 'devolution' of powers to Kashmir.

Devolution is anathema to the Hurriyat who seek a 'dignified and honourable' resolution.

But the Hurriyat refused to allow Mr Advani's remark to derail the prospect of talks. Instead, it made a gesture of its sincerity to the Indian government last week.

Unlike in normal years, Mr Ansari did not attend a meal marking the end of Ramadan, held at the Pakistani high commission in New Delhi.

It was seen as a move that signalled the Hurriyat's intention to increase its distance from Pakistan. Indian leaders responded by letting it be known that the talks could be unconditional.

Although observers hailed the progress, they said a key issue remained: how each side defines 'unconditional'.