The crucial All-Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC) meeting in Srinagar today (Tuesday, April 17) failed to respond to the Central government’s formal invitation for talks. The six-hour meeting instead decided to delay its response till next week. While differences in the Hurriyat are being cited as the reason for delay in responding cogently to the Centre’s offer, it would be too charitable to ignore the fact that by doing this the Hurriyat has cleverly bought itself valuable political time.
If the Hurriyat had made up its mind to outright reject talks with the Centre, it would have done so today, not postponed a decision for some phantom epiphany. If the APHC working committee and General Council are meeting on Saturday and Monday, respectively, then the reason is that most of Hurriyat leaders dearly desire an unambiguous endorsement of its move to engage in a structured dialogue process with the Centre.
Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is clearly in the driver’s seat as far as the government’s peace initiative in Kashmir is concerned. The appointment of the deputy chairperson of the Planning Commission, KC Pant, as the chief negotiator is, at the end of the day, a matter of detail. What is important is the government’s agenda, and it appears that at the first instant the agenda seems to be an expressed intent for a broadbased dialogue. It is understandable that the agenda has been kept loose. How else can Vajpayee accommodate the hawkish views of his home minister, L K Advani?
So, if Advani wants the government to engage everyone but the militants in the dialogue process, Pant (now officially given the status of prime minister’s confidante on Kashmir) wants to engage “all groups” in Jammu and Kashmir. The chairperson of the APHC, Abdul Gani Bhat, said in Srinagar today that the Hurriyat had “received the invitation for dialogue from K C Pant, the Centre’s chief negotiator, to hold dialogue with all groups in Jammu and Kashmir for restoration of peace in the state”.
Considering the operative term to be “all groups”, how can Pant stave off engaging those who have been waging an armed confrontation in Kashmir?
On the one hand, Pant wants to broadbase the dialogue process with the intention of involving all affected sections of people in the state. Thus, in the first phase, Pant intends to proceed with a structured invite-and-talk process with the Hurriyat, the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA), the Shias in Kargil, and Hindu community organisations in Jammu. But the most important dialogue partner will be the Hurriyat. After all, it is the Hurriyat that has been propagating separatist politics and is really the political face of militancy in Kashmir.