Pant begins with Qassim, invites Hurriyat
15 April 2001
The Indian Express
New Delhi: On the eve of resumption of Parliament’s Budget session, the Vajpayee Government today began formal negotiations with Kashmiri leaders and sent out invitations for talks with various groups in the troubled state, including the Hurriyat Conference. The exercise started with a meeting this afternoon between Planning Commission Deputy Chairman K.C.Pant, who has been named the Centre’s negotiator, and Mir Qassim, a former Congress chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir. Qassim’s name was doing the rounds some time back as a possible negotiator for the Centre with the Kashmiri groups. More significant than Qassim’s meeting with Pant was the Centre formally inviting the Hurriyat Conference, perhaps the most important group in the Valley, as also other groups like the Shabbir Shah-led Jammu and Kashmir Democratic Freedom Party, the Kargil-based Imam Khomeini Memorial Trust and the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council. Addressing a Press conference, Pant expressed the hope that the Hurriyat Conference would respond positively to the invitation for parleys. ‘‘Our attempt is to invite the Hurriyat Conference and I hope they will join the talks. Their executive council is to meet shortly and I don’t see why they should say no,’’ he said. He also pointed out that the talks had no preconditions which was what the Hurriyat wanted. Asked whether the Government would allow the Hurriyat leaders to visit Pakistan, he said ‘‘if they come and talk, we should understand why they want to go to Pakistan.’’ Pant said the parties represented in the state assembly and Parliament had also been invited for talks. He, however, added that the doors were open only to the groups based in Kashmir and not in Pakistan, like the Lashkar-e-Toiba. The talks, he added, would be held on the basis of the Centre’s stand as spelt out in the statement on April 5. About the possibility of participation of militant groups in the parleys, Pant said: ‘‘If they want to come and talk, they can.’’ Asked whether the process of dialogue would conclude before May 31 when the on-going phase of ceasefire expires, he said though there was no time limit, it would not take much time, provided ‘‘non-issues are not raised’’. About the initiative taken by Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar who had recently held talks with certain Kashmiri groups, he said Pawar had briefed him about the exercise. Talking to reporters after his meeting with Pant, Qassim told reporters that since a majority of the people in the state wanted peace, all parties would join the talks.