India And Kashmir Separatists Begin Talks On Ending Strife
22 January 2004
The New York Times
New Delhi: For the first time in 14 years, senior Indian officials and separatist political leaders from Kashmir held talks on here Thursday on how to end an insurgency that has killed as many as 80,000 people since 1989 and brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war. After a two-hour initial meeting, both sides declared that a step forward had been taken in ending one of the world's most intractable conflicts, describing the talks as 'amicable, free, frank and fruitful' in a joint statement. 'I must say that the meeting has proven a very good beginning,' said Deputy Prime Minister L. K. Advani, the leader of the Indian delegation and a man generally viewed as a hawk on Kashmir. The joint statement declared that 'all forms of violence at all levels should come to an end' in Kashmir, that India would begin a 'rapid review' of prisoners held by Indian security forces and that the two sides would meet again in late March. In a surprise announcement, Indian officials said Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had agreed to meet with the separatist leaders on Friday evening. After nearly going to war in 2002, Indian and Pakistani officials agreed at a regional summit meeting in Islamabad earlier this month to begin peace talks over Kashmir and other issues dividing them. Diplomats from the countries are expected to meet for more talks in New Delhi in February. Pakistan, which is majority Muslim, and India, which is majority Hindu, have fought two wars over Kashmir. For both sides in Thursday's negotiations, a good start was pivotal. Officials from the governing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party were eager to continue to show momentum in peace efforts with Pakistan. Public opinion polls have shown strong support for peace. For the separatists, the stakes were even higher. All are leaders of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a loose coalition of political parties supporting the creation of an independent Kashmiri state through nonviolent means. All are now potential targets of violence.