“You cannot shake hands,” Prime Minister Indira Gandhi said famously in a 1982 interview, “with a clenched fist.” Ever since he took office, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram has been quietly working to un-clench the hands of Jammu Kashmiri secessionists and secure the support of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference for a peace deal. The Hindu recently broke news of a second round of secret meetings with key Hurriyat leaders, a sign that Mr. Chidambaram’s initiative is making some headway. Secret diplomacy is a key weapon, sometimes an effective one, in the arsenal of states seeking to solve intractable conflicts. However, New Delhi’s covert search for peace in Jammu and Kashmir has a less than luminous record. Despite two decades of sustained contact with various groups of secessionists, the results have been disappointing. As People’s Democratic Party leader Mehbooba Mufti has pointed out, a purely covert engagement involves the risk that any agreement arrived at will be perceived to be a ‘sell-out.’
The secret talks are intended to prepare the ground for a public engagement. But there is a major problem. The Hurriyat wants Kashmir’s Islamist patriarch, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, as well as Pakistan and its jihadist allies, to endorse the dialogue. Islamabad, beset by internal crises, is in no position to agree to anything domestic Islamists can attack as capitulation to India. Mr. Geelani has rejected talks on ideological grounds. Past peace efforts floundered on the same rock. Little came, for example, of Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani’s 2004 meeting with the Hurriyat. Pakistan rejected the process because it would have undermined its leverage in J&K. For his part, Mr. Geelani walked out of the Hurriyat before the talks. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sought to address the problem by authorising secret talks with Islamabad even as he met with Hurriyat leaders in September 2005. Diplomats Satinder Lambah and Tariq Aziz agreed on the broad contours of a solution. By 2006, however, it became clear that a beleaguered Pervez Musharraf was in no position to deliver on the five agreed principles. The Hurriyat, for its part, failed to come up with an agenda for talks. Dr. Singh then changed tack: he called a conference, involving all major parties in J&K, in an effort to build consensus on the way forward. The secessionists, unsurprisingly, resiled from promises to participate. Mr. Chidambaram evidently hopes his renewed engagement will break the impasse. Some influential voices in the policy establishment are believed to be sceptical about the chances of success. Both Mr. Chidambaram and Hurriyat president Mirwaiz Umar Farooq must be applauded for giving peace a chance. Given the complexities of the endeavour, there can be no guarantee of success — nor should one be sought. But the time has come to conduct the dialogue in the clear light of day.