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Kashmiri Separatists, Indian Government to Meet - 2004-01-21


The Indian government and Kashmiri separatist leaders will meet in the Indian capital on Thursday. This will be the first direct, high-level meeting between the two sides since a Muslim separatist insurgency erupted in Kashmir 14 years ago.

The five Kashmiri separatist leaders due to meet Indian Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani represent a moderate faction of the All Parties Huriyat Conference, an alliance of Kashmiri political and religious groups.

The conference is split between hard-line groups that favor Kashmir's merger with Pakistan, and more moderate groups that support independence. The hard-line groups are not participating in the talks.

The Thursday meeting is to follow the Indian government's surprise offer last October to hold unconditional, high-level talks with Kashmiri separatist groups.

No agenda has been fixed for the talks, which are being described as a "beginning." But Abdul Ghani Bhat, one of the Huriyat leaders participating in the dialogue, appears cautiously upbeat about the meeting.

"We want a process to begin. A process in the right direction," said Abdul Ghani Bhat. "If we can take a right step in the right direction tomorrow we will probably have covered half the distance."

The moderate Kashmiris have said a cease-fire by the Indian military in the region would help restore confidence among the people. Tens of thousands of Indian troops have been deployed in Kashmir since 1989 to fight the groups battling either for independence or for a merger with Pakistan.

Kashmiri leaders have also said they want permission to travel to Pakistan to urge militant groups there to take part in talks aimed at resolving the conflict. But Mr. Bhat says they will not raise specific demands at Thursday's meeting.

"I have not come with a set of demands, a set of problems, which we may not be able at all to address in the first meeting," he said.

The political analyst and former Indian foreign secretary J.N. Dixit agrees that Thursday's meeting is unlikely to lead to an immediate breakthrough, but he says the mere fact that the two sides are talking is important.

"It is a very important step forward because the lack of communication between those who desired separation and the government of India has been a long-standing problem," said Mr. Dixit.

Mr. Dixit also says that if Huriyat is sincere, the negotiations might help reduce terrorist violence.

The hard-line Muslim militant groups in Kashmir oppose talks with the Indian government, and have vowed to continue their separatist struggle.

The talks are being held amid a vastly improved atmosphere between India and Pakistan, between which Kashmir is divided. A cease-fire along their common border has been in place for two months, and the two have agreed to hold talks to address their differences over the Himalayan territory.

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