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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Peace talks to restart in J&K, new sops coming

Kashmir’s separatists are set to be invited for peace talks for the first time in three years.

Former militants can aspire to become mechanics and artisans, and those across the border can hope to return home.

Families of those blacklisted as a security threat can hope to use their passports again.

After a long policy lull during his predecessor Shivraj Patil’s tenure, Home Minister P. Chidambaram is expected to soon begin a new peace push in the troubled region.

Those measures, likely to be laid down over the coming months, would come after one of the most dramatic years in the two-decade insurgency that witnessed a shutdown in peace talks, a long policy lull, the violent Amarnath agitation, and then the U-turn — the successful state elections that pushed separatist groups on the back foot.

But this year has been marked by widespread street protests over disappearances and deaths in the region where discontent against India runs deep and after some quiet weeks, streets can be fill up within an hour with furious, clenched-fist protesters.

“The effort is to not let events overtake us, and to bring back a policy focus in Kashmir,” a senior official with close knowledge of the planned initiatives told HT. He spoke on condition of anonymity as he is not authorised to speak on the subject.

Some 40,000 people have died according to an official count in Kashmir since 1989, when a furious anti-India insurgency erupted there. Anti-government groups say the number of dead is twice the government count.

Structured peace talks were last held in September 2005 between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and separatist leaders, mostly demanding freedom for Kashmir.

Singh is, however, not likely to hold the talks himself this time, another official said, also declining to be named.
Militant groups have in the past appealed to separatists not to accept an offer of talks if they are announced. Alongside, the central government is planning measures for the estimated 25,000 former militants, mostly released from jail and some who surrendered.

“These will probably include free vocational courses -- I don’t think the state government has done much to rehabilitate them,” said a senior security official. “Otherwise they could easily return to the gun, not for ideology but for need.”

Some hope could also come for thousands of men across the border in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, former militants who now ply autorickshaws and run shops and crave to return home, as brought out in interviews with Indian journalists who have travelled and met them in recent years.

Many got married across the border. Some have walked up to the Line of Control with their Pakistani families and surrendered to Indian border guards.

“An invitation to them to return home is being considered. We could facilitate that, with the help of the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross),” a security official said.

Some passport relaxations are also planned for those who have been prosecuted at any time under the Public Safety Act. The accused currently cannot apply for government jobs, and they and their families cannot travel overseas or get passports, stigmatised for life in the eyes of the law.

All this is a big departure from Patil’s tenure, marked by near-total inaction on Kashmir.

“He would hear our ideas, have nothing to say, would ask no questions, and finally say, ‘OK!’ and you would leave.

It was frustrating,” said a top official who has interacted with both home ministers.

“Chidambaram is engaged, he is open to ideas, he is emphatic in agreeing or disagreeing with you. It’s a change from the days of our monologues to Mr Patil,” he said.

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