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PMO in secret talks with secessionists

Praveen Swami

Yasin Malik, Farooq Kathwari among the participants



Yasin Malik

NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and National Security Adviser (NSA), M.K. Narayanan, have held a series of top-secret meetings with key figures involved in Jammu and Kashmir conflict, including the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front leader Mohammad Yasin Malik.

Mr. Malik, sources told The Hindu , met with Dr. Singh shortly before leaving for the United States on November 28, 2005. Sources said the meeting explored what could be done to facilitate an open dialogue between Mr. Malik and the Prime Minister, of the kind, which recently took place with the People's Conference leader Sajjad Gani Lone. However, no details were available on the substance of the discussions.

National Security Advisor M. K. Narayanan, for his part, held a separate meeting last week with Farooq Kathwari, a well-connected ethnic-Kashmiri businessman who heads the U.S.-based Kashmir Study Group (KSG).

The KSG's controversial plans for an ethnic-religious partition of Jammu and Kashmir have informed several of the proposals floated by the Pakistan's military ruler, President Pervez Musharraf.

Mr. Kathwari, who was in New Delhi for 10 days earlier this month, also visited the PMO on a second occasion, but no confirmation was available on whether he had secured a meeting with the Prime Minister himself. Officials said the NSA told Mr. Kathwari that Pakistan's proposals for the demilitarisation of Jammu and Kashmir could only be implemented if President Musharraf delivered on his promises to end terrorism.

Prime Minister also held a 20-minute meeting with the U.S.-based Kashmiri leader Vijay Sazawal on January 11, to discuss the involvement of the Pandit community in the ongoing dialogue process. Like Mr. Kathwari, Mr. Sazawal is an American national who has been a significant player in debates in the United States on issues related to the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir.

Interestingly, the Union Government issued travel documents to the hard-line Islamist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani earlier this month, allowing him to participate in the Haj pilgrimage.

With the apparent consent of the PMO, Mr. Geelani used the opportunity to hold extended discussions with the Hizb ul-Mujahideen leader, Mohammad Yusuf Shah. He also attended a dinner hosted by the former Pakistan Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif.

While the meetings illustrate the seriousness with which the Prime Minister treats the dialogue process, the secret negotiations are not without critics.

Mr. Malik continues to be under trial in ten cases of murder, including the killing of four unarmed Indian Air Force personnel at Awantipora airbase, a fact, which has led some to question the propriety of the Prime Minister holding direct talks with him.

Mr. Malik's recent flirtation with the Lashkar-e-Taiba has also been a source of concern. On November 6 last year, just days before his meeting with Prime Minister Singh, Mr. Malik shared a platform with Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the head of the Lashkar's parent organisation, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa.

Even as speakers at the meeting called for an escalation of the jihad in Jammu and Kashmir, Mr. Malik praised the Jamaat's earthquake-relief work.

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