Prague, 7 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- India's new government announced today that it will respect a special autonomous status for Indian-administered Kashmir and open talks with key groups in the disputed Himalayan territory.
The pledges were contained in the Congress Party coalition government's first policy statement to the Indian legislature, which was read at today's joint parliamentary session by Indian President Abdul Kalam. The policy statement did not specify which Kashmiri separatist groups should join in the peace dialogue.
Kalam also announced the government's agenda of economic reforms aimed at helping to fight poverty, empowering women, and "achieving the goal of making a billion people smile."
"Now I hope that this intra-Kashmir talk can also be followed by more intra-Kashmiri talks, and that can help bring Kashmiris who are divided into different parts together so that there can be a consensus amongst Kashmiris about the direction that they wish to move on." -- Benazir Bhutto
"The government will carry forward the process of social and economic development so that the 21st century becomes India's century," Kalam said. Whenever a new Indian government takes office, it is the mostly ceremonial president who reads out the government program in a speech to the first session of the new parliament.
India's Congress Party coalition, which was swept into power through elections last month, has previously vowed to continue a dialogue with Kashmiri separatists that was launched in January by the previous Hindu nationalist-led government. Those talks are due to resume in the first week of July after the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan in late June to discuss a solution to their long-running dispute over Kashmir.
India-administered Kashmir is India's only Muslim-majority state. It has been in the throes an anti-Indian Islamic insurgency that has claimed tens of thousands of lives since 1989. Pakistan administers the northern-most part of Kashmir. The division of the region lies at the heart of a decades-old dispute between the nuclear-armed rivals. Two of Pakistan's three wars against India in the past half-century have been fought over Kashmir. Nevertheless, relations between Islamabad and New Delhi have thawed since April of last year when former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee extended a hand of friendship to Islamabad.
Yesterday, Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh told Pakistan's Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri by telephone that contacts between Islamabad and New Delhi will be intensified in the coming months. The Indian foreign minister said both countries have a "vested interest" in promoting good bilateral relations. In an earlier phone call last week, the two foreign ministers agreed to keep in close contact and to avoid publicizing their differences ahead of the bilateral meeting later this month.
In London over the weekend, delegates at an international conference on Kashmir agreed that the only way to bring about peace in the divided region is to reduce tensions between India and Pakistan and to start a dialogue that also includes Kashmir separatists.
Pakistan's exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto told the London gathering that confidence-building measures between Islamabad and New Delhi should be expanded to include an "intra-Kashmiri dialogue." Bhutto said improving the economic conditions for ordinary Kashmiris also could help. "We saw the social and economic unity of the people of Jammu and Kashmir providing the beginning of a process leading, ultimately perhaps, to the solution which has eluded us for such a very long time," she said.
Bhutto welcomed the idea of bringing more Kashmiri separatists into the peace process. "Now I hope that this intra-Kashmir talk can also be followed by more intra-Kashmiri talks, and that can help bring Kashmiris who are divided into different parts together so that there can be a consensus amongst Kashmiris about the direction that they wish to move on," she said. "I also wish that there can be greater travel links between divided Kashmir as well as talks on how to lessen violence and use of force in the area."
Meanwhile, an amalgam of five hard-line separatist groups in India-administered Kashmir on 5 June warned the main separatist alliance, the moderate faction of All Parties Hurriyat Conference, against peace talks with India's federal government.
Sheikh Abdul Aziz, chief of the so-called Ittehadi Force in Kashmir's main city of Srinagar, said all of the groups struggling for Kashmir's independence from Indian rule should be united. So far, the Ittehadi Force has not been invited to any of the talks on Kashmir's political future.