Today's Paper

Advani to hold talks with Hurriyat

New Delhi Oct. 22. In a substantial revision of its current stance, the Vajpayee Government today announced that the Deputy Prime Minister, L.K. Advani would hold talks with Abbas Ali Ansari, chairman of the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference, the conglomerate that claims to be the "sole representative" of the Kashmiri people.

The decision was taken at a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security chaired by the Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Barring the Defence Minister, George Fernandes, all members were present.

The Centre's designated interlocutor for Jammu and Kashmir, N.N. Vohra, was specially invited to the meeting, and he is said to have given a detailed account of the nature of his exercise so far.

A key participant described the "talk to Hurriyat" decision as a "continuation of the Prime Minister's peace initiative" (announced by Mr. Vajpayee on April 18 in Srinagar). Another participant called it "a very serious decision, a very serious effort."

The Hurriyat leadership has welcomed the Centre's decision. Calling it "a bit late", Maulana Ansari who was in town, added: "Advani's appointment seems to signal the seriousness of the Government in resolving the Kashmir issue." The conglomerate's formal response would be known tomorrow when the APHC executive committee deliberates the Centre's offer. The splinter group leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, is known to have dismissed the talks offer.

After the CCS meeting, the Union Home Secretary, N. Gopalaswamy, told newsmen that the Centre was responding to Mr. Ansari's statement of August 25 in which he had demanded that New Delhi initiate talks with the Hurriyat. Since then other Hurriyat leaders had also made similar statements.

Significantly, these statements do not contain any pre-conditions. Today's decision by the CCS does not stipulate any condition from New Delhi's side either.

However, Mr. Vohra would continue with his mission. The former Union Home Secretary has been interacting with various groups and voices in Jammu and Kashmir to see how much more autonomy could be devolved to the State. The Hurriyat, however, has refused to have any kind of interaction with "the designated interlocutor". Mr. Vohra himself has publicly complained of lack of enthusiasm from the Centre for his mission and efforts.

The External Affairs Minister, Yashwant Sinha, told a press conference here that Mr. Advani's interaction with the Hurriyat would take place "in the same context in which Mr. Vohra was acting." Mr. Vohra had a meeting today with Mr. Advani. Later, he told newsmen that there was no need to redefine his role or mission. The impression among officials is that Mr. Advani himself would probably not get involved in the nuts and bolts of the negotiations; the Hurriyat leaders would have the satisfaction of a formal photo session with the Deputy Prime Minister. The meeting with Mr. Advani would be one way of bringing value-addition to the Vohra mission.

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