In their first talks with the Indian government, Kashmiri separatist leaders agreed Thursday that all violence in the divided Himalayan region should stop.
In return, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee agreed to hold a first-ever meeting with the separatists on Friday, and the Indian government pledged further talks in late March.
The agreement that violence should end was significant because some members of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, the group of political parties involved in the talks, were militants in the past or have links with guerrillas.
After a 2½-hour meeting with India’s hardline deputy prime minister, Lal Krishna Advani, one of the separatists, Abdul Ghani Bhat, read a joint statement saying: “It was agreed that the only way forward is to ensure that all forms of violence at all levels should come to an end.”
More than 65,000 people have died in 14 years of fighting between Indian forces and Islamic militants seeking to separate the Muslim-majority region from India.
Some of the guerrilla groups are based in Pakistan — which, like India, claims all of Kashmir — and have said they will not stop fighting until Indian forces leave.
The militants need to be brought into the dialogue process, say the Hurriyat leaders, who have long sought to travel to Pakistan to meet with guerrilla chiefs. Advani refused to say whether the separatists had again raised that request during the meeting.
“The talks were amicable, free, frank and fruitful and it was agreed that the next round of discussion would take place in the latter part of March,” said the statement.
That would follow the resumption of a peace dialogue between India and Pakistan for the first time in more than two years.
“The meeting has proved a very good beginning,” said Advani. He said a meeting earlier this month between India’s and Pakistan’s leaders on the sidelines of a regional summit in Islamabad, and successful elections in Indian-controlled Kashmir a year ago, despite militant threats, “have contributed to a new atmosphere.”
joint statement, and the agreement for the prime minister to meet the separatists, were results far beyond what analysts expected from the first talks.
While India is highly unlikely to ever grant independence to Kashmir, smaller steps — including a reduction in Indian military presence in Kashmir, some level of local administration and promises of more financial help — are possibilities.
Advani, who is also home minister in charge of law enforcement, agreed to review cases of people held in detention in Kashmir without trial, a sore point with most Kashmiris.
Disagreements over Kashmir began as colonial India was given its freedom in 1947 and divided into modern India and Pakistan. During partition, the Hindu king of predominantly Muslim Kashmir chose to merge the region with India — even though many of his subjects might have opted to become part of overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan.
The two nations have fought two of their three wars over the Himalayan region, which remains divided along what is known as the Line of Control.
India accuses Pakistan of supplying money and arms to the numerous rebel groups fighting to wrest Kashmir away from India. Pakistan says it offers them only diplomatic and moral support.