Kashmir has seen a constant struggle by parties in the Valley to occupy centre stage and demonstrate their primacy to the people. After a long time the moderate leaders of Hurriyat Conference had such an opportunity which they are fully utilizing by acting as a possible bridge between the government and leaders of militant organizations located in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK). Thus Chairman of the Hurriyat moderate faction, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq gave a clarion call to the militants to give up the armed struggle while on a visit to Islamabad. He emphasized the need to reconcile differences as a confrontational attitude had failed to achieve tangible results. While broadly supporting the Pakistan President's four point formula on Kashmir of soft borders, self governance, demilitarization and joint management, Mirwaiz sought to reach out to the militant outfits asking them to give up arms and facilitate the process of talks.
Omar Abdullah, Chairman of the National Conference called this as a welcome step and accepted that militants had a stake in the talks as they were the key to delivering peace in the Valley. While Kashmir's Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad also openly welcomed the statement calling it a bold initiative to end violence he rejected the proposal for joint management of Kashmir made by the Pakistani President calling it impractical.
Mirwaiz's call to give up the armed struggle was immediately rejected by the Geelani faction of the Hurriyat which has yet to reconcile to the snub given by the Pakistan government recently. Thus Geelani accused him of compromising with the Pakistan government. The United Jihad Council, the umbrella organization of the militants in the Valley also did not indicate support to Mirwaiz accusing him of endearing himself to the West and India. The moderate faction also followed up these announcements by forming a working group with the Pakistan Occupied Kashmiri government to facilitate the peace process. They also met other members of the United Jihad Council except for Syed Salahuddin, the Chairman and key leader who heads the influential Hizbul Mujaheedin.
The second and more substantial proposal in the form of a 300 page document came from Sajjad Gani Lone, the People's Conference leader and son of Abdul Gani Lone slain for his moderate views by the militants. The proposal broadly called for devolution of powers on both sides of Jammu and Kashmir without changing the present borders. This will also be seen as an important body of work for future discussions.
The battle to grab the space for peace in Kashmir is encouraging though it is far from gathering momentum. The initial push for peace started by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and followed up by his successor the present Prime Minister Mr. Manmohan Singh has also been taken up by Pakistan President Musharraf. A gradual restructuring of Pakistan policy on Kashmir is thus evident. Public opinion is also being built towards such an eventuality in Islamabad. Those as Mirwaiz Umar who have understood the change of mood have grabbed the opportunity before getting marginalized. This is possibly an impact of Mirwaiz's recent visit to Europe where he had met a number of European leaders at a fateful time when the EU had released the Draft Emma Nicholson Report which had castigated Pakistan's role in Kashmir.
An early initiative by Mirwaiz implies that his faction will have a significant say in the parleys ahead though he did not receive an encouraging response from the Indian Government before leaving for Islamabad, as the Prime Minister as well as the Foreign Minister were unable to meet him.
The next moves will be seen by the militants particularly the Hizbul Mujaheedin and the United Jihad Council. Mirwaiz has already met Zargar a key leader who heads the Umar Mujaheedin and is from Downtown Srinagar, the hub of separatism and Mirwaiz's core constituency. The amount of pressure that the Pakistan government is able to bear on the terrorists will also have an impact on the course of negotiations in the days ahead.
There is no doubt that there are many spoilers in the peace in Kashmir on either side of the Line of Control. The Lashkar e Taiyyaba and Jaish e Mohammad based in Pakistan will find their very existence at stake. The main stream Kashmiri parties such as the National Conference and the People's Democratic Party (PDP) would not like to be seen to have lost out to the moderate separatists for participating in normal governance. Thus for evolving a plan which is acceptable to all parties in the Valley as well as in Pakistan, the challenge would be to take into account interests of varied factions without acceding to their wayward demands. Given the right moves by Governments on both sides this could well be the beginning of a new phase for peace in the Valley.