Indian government plans to send a senior official to Kashmir to talk with Muslim separatists for the first time has raised hopes of progress toward peace in the disputed region.
India's decision last month to send Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani for talks with Kashmiri separatists is a first for New Delhi. The Indian government has never before consented to send a high-ranking official for negotiations. Mr. Advani says Indian sovereignty over Kashmir is not up for discussion, but he is willing to explore some sort of decentralization or power sharing for the region to end 14 years of separatist conflict.
Kashmiri separatists have been initially cool to the proposal, saying it does not address the root of the problem for India's only Muslim-majority state.
"Decentralization is an issue that has absolutely no relevance to the problem that is Kashmir, to the situation in Jammu and Kashmir and to the entire South Asian nation," says Abdul Ghani Bhat, who is with the All Parties Hurriyat Conference - a grouping of 23 parties campaigning against India's control over Kashmir. "We have to be pragmatic. We have to call a spade a spade. We have to recognize that Kashmir is a dispute, and the dispute at the moment is the dispensation of Jammu and Kashmir. This is a stark political reality. Why not recognize it?" Fighting in Kashmir erupted in 1989, when Islamic militants launched an insurgency for control over the part of the region that falls within India's borders. More than 60,000 people have died since then. But the fighting between Indian forces and Kashmiri separatists is just one dimension to the Kashmir dispute.
The other dimension is Pakistan, which India accuses of supporting Islamic guerrillas attacking Indian Kashmir. The proposed Advani mission to Kashmir came as part of a series of initiatives to improve relations with neighboring Pakistan - which controls about a third of Kashmir and has fought two wars with India over the region. Separatist groups in Indian Kashmir say - because the issue so tightly entwines both nations - the talks proposed by Mr. Advani should also include Pakistan.
Indian officials in Kashmir disagree.
Mehbooba Mufti is the president of the pro-India People's Democratic Party - one of the parties in the coalition running Kashmir's state government. She says bringing Pakistan into the talks is not necessary for them to have an impact on New Delhi's relationship with Islamabad. "I think some kind of dialogue is always going on with them so I don't think there is anything new to add to that," she says. "I'm sure once the people here with whom the offer has been made, once they respond positively and once the talks here make some kind of progress, definitely it will also have an impact with the dialogue as far as Pakistan is concerned."
That Indian-Pakistan dialogue has not been going smoothly despite the recent overtures.
Pakistan has accepted, in principle, the 12 or so confidence-building measures offered by India - including bus links between Pakistani Kashmir and Indian Kashmir. But Islamabad continues to demand direct talks with New Delhi on Kashmir - which India rejects until it is satisfied that Pakistan is not supporting Kashmiri militant groups.
Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman, Masood Khan, says his country - which denies it is arming the separatists - is now questioning India's desire to improve relations. "We are wondering what the Indian motives are," he says. "This statement reveals patent insincerity. What are their motives? Public relations? Hoodwinking [fooling] the international community?"
If the talks between Mr. Advani and the Kashmiri separatists go ahead as planned, there are still many immediate obstacles to overcome - including divisions among the Kashmiri separatists. The All Parties Hurriyat Conference has split between the moderates, like Mr. Bhat who would participate in talks, and hardliners, such as Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who was not invited to take part.
Omar Abdullah is the head of the Kashmiri opposition party, the National Conference. He says the Indian government should invite all factions to the talks. "I have no doubt that if the government of India invites Ali Shah Geelani of the breakaway faction of the Hurriyat to a dialogue, he will not accept the invitation. But at least then the onus will be on him, not on the government of India or the state government," he says. Therefore I think an invitation should go out to all regardless of whether they are going to accept it or not."
So far, no date has been set yet for the talks with Deputy Prime Minister Advani.