In an attempt to broaden the Kashmir dialogue process, the Government of India under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh invited all separatist and non-separatist groups for a round table conference to find a solution to the Kashmir issue. Even before the conference, Prime Minister Singh had invited Sajjad Lone of the People's Conference for talks on 14 January 2006. Sajjad Lone's party had fielded proxy candidates in the 2002 Assembly elections in some places. People's Conference, under the chairmanship of Sajjad's father and senior separatist leader Abdul Gani Lone had contested Assembly elections in the state before 1980. He represented Handwara constituency in 1967 and 1972 as a Congress member, while in 1977 he won on a Janata Party ticket. However, after that he never participated in the elections. A day after the invitation to Sajjad Lone, J&K chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad told reporters that the dialogue invitation is not exclusive but is for all the separatist leaders who want to talk to New Delhi. Sajjad Lone, along with a four-member party delegation comprising of Hafizullah Makhdoomi, Abdul Rashid Lone, Rashid Mehmood and Mirwaiz South Kashmir Qazi Yasir met Prime Minister Singh on 14 January in New Delhi. Though details of their discussions were not disclosed, it was reported that they held a wide-ranging dialogue and discussed all relevant issues. The Government had made it clear that the Hurriyat is not the sole representative of the Kashmiri people and therefore, it had initiated a broad dialogue in order to reach the hearts and minds of the people of the state by including groups outside the electoral process as well.
Apart from the open dialogue process, the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) had also held parleys with separatist leaders. According to a report in The Hindu (24 January 2006) National Security Adviser (NSA), M.K. Narayanan, has held a series of top-secret meetings with key figures, including the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front leader Mohammad Yasin Malik. Mr. Malik met with Dr. Singh shortly before leaving for the United States on 28 November 2005. The report said that the meeting explored what could be done to facilitate an open dialogue between Mr. Malik and the Prime Minister, of the kind, which recently took place with Sajjad Lone. However, no details were available on the substance of the discussions. National Security Advisor M. K. Narayanan has also reportedly held a separate meeting in January 2006 with Farooq Kathwari, a well-connected ethnic-Kashmiri businessman who heads the US-based Kashmir Study Group (KSG). Media reports also indicate that the Central government is keen on inviting the Ladakh Union Territory Front and other groups for talks so that all three regions of the state can be included in the process. On 15 January, Prime Minister Singh announced that his government would also invite the Kashmiri Pandits for talks at a later date.
These steps clearly indicate that New Delhi is seeking to broaden the dialogue process by involving different groups related to the Kashmir issue. However, the Hurriyat is clearly seeking to place itself as the sole representative of the Kashmiris even though leaders from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) have questioned its claim. In an interview to The Hindu on 4 February, Prime Minister of PoK Sikandar Hayat Khan said the Hurriyat cannot claim to represent the entire State of Jammu and Kashmir. According to him "the All Parties Hurriyat Conference is certainly not the representative of the entire State and any person who knows the State in its entirety will agree with me. I already told them during my interaction when they called upon me recently that the dialogue has no meaning till the time it becomes representative of the wide-ranging diversity which exists in the State of Jammu and Kashmir. A particular region or a locality cannot decide the future of the entire State on both sides of the Line of Control. There are divergent urges and aspirations in the State and the best way to reconcile these is through a process of dialogue and open mind. The dialogue is a civilised medium to hear from the other side. I am a strong votary of keeping the unity of the State intact and this is something which I have gathered from realistic understanding of facts."
Separatists miss significant opportunity
On 14 January, the Central government announced that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has convened a round table conference in New Delhi on 25 February to discuss steps for resolving the Kashmir issue. Earlier, a separate invitation for talks with Prime Minister Singh on 17 February was also extended to Yasin Malik. During his meeting with the Prime Minister on 17 February, Malik asked the government to talk with the militant outfits. Though he did not take any name, NSA M K Narayanan made it clear that it was not possible for the Centre to engage the militant leadership as past experience has not yielded any positive results. The invitation for the round table was also extended to hard-line Hurriyat faction leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani as well. According to a report in The Indian Express (17 February 2006), a high ranking official from Home Ministry had extended the prime minister's invitation to Geelani. However, Geelani stuck to his hard-line position and refused to participate in the round table conference. Geelani and Shabir Shah were the first two separatist leaders to refuse participation in the conference. On 18 February, People's Conference faction led by Bilal Lone refused to participate in the conference. Two days later on 20 February, the moderate faction of the Hurriyat announced after a meeting of its executive and general council that it will not participate in the conference. Apart from the separatists, other leaders like former J&K chief minister Farooq Abdullah also rejected the Centre's invitation though he said that party president Omar Abdullah would participate in the conference. Farooq Abdullah said that the round table conference was 'agenda-less' and it would have been a fruitful exercise if sufficient groundwork had been undertaken. One of the few leaders who agreed to participate in the round table conference was Jammu and Kashmir Democratic Liberation Party (JKDLP) led by Hashim Qureshi whose party decided in favour of participating on 22 February.
Analysts say that the refusal by most separatist leaders to participate in a broad dialogue is mainly because their interests would be pitted against each other at the conference, which would have had over 50 groups claiming to represent Kashmiri interests. The question as to whether the militant outfits should also be involved in the dialogue process as suggested by Yasin Malik remains irrelevant until the violence level in the Valley comes down and Pakistan shuts down the terrorist training infrastructure.
What is clear from these developments is the fact that there is a broad consensus at the highest level in the government on the new initiative by Prime Minister Singh to resolve the Kashmir issue. Even President APJ Abdul Kalam had stated categorically that a final solution to the issue should be agreeable to India, Pakistan and Kashmiris. The government has also said that redrawing of borders is not possible and whatever is decided should be within the framework of the Indian constitution. At the meeting itself (held in New Delhi on 25 February 2006), Prime Minister Singh made a strong pitch for "mutual tolerance, understanding and accommodation" to build a better future for the region battered by over 15 years of separatist violence. "I am of course acutely aware that all of us do not think alike. The people of Leh and Kargil may have different ideas about the future from those living in Srinagar. Those in Kathua may think differently from residents of say Sopore," he said in his speech. "But that is the real strength of our democracy, which celebrates differences and does not smother them. "A new Jammu and Kashmir must be created, after all, on the basis of a shared vision of the people and can never be mechanically imposed. We need to explore jointly new pathways to build a better tomorrow for the people of Jammu and Kashmir," he said. Among those who attended the meeting were: state Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, National Conference president Omar Abdullah, People's Democratic Party chief Mehbooba Mufti, central minister Saifuddin Soz, Congress leader Karan Singh, state Bharatiya Janata Party chief Nirmal Singh, K. Chawang (Ladakh), former cabinet secretary M.K. Kaw, and Ajay Charngu, a Kashmiri Pandit leader. Hashim Qureshi, who had hijacked an Indian Airlines aircraft to Pakistan in 1971, was the only separatist face at the meeting, according to a news report.
The separatist outfits have clearly lost out on a significant opportunity by refusing to participate in the round table conference. The conference would serve as a platform to discuss commonalties between mainstream political parties, Centre and militants and difference of opinion amongst these three constituents. Even issues like self governance and demilitarisation on which the separatists have had no problems talking to the Pakistani leadership during their visit to Pakistan, these issues would be have been discussed in the conference. On the issue of demilitarisation, the question that needs to be answered is whether Kashmiris will remain free after the withdrawal of troops? The absence of security in Kashmir would be an open invitation not only for militant outfits but also for the Pakistani army. The open invitation for the conference has clearly caused ego problems within the extended Hurriyat umbrella to surface. It has also exposed the unwillingness of its members to share a platform which confirms the lack of a genuine agenda and excessive pique. Rather than participating in the conference and discussing ideas which could have helped in setting up a framework for the final resolution of the Kashmir issue, the Hurriyat chose to bypass this significant opportunity.