There is a need to be extremely cautious about the suggestions being made by Kashmiri leaders like Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah to involve terrorist groups like Hizb-ul Mujahideen (HuM) and Syed Salahuddin's Muttahida Jehad Council (or United Jehad Council), a coalition of minor terrorist groups operating in Kashmir, in the India-Pakistan peace process.
These suggestions are a natural corollary to the Manmohan Singh government's decision to invite the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference to be part of the mediation circus on Kashmir.
The Hurriyat Conference is a coalition of secessionist (with varying degrees) groups which periodically swings between independence for Kashmir to regional autonomy. The Hurriyat's involvement is inspired by Pakistan and the US working in tandem to persuade India to expand the scope of discussions on Kashmir.
The Hurriyat, in its various avatars, has not exactly been pro-India, either in its agenda or stance; in fact at times challenging, even daring, the Indian government to take action against its members for openly or covertly espousing secessionist views. Quite a few of its leaders have been investigated by various intelligence and revenue agencies for the lavish lifestyle they lead and the mysterious sources of their livelihood.
The suggestions to involve the terrorist groups should necessarily be seen in the context of the Hurriyat's involvement in the peace process which began with visit of the Hurriyat team under Mirwaiz Omar Farooq's leadership to Pakistan, subsequent interaction with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi, and significantly, followed in quick succession by the Mirwaiz's personal meeting with President Pervez Musharraf in New York early this month.
Readings from the Pakistan media suggest that the Mirwaiz's sudden prominence as an interlocutor on the Kashmir issue was due to some extent by Pakistan's insistence on involving the Hurriyat. Although Pakistan was keen on including the rabble-rouser, Syed Shah Gilani, in the bandwagon but settled for the Mirwaiz when India refused to entertain the former.
Significantly, Pakistan did not abandon Gilani. He was hosted and feted in Pakistan, and allowed to hold a fairly substantial seminar on the topic of 'Possibilities of Success of Kashmir Liberation Movement and Threats and Fears' in Islamabad on August 7. The seminar was attended by, among others, federal Minister of Information and Broadcasting Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, Muttahida Jehad Council leader Syed Salahuddin, representatives of the Lashkar-e-Tayiba, and other terrorist and religious leaders.
Two common points which the speakers made reference to were Gilani's 'phenomenal' contribution to the 'cause' of Kashmir and the consistent usage of the term 'liberation movement' for terrorist activities in Kashmir. A detailed report on the seminar was reported in Jasarat and Khabrain, two widely read Urdu newspapers published in Pakistan, on August 8.
The courting of Gilani by the Pakistan establishment is not without reason. At some point of time, Pakistan would insist on involving the Tehrik-e-Hurriyat, Gilani's breakaway faction of the Hurriyat, in the dialogue with the primary objective having exerting more control over the process.
India is widely believed in Pakistan to be in the driver's seat. Pakistan's only leverage, on the other hand, is its homegrown terrorists like Salahuddin. It is, however, difficult for Pakistan to openly call for the involvement of terrorist groups in the talks because of the international community's growing concern about terrorism, especially its ramifications in the West, which seems to have links in Pakistan.
Gilani, who is closely aligned to Syed Salahuddin and other terrorist groups operating in Kashmir, remains their best bet under the circumstances. The suggestion to include Salahuddin in the talks should be seen in this context.
Inviting Salahuddin and other terrorist leaders for talks can also be inferred as the failure of the Indian security forces in neutralising various terrorist groups operating in Kashmir. This will further strengthen the boastful assertions made, openly, by various Pakistan terrorist and religious extremist groups that India was forced to negotiate with Pakistan on Kashmir due to their active pressure.
India must also desist from letting the Composite Dialogue turn into a Kashmir Dialogue, a situation that Pakistan, and possibly the US, might want to happen eventually.
The inclusion, first of the secessionists, and then terrorist groups, in the process might just do that. Kashmir, as stated in the joint statement by the two countries on January 6, 2004, is only a part of the Composite Dialogue and is not the only agenda for discussion.
Another serious fallout will be the marginalisation of the elected state government. For reasons not made public, the Indian government has chosen to keep the Mufti Mohammad Sayeed government out of the negotiations while inviting the Hurriyat, which had fought tooth and nail against the assembly elections, to the process.
It conveyed a lack of faith in the elected representatives of Kashmir, an approach that will have deeper ramifications in the near future when Mufti Mohammad Sayeed relinquishes his chief ministership for another leader of the ruling coalition in Srinagar, in all probability a Congress leader.
With the Congress ruling the coalition in New Delhi, it is but inevitable that the Congress chief minister will be part of the process. This will lead to heartburns in other coalition partners, especially the Peoples Democratic Party of which Mehbooba Mufti is the Vice President.
They fear being sidelined, especially with the Hurriyat already inducted into the process. Mehbooba's call for inviting Salahuddin is the preparatory shot for ensuring a place in the game.
Besides these factors, what needs to kept in view is that the past attempts to engage terrorist groups like Hizb-ul Mujahideen in discussions have been counter-productive. Going by what Salahuddin has been telling the Pakistan media in the recent past, it is more than likely that he, if invited, is certain to disrupt the peace process. In interviews published in Urdu newspapers, Ausaf and Jasarat, on August 1, he said that jihad (terrorism) was the only answer to resolving Kashmir. Terming the peace process a deception, the terrorist leader claimed that terrorists have killed more than 20,000 Indian soldiers across the valley in the 'armed struggle' since 1989.
If, and when, India were to adopt the course of involving terrorist groups in discussions for peace, it is essential to make rooms for manoeuvrings on traditional positions on cross-border terrorism without actually compromising on a stated position which has been articulated for more than a decade. Such a situation will also strengthen Pakistan's response to Indian allegations of cross-border terrorism that the terrorist groups operating in Kashmir were indigenous.
It is nothing but perverted logic to argue, as some Indian academics and political leaders in Kashmir are doing, that the Indian government should not only invite Salahuddin for talks but also offer his group a unilateral and unconditional ceasefire. It is Salahuddin who should offer a ceasefire and lay down arms first.
The Indian government should also impress upon the Mirwaiz and his colleagues to exert influence on Salahuddin and other terrorist leaders to give up violence to bring about a conducive atmosphere for a wider consensus on various issues related to Kashmir.
Wilson John is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation