Indian PM Seeks Kashmir Peace Talks
31 August 2005
New Delhi: India's prime minister on Wednesday invited Kashmir's separatists for peace talks - a move that could boost efforts to end the decades-old dispute between India and Pakistan over the Himalayan region. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh offered to hold talks Sept. 5 with the moderate faction of Kashmir's main separatist alliance, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, said Sanjaya Baru, the prime minister's spokesman. An agreement with the separatists is crucial to pushing forward the peace process between India and Pakistan. Kashmir, the only Muslim majority state in predominantly Hindu India, is split between the two countries, but both claim all of it. The talks come ahead of a planned meeting on Sept. 14 between Singh and Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. Despite improved relations in the last two years, India and Pakistan have made few moves toward resolving the dispute of Kashmir, which lies at the core of their rivalry and was the cause of two of three wars fought by the neighbors since independence from Britain in 1947. The leader of Hurriyat, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, who will head the Kashmiri delegation at the talks, said the talks in New Delhi should help push Kashmir to the forefront of the Indian-Pakistan peace process. 'The cycle will be complete now. India is talking to Pakistan, Pakistan talks to us and we talk with India,' he said. There was no immediate reaction from Pakistan Farooq was one of nine separatist leaders who traveled to Pakistan in June and met with Musharraf to discuss Kashmir. Kashmir is 'a complicated issue, but it can be resolved if there is sincerity and commitment of all parties involved,' he said. 'If we can build trust and confidence, the Kashmir dispute can be resolved.' India's previous government, led by Hindu nationalists, held two rounds of talks with the Kashmiris in 2004, although little progress was made before parliamentary elections later that year brought Singh's Congress party to power. Government officials have since been in contact with Hurriyat leaders through mediators, Baru said, but did not elaborate on the agenda of the Sept. 5 talks. During the 2004 talks, Hurriyat leaders demanded the government release some 500 activists held as political prisoners in Indian jails, and some have since been freed. Farooq said he did not expect substantive discussions Sept. 5, when the exchanges would mostly be introductory. Jammu-Kashmir's elected head, Chief Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, said he expects the meeting would pave the way for a wider dialogue that will be joined by hard-liners, many of whom support a violent insurgency that has fought to wrest Kashmir from India for nearly 16 years. They have so far ignored the government's call for talks. Saifudin Soz, a Kashmiri lawmaker who is helping arrange the talks, said 'an overwhelming majority of Kashmiris - tired of violence - will welcome the talks.' The Hurriyat has been demanding Kashmir's independence since the region was split months after India and Pakistan were partitioned into independent countries by the British. The campaign turned violent in 1989, and there are now more than a dozen rebel groups fighting in India's portion of Kashmir. The insurgency has killed more than 66,000 people, mostly civilians. Moderates, such as Hurriyat leader Farooq, have denounced the insurgency.