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Change in shift: Government opens dialogue in Kashmir (Roundup)

New Delhi, Oct 23 (IANS) In a sudden shift of its tough stand, the government on Monday said it would start talks on Jammu and Kashmir with all parties, including separatists, and appointed former intelligence chief Dineshwar Sharma as its pointsman for the troubled state.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh said the move was to carry forward the "the conviction and consistency" in the government's Kashmir policy. "We have decided that a sustained dialogue process should begin in Jammu and Kashmir."

The Minister told a hurriedly-convened news conference here that Sharma had "complete freedom" to speak with whoever he wanted, indicating that talks with separatist leaders were also possible.

"As a representative of the government of India Sharma will initiate a sustained interaction and dialogue to understand legitimate aspirations of people in Jammu and Kashmir. He will meet elected representatives, political parties, different organisations and individuals he wants to."

He said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had talked to all political parties as to what could be done to find a solution to the Kashmir problem.

"People told us that the dialogue process should be started. We are doing this," Rajnath Singh said and recalled the Prime Minister's August 15 speech saying "neither by bullet, nor by abuses but by embracing the people we can solve the problems in Jammu and Kashmir".

The measure is significant because the BJP government at the Centre had constantly maintained a tough line on opening peace talks with separatists in Kashmir, particularly after the 2016 unrest that left over 100 civilians dead.

Asked whether the interlocutor, who will have cabinet rank, would hold talks with Hurriyat leaders, Rajnath Singh appeared not to rule that out.

"There is no bar on him to talk to one group and not to another... We want to understand aspirations of people of Jammu and Kashmir, particularly its youth."

He said after completing the exercise, Sharma, a 1979 batch IPS officer with intimate knowledge of the security situation and Kashmir affairs, will give a report to the central government.

There is no time frame for submitting the report. The Minister also didn't speak about the terms of references for the ex-police officer who was the IB Director from January 1, 2015 to December 31, 2016.

The move comes at a time when some separatist leaders, including close aides of Hurriyat leaders Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq - are jailed on charges of receiving cash from Pakistan for subversive activities in the valley.

Both the factions of the Hurriyat Conference have in recent months become increasingly open to dialogue and have hinted their willingness in their statements.

The government's announcement drew both praises and criticism even as the Hurriyat Conferences did not react immediately.

Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti welcomed the move saying "dialogue is a necessity of the hour and the only way to go forward".

She hoped that all the stakeholders including the separatists would come forward with a positive response to the development.

Asked whether the appointment of the interlocutor would have a bearing on the NIA investigations going on against the separatists, the Chief Minister said: "Security is a separate issue and the political process is a separate issue."

Former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, however, reacted with caution saying the move without preconditions was a "resounding defeat of those who could only see use of force as a solution".

"The 'legitimate aspirations' of the people of Jammu and Kashmir is an interesting formulation. Who gets to decide what is legitimate?," he asked.

Senior Congress leader and former Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram, who had also announced a similar exercise in 2010, said the government has admitted that its "muscular approach" has failed in the state.

"From no-talks to talks-with-all-stakeholders is a major victory for those who had strongly argued for a political solution in Jammu and Kashmir. With the appointment of an interlocutor, I hope the government has finally admitted muscular approach has failed."

--IANS

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