The wheels of history are turning in Jammu and Kashmir, excruciatingly slowly perhaps, but revolving nonetheless. On Saturday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met the secessionist leader, Sajjad Gani Lone, and thus began the first formal dialogue New Delhi has held with politicians outside the umbrella of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference. By meeting with Mr. Lone, the Central Government has signalled that it intends to engage with all elements of the complex political mosaic in the State. Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad has made it clear that the doors of the Prime Minister's Office are open to other secessionist leaders as well, notably Mohammad Yasin Malik and Shabbir Shah. In time, the logic of Saturday's meeting dictates, New Delhi should open a dialogue on the State's future with politicians opposed to ethnic-Kashmiri secessionists. This category includes players as ideologically diverse as Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader; Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, ex-Chief Minister and leader of the People's Democratic Party; Omar Abdullah, National Conference president; Kashmir Pandit organisations; and the Jammu-region leadership of the Congress. These players represent sections of the people who have equities in the future of Jammu and Kashmir, and thus a right to have their voices heard in the rooms where it will be decided.
Does this mean, as some critics contend, a dilution of the dialogue process? Yes - but also no. If the objective of the dialogue was to secure a one-shot settlement of the conflict, it would have made little sense to broaden participation in it. Yet it has been clear for some time that the APHC simply does not have the leverage to deliver an end to violence. Nor has its claim to be the sole spokesperson of the State's people been found credible. In turn, Pakistan's recent proposals on Jammu and Kashmir - demilitarisation of the State and what Pervez Musharraf has described as "self-rule" - have demonstrated flexibility, but not seriousness of purpose. President Musharraf has not, for example, said exactly what he intends to do to end terrorism by Pakistan-based groups - terrorism that claimed the lives of the fathers of both Mr. Lone and the APHC chairman, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. Nor has he touched on the subject of allowing democratic governance in the part of Jammu and Kashmir administered by Pakistan. New voices must be heard if new ideas are to emerge. It is encouraging that the Mirwaiz has stated, notwithstanding his reservations, that he does not oppose the Prime Minister's meeting with Mr. Lone. New Delhi now needs to demonstrate that broad-based dialogue is not a tactical manoeuvre to marginalise the APHC. It will take time and patience to find a solution acceptable to all those who have stakes in Jammu and Kashmir. Dialogue, after all, is a process - not a tool to deliver a pre-conceived end.