SRINAGAR, INDIA// The Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, begins his tour of Jammu and Kashmir today in an effort to rope in those "who are outside the political mainstream, provided they shun violence" and jump start peace talks.
He will encounter a furore, however, over accusations that youths were killed in gunfights staged by the Indian army in April, an addition to a long list of allegations of human rights abuse in the restive region. The incident has led to daily protests, which often turn violent. Scores of protesters and police have been injured. Hours before the prime minister's arrival in Srinagar, the Indian army announced it had relieved a colonel of his command and suspended a major for their alleged involvement in the April 30 staging of the gunfight near the Line of Control.
Omar Abdullah, who as Kashmir's chief minister is its top elected official, said the prime minister would not hold direct talks with the separatist leadership but hoped that Mr Singh's two-day visit to the summer capital "will help rejuvenate the internal dialogue process". Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, an influential politician and top cleric as well as a moderate face among the separatists, said there was no room for peace talks as long as the army could kill with impunity. "Talks and genocide can't go together," he said in an interview.
Before the army scandal, Mr Mirwaiz had said he was not averse to resuming talks with New Delhi "provided it is serious in seeking a solution to the core issue of Kashmir and the dialogue ought to be result-oriented". He also suggested that the Indian government should first take confidence-building measures such as moving troops away from populated areas, putting an end to human rights violations and unconditionally releasing political prisoners.
Mr Singh had apparently set the ball rolling by trying to arrange a meeting with separatists, but the killings seem to have wiped out any hope for that happening. On May 28, Kashmiri police exhumed the bodies of the three victims after investigations alleged that the boys were lured to the Line of Control, the de facto border between India and Pakistan, by the promise of employment and were then shot dead. The army had orginally claimed that the youth were terrorists, fuelling speculation that army officials involved were seeking cash rewards and promotions for the killings, which occurred in April.
Mr Abdullah said army officials have assured him that they will co-operate in investigations of human right violations, if there is evidence. But that promise has failed to satify a large section of people before the prime minister's visit. A member of the state's legislative assembly, SA Rasheed, has filed a complaint to the state's Human Rights Commission seeking arrest and punishment of the army men involved in the shooting and has sought permission from the Srinagar district magistrate to hold a peaceful protest during Mr Singh's visit. His petition for the protest was denied, but he has pledged to go ahead with one anyway.
Various pro-independence groups have called for a general strike during Mr Singh's visit. The National Conference Congress, the ruling coalition in Jammu and Kashmir, said that Mr Singh's wish to seek talks with those outside the political mainstream is "appropriate", and the opposition People's Democratic Party urged separatist political parties to "grab the opportunity to present their viewpoint in resolving the Kashmir issue".
But it is unlikely that Mr Singh's presence in Srinagar will work any miracles, according to observers. "Kashmiris have become sceptical. On account of their previous engagements with the Indian state, this time we see even the moderates are shying away. They have said that there is no sense in talking while people continue to be slain," said Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a professor of human rights at the University of Kashmir.
"It is a loss and I'm afraid it would now rather be like being at the wrong place at the wrong time," said a local leader of India's ruling Congress Party, on the condition of anonymity. New Delhi continues to be hopeful. Mr Abdullah told a gathering of government employees in Srinagar on Friday that "dialogue is the only way forward to resolve issues". "I've time and again maintained that the state government would actively facilitate the internal and external dialogue processes to help restore permanent peace and address political issues," he said.
GK Pillai, the Indian home secretary, said Mr Singh's visit to Srinagar is a continuation of the Kashmir dialogue process and of paramount importance. He also claimed that "quiet diplomacy" on Kashmir initiated by the interior minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, "is working well and yielding results". No one in Srinagar or New Delhi admits to actually being involved in "quiet diplomacy" in Kashmir, and Mr Umar, who is believed to be part of that process, denied any progress is being made.
"I've said it before and I'm reiterating it today that I'm nowhere involved in the so-called backdoor negotiations. "How could I go for a sell-out? They are shedding the blood of our innocent youth for cash rewards and higher ranks. Do you expect me to close my eyes to that?" @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org