Indian politicians travel from Delhi to meet Kashmir separatists

A delegation travelled to Srinagar yesterday to meet face-to-face with separatists who want India out of Kashmir.

SRINAGAR, INDIA // In an effort to defuse three months of deadly unrest, Indian politicians have travelled to Kashmir to sit down with members of the Himalayan province's main political parties and community groups yesterday. Some members of the 39-strong, all-party delegation - which is led by Palaniappan Chidambaram, the home minister - went so far as to reach out individually to key separatist leaders and visit their residences. The visits came even after those leaders had rejected the delegation's invitation to meet. Some of those separatist leaders had called New Delhi's reconciliatory overtures a "facade".

"We hope and believe that the honour, dignity and future of Kashmiris are secure as part of India," Mr Chidambaram told his Kashmiri audience at the convention centre here in the summer capital of the state. "We are here to give you a patient hearing." The two-day visit came against the backdrop of 108 deaths over the past 102 days of anti-India violence across Kashmir. As the delegation held meetings, the violence continued in the restive town of Sopore, one day after a 22-year-old woman was killed by security personnel. Six people were wounded as the police sprayed bullets to disperse the swelling crowd of 2,000.

There was also little hope among several Kashmiri civil-society groups that their meetings with the delegation, which took place in the shadow of a strict curfew, could provide a breakthrough. Yesterday, on the ninth day of the curfew, many faced severe obstacles just to reach the convention centre. At a security checkpoint 10km away from the centre, security personnel declined to honour the curfew pass of Zahid Ghulam Muhammad and his invitation letter from the delegation.

"We have not received instructions to let you pass through," a policeman in a khaki uniform told Mr Muhammad, who represented the 11-member team from the Srinagar-based Kashmir Centre for Social and Development Studies. Mr Muhammad telephoned the state minister of tourism, Nasir Aslam Wani, and then handed the receiver to the policeman. After much quibbling, he was allowed to pass through, but was stopped again at a check point just 500 metres ahead. There, the entire protocol had to be repeated.

"Our expectations from the delegation are modest," Mr Muhammad said. "New Delhi has woken up to the Kashmir crisis after 100 days of violence. Even then, I want to register our concern over the human rights violations over the last three months. "We are living in a virtual cage," he said, referring to the crippling curfew. "Kashmiris are running out of food and medicine. We want to tell the delegation that political aspects aside, there is a human dimension to the ongoing crisis."

Hamida Nayeem, a social activist and a professor of English at Kashmir University, who was also invited to meet the delegation, echoed similar sentiments. "How long is too long?" she said. "In the last 63 years, we have seen no forward movement on the Kashmir conflict." Ms Nayeem blamed the continued Kashmir's heavy militarisation for the "current havoc". There are nearly 700,000 Indian security personnel stationed in the Kashmir valley - one for every 20 Kashmiris, which makes it one of the highest soldier-to-civilian ratio in the world. Security troops are present on nearly every street as well as in schools, colleges, hospitals, shopping complexes, cafes and playgrounds.

Taking cover behind gun turrets and sandbag mounds, they monitor Kashmiris entering mosques and shrines, constantly reminding them of their status as a suspect population, Ms Nayeem said. Mr Chidambaram did not address the issue of demilitarising Kashmir, but hinted on the first day of the visit that the government was willing to concede to some sort of autonomy to Indian-controlled Kashmir, if not grant the Himalayan state complete independence.

In a radical departure from the government's earlier stance, the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, suggested last month offering regional autonomy to the state within the "ambit of the constitution" as a solution "that addresses the alienation and emotional needs" of Kashmiris. The suggestion received a tepid response from separatists and provoked outrage among the opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janta Party, members of which are a part of this delegation.

But the separatists still dismiss the idea. "The hard reality is that Kashmir is a disputed territory and not an integral part of India," Syed Shah Geelani, an 80-year-old hardline separatist, said in an interview. Mr Geelani has emerged as the face of the resistance movement in the past three months and he denies his supporters have fomented violence. "There is no need to meet the delegation," he said, expressing frustration over New Delhi's refusal to acknowledge his five-point list of demands, which includes phased demilitarisation of Kashmir.

"But Kashmiri customs don't permit us to shut doors to our guests - even if they are uninvited," he added. Later in the evening, he welcomed five members of the delegation visited his residence. Their discussion, which took place in full media glare, was both argumentative and conciliatory, by turns. "India has no legitimacy in Kashmir," Mr Geelani told the politicians. "Your soldier are occupying our land, they go into villages, beat up people, kill them."

"We want a chance for peace and normalcy," pleaded Sitaram Yechury, an MP from the Communist Party of India. "The violence must stop. Dialogue must go on. "Kashmiris are our brothers and sisters."