“There is no place,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced from the ramparts of the Red Fort on Independence Day, “for separatist thought in Jammu and Kashmir.” Less than three months later, persuaded that this summer’s street protests demonstrated that Kashmiri secessionists have both reach and influence, the central government has changed tack. During his visit to Srinagar last week, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram announced that New Delhi would be seeking to renew the long-stalled dialogue process. He correctly acknowledged that there is a political problem in Kashmir and it has to be solved. Jammu and Kashmir’s unique history necessitated a unique solution, he urged, using language that was different from New Delhi’s standard official rhetoric. Mr. Chidambaram made the case for quiet, behind-the-scenes talks: a constructive dialogue, as he put it, rather than a photo opportunity. That dialogue, highly-placed government sources have told The Hindu, is already under way: separatist leaders, including All Parties Hurriyat Conference chief Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front leader, Yasin Malik, have met with high-level functionaries in the Union Home Ministry. The effort is to work out a framework both sides can live with -- and ensure that the talks are built on foundations strong enough to endure political storms.

Will the effort succeed? There is of course no guarantee it will. In January 2004, Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani met with the Hurriyat leadership for the first time. The ground was prepared and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee announced that the only precondition for negotiations was humanism. This was followed up by a second meeting that March. Prime Minister Singh held two more rounds of talks in May and September 2005. Fearful of the jihadist wrath, the Hurriyat never brought a serious agenda to the table. In March 2006, APHC leaders promised to attend Dr. Singh’s all-party Roundtable Conference on Jammu and Kashmir only to back off in the face of terrorist threats. Two challenges now lie ahead. First, J&K’s fractious secessionist groups must agree on a road map for progress. Mirwaiz Farooq has set up a committee to engage his archrival, Islamist hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani; it can only be hoped the talks are fruitful. Secondly, Islamabad’s support for the dialogue process must be secured. Pakistan would do well to appoint an envoy to continue the secret dialogue held by Satinder Lambah and Tariq Aziz, which yielded a set of agreed principles for a resolution of the Kashmir conflict in 2006. Mr. Chidambaram meanwhile must be applauded for taking a significant step forward in the knowledge that the journey to peace will be a long, hard trudge, littered with political minefields.

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