India Hints At Power-Sharing In Kashmir
24 October 2003
The Washington Post
New Delhi: India hinted Friday that it might be willing to discuss some level of power-sharing in the separatist territory of Kashmir, indicating new flexibility ahead of proposed talks on the issue. Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani, who has been named to head talks with the separatist political group the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, said 'talks can be held on decentralization.' But he warned there were limits on how far the central government would go. 'There will be no compromise on the country's unity and sovereignty,' he said, according to Press Trust of India news agency. If talks are held, they would constitute the first high-level contact between secessionist political leaders and the government. But Advani's statement on Friday appeared to do little but confuse many Kashmiris. 'I don't know what L.K. Advani means by talking about 'decentralization,' Umar Farooq, the region's top Muslim cleric and a senior leader of the Hurriyat Conference, said in his weekly Friday sermon. 'I think this new development shows that India has not yet made up its mind. Let them decide what they want to do and what they want to talk about.' Advani's suggestion falls short of the secessionists' aim of carving out a separate homeland or merging it with neighboring Pakistan. But it is the first mention by the Indian government of a solution that falls between the rigid stands on both sides, which have remained unchanged for more than 13 years. The Hurriyat Conference, a group of religious and political parties that wants Kashmir's independence, responded favorably Thursday to the announcement that Advani would hold talks with them on the state's future. But one of the armed militant groups quickly dismissed the proposed dialogue as 'useless and futile' unless the fighters were included in the talks. The separatist movement has been propped up for years by broad disaffection in Kashmir, the country's only majority Muslim state, for rule by overwhelmingly Hindu India. But popular support for the rebels has waned dramatically since their fight began in 1989. After years of fighting, the conflict has forced an overwhelming presence of security forces in Kashmir, destroyed its economy and left at least 63,000 people dead. Earlier this week, New Delhi also announced a series of proposals to break the ice with nuclear rival Pakistan, which it blames for promoting the violence in Kashmir. The 12-point proposal included expanding travel and sporting links, easing visa regulations and opening up a highway connecting the regions of Kashmir divided between India and Pakistan. However, Advani said that peace offer was 'in no way an indication of a change in our policy about talking to Pakistan.' 'Our stance is the same, that Pakistan has to stop infiltration, destroy the terrorist infrastructure and build a congenial atmosphere before any talks can begin,' he said. In accepting India' offer of talks, a top Hurriyat leader, Abdul Ghani Bhat, said the group also would discuss a solution to the conflict with Pakistan. India is opposed to three- way talks involving Kashmiri separatists and Pakistan. But the Hurriyat has tried to get around that opposition by saying each side could meet separately. Power-sharing has a long history in Kashmir, a princely state in British colonial India that, after independence in 1947, was given broad autonomy. Both India and Pakistan claim all of Kashmir, which is divided by a cease-fire line. India accuses Pakistan of funding, arming and training the militants. Pakistan denies giving them anything but moral support, and says most Kashmiris want to join Pakistan.