The official invitation to People's Conference leader Sajjad Lone to confer with the prime minister is a belated but positive move. At the very least, it has the virtue of framing Kashmir's internal political situation in perspective.
Throwing the dialogue door open to a single party has also not been done before. Since the turmoil began in the 1990s, the discourse in Delhi, as also among non-official 'Kashmir-watchers', has held the secessionist conglomerate represented by the Hurriyat as the sole point of consultative reference; individual non-traditional parties were not part of the consideration.
This is all the more remarkable since the Hurriyat also happened to be Pakistan's only point of reference for Kashmir. Indeed, Islamabad saw the umbrella secessionist body -- as originally founded and later even its truncated so-called 'moderate' faction now led by the Mirwaiz (though Pakistan is straining to get the Hurriyat united) -- as the sole legitimate political formation in Kashmir.
For Delhi, stepping on the same accelerator as Islamabad was certainly true before the landmark assembly election of 2002, when no one was quite clear what kind of political thinking held sway in the valley.
Ironically, it was also true after that poll, which showed that the Hurriyat was pretty much a disdained entity in Kashmir and pandering to it, in effect, meant discounting the political impulse of the millions of Kashmiris who had -- quite literally -- braved bombs and bullets to exercise their franchise.
As far as engaging individual organisations goes, the erstwhile Atal Bihari Vajpayee government once did establish contact with a single group -- the Hizbul Mujahideen, or rather its faction led by Majid Dar who was later killed by rivals within the HM for confabulating with the Indian leadership.
But the Hizbul Mujahideen is a terrorist outfit, not a political party. There has been nothing to suggest that while opening lines of communication with the valley's most dangerous indigenous terror group, the government used the Jamat-e-Islami as a conduit.
In Kashmir, the Jamat is widely regarded as the political party having bonds with the Hizbul Mujahideen and doubtless carried some influence at a point of time.
The invitation by the Manmohan Singh government to Sajjad Lone -- the younger of the two sons of the late Abdul Ghani Lone -- who now carries his father's mantle as the leader of the People's Conference (his older brother Bilal is with the Hurriyat), is thus a first for a 'separatist' (an expression with many hues, not necessarily always meaning 'secessionist' in the literal sense) party in Kashmir, and it has come not a day too soon.
It signals, first of all, that the government no longer proposes to privilege any separatist party or conglomerate above others. That was the unfortunate impression created by the PM's invitation for talks to the Mirwaiz faction of the Hurriyat last September.
The new signal is the right signal.
The 'Hurriyat-only' approach was doomed to failure. The outfit carries clout neither with the people nor with the gun-toting groups. It can only rest content with being the unofficial tribune of the Pakistan authorities, no matter who is in power in Islamabad. This has been demonstrated over and over again.
This is perhaps the case because none of the constituent parties and groups of the Hurriyat has anything resembling a stable or identifiable constituency.
After the assembly election in Kashmir, a plausible case could be made for engaging with those sections of opinion that publicly chose not to participate in the electoral process, or were unable to do so for one reason or another. The Hurriyat falls in this category but it is a paper body, really speaking. Its day of glory has long faded.
The Tehrik-e-Hurriyat led by Ali Shah Geelani, ideologically avowedly pro-Pakistan though he is currently at odds with General Musharraf, now perhaps represents the real following of the Jamat, from which he has risen, and that of its kindred organisations.
But Geelani has no mind to talk to the Centre if India does not accept Kashmir to be 'disputed territory'. The Jamat is a traditional political party with pockets of influence across Kashmir, though in recent years it is said to have been weakened organisationally.
For reasons that he understands best, Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front leader Yasin Malik has also shown no signs of engaging the Centre. Though there is no way to test the proposition, the JKLF is said to represent something hazily called the 'Kashmiri sentiment'. Like Geelani, Malik is not part of the Hurriyat.
Other than these two leaders of non-traditional parties or groups that are said to enjoy a degree of appeal in Kashmir, Sajjad Lone's People Conference may be thought of as the only other political formation with some following in the valley.
Sajjad Lone has organised public rallies from time to time to demonstrate his party's viability. His base in parts of north Kashmir is undoubtedly inherited from his late father who had emerged a popular figure. It is creditable, however, that this base appears not to have deserted Sajjad.
For some time before his assassination about four years ago, the senior Lone, although then in the Hurriyat, had begun to be publicly critical of terrorism and had earned the ire of the Pakistani establishment. In this respect he was a unique entity within the Hurriyat.
In another era, he had been a Congress legislator. The question, however, is: What is his son and political successor all about?
Other than that he enjoys a following in the Kupwara and Baramulla areas, not much is available in the public realm about Sajjad Lone's political outlook. There is certainly a sense of Western modernity about him, perhaps deriving from a British education. He also appears to think that violence offers no answers, but a firm view on this and related issues awaits clearer articulation.
Sajjad's ideas as regards the economy are perhaps better developed. He is said to believe that the easy flow of goods and services across the Line of Control will enhance prosperity on both sides of Kashmir -- leading to a sense of economic independence -- by simultaneously providing access to the Indian and the Pakistani markets and trading ports.
Incidentally, this consideration was not far from the minds of the Majid Dar faction of the Hizbul Mujahideen.
When the younger Lone and his group met the prime minister, the outlines of some fresh inputs on Kashmir may well have emerged. But necessarily these will take time to assume their full form. There will nevertheless be the prospect of more Kashmiri perspectives becoming available beyond merely what the Hurriyat recycles from time to time.
Not that this is of prime importance, but it is noteworthy that Sajjad Lone derives his public support precisely from those areas of the valley in respect of which General Musharraf has once again sought 'demilitarisation' by India. The idea was first floated at his address to the United Nations plenary last September.
While the Centre's decision to invite Sajjad Lone for dialogue is a step in the right direction, the full potential of the move can only be realised when the government casts its net wider in Kashmir, going beyond political parties and combines.
The time has truly come to involve in the ambit of discussion not only those who eschewed the last assembly election for political or ideological reasons, but also those elements in society that make a signal contribution on a daily basis with their voluntary work in diverse sectors of life.
Such duties, it must be remembered, are frequently performed in the face of heavy odds, particularly the threat of violence that stares those in the face who dare to contribute to peace-building.
It is germane to recall that the prime minister's message to the Hurriyat when they met him last year was to accept some of the onus of stemming violence in Kashmir. Alas, the appeal was lost on those who expect to flourish only when the times are unsettled.But it is precisely in such a situation that those actively striving for peace should also be burdened with the responsibility of sharing their experience and perspectives with the rest of the country.