With Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh inviting the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference for talks on Monday, September 5, news focus has shifted again to Jammu and Kashmir. And that speaks volumes of the relative calm in the strife-torn Kashmir valley that has consistently been in the news for over 15 years now, for all the wrong reasons.
Just what is the Hurriyat?
The All-Parties Hurriyat Conference, an amalgam of 26 organisations initially, was formed as the political front of Kashmiri separatism on March 9, 1993. Initially considered a stooge of Pakistan and a pawn in Islamabad's game of gaining legitimacy for its support of terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir by the Indian government, it has never contested elections but claims to be the true representatives of the Kashmiri people.
If it is an umbrella organisation, is it united?
No, the Hurriyat is a divided house. In fact, it formally split into two factions -- the hardliners, led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani, and the moderates, led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq -- on September 7, 2003. The hardline faction wants Kashmir to accede to Pakistan while the moderate faction wants an independent Kashmir.
So, which faction will the prime minister talk to?
The prime minister has invited the leader of the moderate faction, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, for talks because it is the faction that says it eschews violence.
In fact, after the moderate Hurriyat and other separatist leaders visited Pakistan, the hardline leader Geelani has been sidelined.
Have the Hurriyat and the government ever talked?
Yes, in January and March 2004, then deputy prime minister Lal Kishenchand Advani held two rounds of talks with the Hurriyat leadership, which did not throw up any concrete solutions except the photo ops. But it was the first time New Delhi had agreed to Hurriyat's long-standing demand for talks with the highest levels of government.
Before the Advani-Hurriyat talks, Track II meetings and interlocutors like N N Vohra and K C Pant had been the government's way of talking to the Kashmiri separatists.
The third round of talks was supposed to be held in June 2004, but was delayed because of the Lok Sabha election. After the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government came to power, the Hurriyat declared it would not hold talks because the government was not sincere. The reason: Home Minister Shivraj Patil had declared the talks must be within the ambit of the Indian Constitution. In other words, an 'independent' Kashmir was out of the question.
So, is the prime minister's offer of talks surprising?
Not really. Ever since the moderate separatist leaders had been allowed to visit Pakistan occupied Kashmir and eventually managed to wrangle a trip to Pakistan, they had declared they were ready for talks. The UPA government had been talking to the Hurriyat through intermediaries such as Wajahat Habibullah, a senior IAS officer of the Jammu and Kashmir cadre, and Amar Singh Dulat, the former chief of the Research & Analysis Wing.
What's the Pakistan angle?
Any dialogue with New Delhi is impossible for Kashmiri separatists without Islamabad's nod.
After the Kargil war, then national security adviser Brajesh Mishra had launched what was called Operation Break Ice, to bring militants to the dialogue table. A section of the Hizbul Mujahideen had indicated readiness for talks, which caught Islamabad unawares. As a result, the impending talks were sabotaged.
Over the years, the Hurriyat had been demanding that any talks on Kashmir be tripartite: with Pakistan, India and the Hurriyat at the same table. Several analysts have pointed out that the separatists' recent readiness for talks is a fallout of their Pakistan visit, when Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf gave them the green signal for talks with New Delhi.
Several other commentators have pointed at the timing of the Hurriyat's talks with Singh: September 5, which is 10 days before the prime minister meets Musharraf in New York.
What can we expect from the talks?
Not a miracle solution for Kashmir, for sure.
All these years, the Hurriyat had held an 'independent Kashmir' as its reason to exist. And Pakistan had been its patron saint. Now, with Islamabad and New Delhi walking a tentative road to peace, the Hurriyat is stuck between a master singing a new tune and a people who have seen a ray of hope after years of violence and bloodshed. The Hurriyat's credibility and importance has never been so low.
Even Islamabad has made noises to the effect that Hurriyat should go for the people's mandate through elections. And since India has not wavered from its position that Kashmir is an integral part of the country, the Hurriyat has been making noises about a buffer state, a region jointly controlled by India an Pakistan. But it cannot be aggressive with New Delhi because New Delhi has the upper hand now.
But for a state that has been forced two steps back for every step forward, the talks are certainly a big step forward.