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Kashmiri Separatists Consider Offer of Talks with Indian Government - 2002-08-18

In Indian Kashmir, separatist leaders say they will consider an offer of dialogue with the Indian government. But during talks with a government-backed committee, they reiterated their decision to boycott elections in the disputed region, scheduled to begin next month. Participants in the talks say most Kashmiri separatist political leaders want the elections postponed.

Former Law Minister Ram Jethmalani says efforts to persuade Kashmiri separatist leaders to take part in state elections starting next month will continue at a second round of talks in New Delhi.

Mr. Jethmalani leads a private initiative, called the Kashmir Committee, which is working to find a political solution to the long-running Muslim separatist insurgency in Kashmir.

On Sunday, Mr. Jethmalani concluded three days of talks with prominent Kashmiri separatist leaders, including the main separatist alliance, the Huriyat Conference.

He says several Kashmiri political groups want the elections to be postponed, so a favorable atmosphere can be created for them to consider taking part.

"The major condition, which has come from every quarter, except, of course, the National Conference, is that the elections ought to be postponed for some time," Mr. Jethmalani said. "I hope the Election Commission will take note of this widespread demand. Speaking on behalf of the committee, we do believe that this demand is not unreasonable."

Mr. Jethmalani is trying to persuade Kashmiri political leaders to take part in the elections, saying the polls will be crucial in identifying the real representatives of the Kashmiri people.

The Kashmir Committee has also delivered an invitation to the Huriyat Conference, and other prominent Kashmiri leaders from the Indian government for talks on the Kashmir dispute.

"The deputy prime minister, on behalf of the government and, therefore, also the prime minister, that day made a statement," Mr. Jethmalani said, "which was publicized, that 'the committee has our authority to tell the leadership in Jammu and Kashmir that we are open for a dialogue at any time of their choice on any issue, which is relevant to the solution of the Kashmir problem, and the problem of holding elections.'"

Huriyat leaders say they will take an early decision on the invitation. Last year, the alliance rejected proposals by the Indian government to hold talks, unless Pakistan was included in the dialogue.

Mr. Jethmalani says the Kashmir Committee, comprised of academics and journalists, wants to create an atmosphere, in which Kashmiri leaders can enter a dialogue with the Indian government to find a political settlement for Kashmir.

Political analysts say, although the talks between the Kashmir Committee and Kashmiri separatists produced no significant breakthroughs, the fact that they were held at all is a step forward. It is the first time that Huriyat leaders have agreed to conduct talks with a committee sponsored by the Indian government. The next round is likely to be held next week in New Delhi.