Leading politicians from the Indian and Pakistani sides of divided Kashmir held their first-ever direct talks Tuesday, trying to carve a role for themselves in the peace process between the rival countries.
Participants said the one-day talks would lead to the opening of a crucial backdoor channel in the peace process between India and Pakistan, nuclear-armed rivals that have been engaged for nearly two years in talks aimed at ending six decades of hostility, the AP informs.
Kashmir, divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both, lies at the heart of that rivalry, and Kashmiri leaders from both sides say they must be given a bigger role in the peace process if the two countries are serious about true reconciliation.
"When you discuss Kashmir, Kashmiris have to be part of it," said Abdul Ghani Bhatt, leader of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, the leading alliance of moderate separatists from the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir.
The Hurriyat parties are not part of Kashmir's armed insurgency _ a rebellion against Indian rule that has killed about 66,000 people, most of them civilians, since it began in 1989. No insurgents took part in Tuesday's meeting.
"The climate (in Kashmir) is far better. The steps are in the right direction," Bhat said. But "we want the steps to be more brisk, so that we can achieve peace faster."
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met with Hurriyat leaders earlier this month in an effort to build on gains, such as a decrease in violence in Kashmir, that have resulted from the India-Pakistan peace process.
But there are sharp divisions among Kashmiri leaders from both sides of the border.
Some are pro-India, some pro-Pakistan, and others favor an independent Kashmir. Some say the Islamic militants in Indian Kashmir are "freedom fighters," while others call them "terrorists."
Few agree on how the border dispute over Kashmir can be resolved, or how the insurgency will end.
"Right now, no one trusts anybody, whether it is India and Pakistan, or among us Kashmiris," said 80-year-old Sardar Muhammed Abdul Qayyum Khan, head of the ruling Muslim Conference party of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir.
Khan said he wanted more confidence-building measures that would touch the lives of ordinary Kashmiris, millions of whom had their families divided when the subcontinent, including Kashmir, was partitioned at independence from Britain in 1947.
Pakistan and India have since fought two of their three wars over Kashmir.