Kashmir’s secessionists want something New Delhi doesn’t have — and at a price it can’t afford.

More than three years ago, Kashmiri secessionist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq made a dramatic admission of failure. “Our fight on the political, diplomatic and military fronts […has] not achieved anything other than creating more graveyards,” the Srinagar cleric said during a speech at a January 20, 2006 dinner hosted by the former Pakistan-administered Kashmir Prime Minister, Sardar Attique Khan.

Late last month, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram told journalists that he was committed to breaking the deadlock that has led to so many graves being dug since that historic speech. “We will consult every shade of political opinion,” he promised, “but it will be done quietly, far away from the glare of the media.”

Off-screen, as it were, the dialogue process is progressing. In September, highly-placed Jammu and Kashmir government sources have told The Hindu, the Minister met Mirwaiz Farooq face to face in New Delhi before the cleric left for an Organisation of the Islamic Conference meeting in New York. Neither Mr. Chidambaram nor Mirwaiz Farooq will confirm that he met the other, but authoritative sources said the two men discussed the prospects of the Hurriyat Conference bringing to the table a clear manifesto for talks. Mr. Chidambaram’s quiet diplomacy is not, as many media accounts have suggested, a radical departure from the past.

In November 2005, Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front leader Mohammad Yasin Malik was escorted by Intelligence Bureau personnel to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — part of a process of high-level contact that paved the way for talks between the Hurriyat and the Centre the following year. Later, in January 2006, National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan met Farooq Kathwari, a United States-based ethnic Kashmiri magnate with high-level links in Pakistan. Mirwaiz Farooq also arranged a meeting in December 2006 with N.N. Vohra, New Delhi’s former interlocutor on Jammu and Kashmir and now Governor.

But the contacts achieved little. Like the three rounds between the government and the Hurriyat which had preceded them, the 2005 talks were a photo opportunity; the secessionists later resiled on the promise to participate in the all-party conference called by Dr. Singh the following year. This independence day, Dr. Singh — the most committed supporter of dialogue on Jammu and Kashmir in the United Progressive Alliance government — made clear that he saw “no place for separatist thought.” Many in New Delhi’s policy establishment, among them Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Defence Minister A.K. Antony and Mr. Narayanan, are thought to be less than enthused by the prospects of talks. For its part, the Hurriyat is divided between pro-dialogue elements and rejectionists.

Key to the problem is the dilemma so familiar to South Asians who enjoy the art of street bargaining: the customer doesn’t have enough cash and a shopkeeper doesn’t have the right goods. The Hurriyat is willing to settle for an arrangement falling short of independence if it is guaranteed a share of power — and, moreover, if the deal is endorsed by its Islamist adversaries within Kashmir, as well as Pakistan and the jihadist groups based there. New Delhi — like Islamabad, which is increasingly mired in a worsening war with Islamists — simply does not have the influence to deliver on these demands.

Shifting goalposts

New Delhi’s efforts to reach out to the Kashmiri secessionists rest on the fact that a peace deal with Pakistan is now improbable. Besieged by the religious right, Pakistan’s political elite cannot risk being seen as selling out on Jammu and Kashmir.

Envoys S.K. Lambah and Tariq Aziz, through 2006, hammered out the broad contours of a secret deal on Jammu and Kashmir that both Islamabad and New Delhi believed they could live with. Five principles — first reported in this newspaper — formed the foundations of the deal. The Line of Control would form a border, but there would be freedom of movement of trade and movement across it. Both sides would separately decide what quantum of autonomy their parts of Kashmir would have, and there would be some cooperative institutions. Finally, the State and the Line of Control would be demilitarised, as peace set in.

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

But President Pervez Musharraf was swept away — and with him, the deal Mr. Lambah and Mr. Aziz hammered out. Desperate, the Hurriyat leadership reached out again to New Delhi. “Let us come out of our delusions,” urged the Mirwaiz at a 2008 seminar in Srinagar. His colleague Abdul Gani Butt, similarly, 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.”

Rejectionists hostile to the five-principle deal, though, soon demonstrated that they, rather than the poorly-organised doves grouped around Mirwaiz Farooq, had the power to impose unities of direction on events on the ground. Kashmir’s Islamist patriarch, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, adroitly used ethnic-communal issues to mobilise against what he described as a sell-out.

The chauvinist storms unleashed by the former Governor, S.K. Sinha’s decision to grant land-use rights to Shri Amarnath Shrine Board was used by Mr. Geelani to bring the Hurriyat to its knees. In 2003, Mr. Geelani formed his rival Tehreek-i-Hurriyat faction in protest against the Hurriyat’s willingness to talk to New Delhi, and the decision of one of its constituents to contest elections. Five years on, he secured the Mirwaiz’s submission. In a June 19, 2008 declaration, authored in the midst of the Shrine Board violence, the Mirwaiz dropped the option of direct talks with the government and agreed that his action would be bound by the decisions of a Coordination Committee involving both factions. “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 tripartite talks [involving India, Pakistan and the Kashmiri leadership]”.

Now, painfully aware that Mr. Geelani and the jihadists who support him can undermine the Hurriyat’s credibility and its bargaining position, the Mirwaiz has set up a committee to build a new consensus.

Mr. Geelani isn’t biting, though. The Tehreek-i-Hurriyat leader has made clear that his hardline coalition will oppose negotiations with New Delhi. “During the formation of the Coordination Committee,” he said last month, “we [the two Hurriyat factions] had agreed on two points: one, that the right to self-determination would be our basic demand; and, second, that only a tripartite dialogue among India, Pakistan and Kashmir would be acceptable and only after India accepted that Jammu and Kashmir is a disputed territory. If anyone from either Hurriyat enters into a bilateral dialogue, he will breach that agreement.”

“Fighting for azaadi [independence] without also demanding an Islamic state is useless,” he added before a gathering of lower-court lawyers in Srinagar on October 24.

Mirwaiz Farooq faces resistance from within the ranks of his organisation too. Late last month, Democratic Freedom Party leader Shabbir Shah said negotiations with the government would breach the June 19, 2008 agreement. He backed Mr. Geelani, arguing that the June 19 declaration would bind secessionists to “engage in dialogue only if it was trilateral and if it was focussed on the right of self-determination.”

No one knows for certain just how the disputation will play out — but Mirwaiz Farooq repeatedly backed away from confrontation in the past, playing for time to build an evidently-elusive consensus.

Meanwhile, Jammu and Kashmir’s major political groups have increasingly drawn on key elements of secessionist rhetoric, hoping to deny their potential rivals space should a deal go through. In a November 1 speech, PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti argued that accession to India had proved calamitous to Jammu and Kashmir — in terms that could have been used by any Hurriyat leader. “After 1947,” she said, “we were forced to surrender everything to India, including our water resources. We even lost our strategic geographic advantage. The state that should have been the hub of activities in central Asia turned into a land-locked territory. We have been living under an economic and physical siege since the State’s accession.”

For its part, the National Conference has been left insecure by a dialogue that appears to exclude it — and hold out, moreover, the prospect of its adversaries emerging strengthened. In practice, that has been characterised by a slowing down of counter-terrorism effort, and a marked softening of posture on the Hurriyat.

Where might the new New Delhi-Hurriyat engagement head? The best-case scenario is that a gradual process of dialogue will lead the Hurriyat’s constituency to accept the inevitable — thus marginalising the Islamist-led rejectionists. But there are also substantial perils. Mr. Chidambaram — and the Mirwaiz — must be applauded for walking the road to peace. But they must step with care, for the path head is pitted with booby traps and mines.

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