Looking for trust in talks on Kashmir

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 September, 2005, 12:00am

Talks between moderate Kashmiri separatists and New Delhi began in the Indian capital yesterday, with an intangible result the best that can be hoped for - trust.

Although it does not sound like much, both sides recognise that even removing some of suspicion will be a huge achievement.

Neither side expects any dramatic gesture or breakthrough from the talks. Talks between New Delhi and the Hurriyat - the umbrella organisation for separatist groups in the Kashmir valley - were inaugurated under the Bharatiya Janata Party government last year. But this round is being viewed differently because circumstances have changed significantly.

Relations between India and Pakistan are improving, violence in the valley is down along with support for terrorism, and the limited bus service between the Indian-controlled and Pakistan-controlled parts of Kashmir has made it feel and look less under siege.

The best omen for the negotiations, however, is that in accepting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's invitation to talk yesterday, the Hurriyat has shed its inflexibility, notwithstanding a decision by the hardline factions to stay away.

'It fears becoming irrelevant because it's not sure what role it will have in the ongoing talks between Pakistan and India,' said political analyst Vinod Sharma.

'And its claim to represent Kashmiris is under scrutiny because it has never stood in elections. So it's been looking for a way to reposition itself with dignity.'

He says for the talks to yield anything, the Hurriyat will have to be careful not to harp on too much about its grievances.

For his part, Dr Singh must appreciate that these leaders, led by Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, are taking huge personal and political risks by meeting him. For Kashmiri hardliners, this is a betrayal of the 'cause' they have waged for 16 years to break away from India, an insurgency that has claimed more than 63,000 lives.

Dr Singh appears to realise this, saying both sides need 'courage and imagination' to make headway in solving the Kashmir problem.

His aim will be to persuade the Hurriyat to participate in the political process and in elections, an idea they have rejected so far.

Although no formal agenda for the talks was announced, Mr Farooq was clear about some issues he wanted to raise.

'Human rights violations must stop, political prisoners must be freed and there must be a reduction in the number of armed forces in the valley.'