India on Monday named a former chief of domestic intelligence to lead talks in restive Jammu and Kashmir state, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi moves to defuse tension that has simmered in the country's only Muslim-majority state since July last year.
More than 90 civilians have died in protests sparked after security forces killed a militant last year in the state, ruled by Modi's Hindu nationalist party in a power-sharing arrangement with a regional party.
A former director of India's Intelligence Bureau, Dineshwar Sharma, will hold talks with groups ranging from elected representatives to political parties and other organizations, Home Minister Rajnath Singh told reporters.
"As a representative of the government of India, Sharma will initiate a sustained interaction and dialogue to understand the legitimate aspirations of the people in Jammu and Kashmir," Singh said.
Modi's government, which has long advocated a tough stance toward a decades-long insurgency in the Himalayan region, has so far shunned talks with its main separatist alliance, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, in the wake of the protests.
Asked if Sharma would talk to the separatists, Singh said he would be free to "talk to whoever he wants to."
In July, India's federal counter-terrorism agency arrested seven Hurriyat members on charges of receiving funds from Pakistan-based militant groups to wage attacks.
The Hurriyat is an umbrella group of political and religious groups fighting for Kashmir's secession from India.
The state's former chief minister, Omar Abdullah, welcomed the news as a victory over those advocating the use of force to tackle the insurgency, but warned the scope of the talks would be key to their success.
"One can't get everything so for now we'll take what we can get," he said on social network Twitter. "More important than the person is the mandate and absence of pre-conditions."
Since their independence from Britain in 1947, India and Pakistan have fought two of their three war over Kashmir, which each claims in full but rules only in part.
India accuses Pakistan of training and arming militants in the portion it controls and sending them across to the Indian side, a claim its neighbour denies.
Reporting by Nidhi Verma; Editing by Krishna N. Das and Clarence Fernandez.