Will New Delhi's latest attempt at an engagement with Kashmir's secessionists prove more fortunate than its four earlier attempts?

Speaking from the ramparts of the Red Fort on Independence Day last month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said he saw "no place for separatist thought in Jammu and Kashmir." From much of this summer, though, envoys from New Delhi have held a series of secret meetings with the leadership of the secessionist coalition which constitutes the principal voice of that sentiment: the All Parties Hurriyat Conference. New Delhi hopes to revive the negotiations which collapsed in 2005.

Each time in the past, talks with the Hurriyat have led to what has become depressingly familiar: impasse. Will this fifth attempt prove more fortunate than the four ill-fated rounds? New Delhi's renewed pursuit of peace isn't difficult to understand. Levels of jihadist violence have diminished steadily since 2002, and a record number of voters defied secessionists to participate in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly elections last year. But Islamist-led hardliners have succeeded in generating urban protests which, though limited in scale, have repeatedly brought the State government to its knees.

Policymakers are hoping that the foundations for a successful dialogue can soon be put in place. Kashmiri secessionists are being encouraged to articulate a political vision that acknowledges India's concerns over sovereignty. Rejectionists such as the hardline Islamist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani and his jihadist allies are also being addressed. Perhaps most important, Pakistan is being asked to endorse the talks - no small ask at a time when its relationship with India is fraught.

Hopes that the Hurriyat can be persuaded to operate within the structures of democratic politics are founded on the realisation that many secessionists want a negotiated end to a battle they cannot win.

Back in 1997, the former Jamaat -e-Islami chief, Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, called for "a political dialogue." In 1999, Hurriyat leader Abdul Gani Butt broke ranks with his organisation, and called for talks between secessionists and mainstream groups like the National Conference and the Congress to build consensus on the State's future.

During the summer of 2002, the Hurriyat's Abdul Gani Lone emerged as the principal voice of pro-dialogue realists. He travelled to Sharjah for discussions with the powerful Pakistan-administered Kashmir leader Sardar Abdul Qayoom Khan and the then- Inter Services Intelligence chief, Lieutenant-General Ehsan-ul-Haq. Lone is believed to have told both men that the Hurriyat Conference had no choice but to initiate a direct dialogue with New Delhi. Not long after the meeting, though, Lone was assassinated by a Lashkar-e-Taiba hit squad - a blunt message to all those contemplating making a deal with New Delhi.

In an effort to move the dialogue process along, the then Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani met with the Hurriyat leadership for the first time in January 2004. This was followed up with a second meeting that March. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh held two more rounds of talks, in May and September 2005.

But fearful of the jihadist wrath, the Hurriyat never brought an agenda to the table. In March 2006, APHC leaders promised the mediators that they would attend Dr. Singh's second Roundtable Conference on Jammu and Kashmir, but backed off after threats from the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen.

New Delhi now focussed its energies on Pakistan. In secret meetings which began in 2005, Dr. Singh's envoy, S.K. Lambah, and his Pakistani counterpart, Tariq Aziz, arrived at five points of convergence. First, the two men agreed, there would be no redrawing of the Line of Control. Second, they accepted that there would have to be greater political autonomy on both sides of Jammu and Kashmir. Mr. Lambah and Mr. Aziz also agreed that India would move troops, co-operatively manage some resources, and, finally, open the LoC for travel and trade.

Emboldened by this progress, Mirwaiz Farooq began to prepare his constituency for the future. During a January 20, 2006 dinner hosted by Pakistan-administered Kashmir Prime Minister Sardar Attique Khan on January 20, 2006, the Srinagar cleric candidly admitted that the secessionist movement had failed. "We have already seen the results of our fight on the political, diplomatic and military fronts, which have not achieved anything other than creating more graveyards,." he said.

"I think the agenda is pretty much set," the Mirwaiz told an interviewer in April 2007. "It is September 2007," he went on, "that India and Pakistan are looking at, in terms of announcing something on Kashmir."

The Hurriyat leaders hoped that that the deal would hand them power - but by the time Mr. Lambah and Mr. Aziz arrived at their five-point formula, President Pervez Musharraf was in the midst of a storm that would sweep him out of power.

Desperate, the Hurriyat leadership reached out again to New Delhi. "Let us come out of our delusions," Mirwaiz Farooq said at a May 19, 2008 seminar in Srinagar. Mr. Butt, in turn, called on the National Conference and the People's Democratic Party to work with the secessionist formation to "mutually work out a joint settlement." For his part, the People's Conference chief Sajjad Lone called on the secessionists to focus on the "achievable."

Mr. Geelani hit back, using ethnic-communal issues to mobilise people people against what he described as a sell-out. Speaking at a religious conference in Baramulla on May 26 last year, he warned his audience that India was seeking to change "the Muslim majority into a minority by settling down troops along with their families." Then, "they will either massacre Muslims as they did in Jammu in 1947, or carry out a genocide as was done in Gujarat.".

By June, helped on by the communal storms unleashed by the grant of land- use rights to the trust which manages the Amarnath shrine in south Kashmir, Mr. Geelani was able to turn the tables on the Hurriyat's realists. In a June 19 declaration, authored in the midst of the Shrine Board violence, the Mirwaiz dropped the option of direct talks with the Indian government. "Both sides," the document states, "after considerable argument and discussion, reached the conclusion that the Hurriyat Conference will continue its political struggle for self-determination, which can be achieved through tri-partite talks [involving Pakistan] against the backdrop of the historic struggle of the Kashmiris."

Last year, though, the wheel began to turn again. Kashmir's people rejected Mr. Geelani's calls to oppose the elections. Islamist mobilisations this summer remained confined to urban centres, a sign of their diminishing credibility.

In June, on his way home from Yekaterinburg in Russia, the Prime Minister announced that he had "not given up hope on Jammu and Kashmir." "I have always said that we would be happy to engage in a dialogue with any groups, and I mean any groups," he said. Asked specifically about the Hurriyat, the Prime Minister said, "Iif they have any views, we are quite willing to discuss them."

Mirwaiz Farooq has said he wants New Delhi to first implement a five-point agenda to "prepare the ground for negotiations." These are: the revocation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act as well as other special terrorism-related legislation, graduated demilitarisation of the State, the initiation of a process to narrow the differences between the parties to the dispute, the promotion of free trade across the LoC and, finally, India committing itself to a strategy "free of all political gimmicks and purely based on far-sightedness, wisdom and realism."

New Delhi is unlikely to meet these demands. As things stand, its negotiators are even resisting a meeting between the Mirwaiz and the Prime Minister until preliminary negotiations have been conducted to prepare an agenda.

Behind his resistance to this line of action lies one stark fact: the realists have never been in a weaker political position. Even in his old-city Srinagar heartland, Mirwaiz Farooq's repeated calls to pro-Islamist youth to end their now-routine clashes with the police have been ignored. Sajjad Lone's historic decision to fight the Baramulla Lok Sabha elections ended in an ignominious defeat.

Key elements of the Lambah-Aziz formula, on which the realists had pinned their hopes, have meanwhile been appropriated by mainstream parties. Last month, PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti laid out her vision for an "azaad riyasat"- a term she translated for The Hindu as a "free state," but could also mean an "independent state." Based on the PDP's Self-Rule Document, she called for a free movement across Jammu and Kashmir's international frontiers, demilitarisation and the creation of cross-LoC political institutions.

For its part, the National Conference has been campaigning for the revocation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and a dialogue between New Delhi and the Hizb - issues on which the Hurriyat once spoke alone. Little space has thus been left for the Hurriyat to claim a victory - but the cost of rejecting New Delhi's new engagement could mean complete marginalisation. Either way, Mirwaiz Farooq's decision will be fateful.

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