India's rejection of demands from Mujahideen puts ceasefire at risk

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The Independent Online

India has rejected demands from Kashmir's Islamic separatists, raising the spectre of a return to violence less than 10 days after the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) unilaterally declared a three-month ceasefire.

India has rejected demands from Kashmir's Islamic separatists, raising the spectre of a return to violence less than 10 days after the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) unilaterally declared a three-month ceasefire.

When the separatists put their guns aside, India's government, a coalition led by the Hindu nationalist BJP, announced it would negotiate with the terrorists - the first such breakthrough in an insurgency that has killed at least 30,000 people in 10 years.

Apparently brushing aside a series of appalling massacres a few days later, the first round of talks went ahead last Thursday. The Indian Home Ministry's top civil servant, Kamal Pandey, posed for photographers alongside the Mujahideen commanders, two of whom hid their faces behind kerchief masks. But as the militants began talks, they added a new condition: India must begin "tripartite" talks - involving Pakistan's government as well as the Kashmiri militants - which must be outside the framework of the Indian constitution; the Mujahideen said Delhi must agree to the condition by 5pm today, or it "would be forced to reconsider" its ceasefire.

The Indian government has made no direct response to these demands, but in a speech before the Indian parliament's upper house yesterday, the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, said: "We will talk within the constitution." India's constitution declares the state of Jammu and Kashmir to be an inalienable part of India.

The Mujahideen's commander in chief, Abdul Majid Dar, quickly issued a bleak statement in Srinagar foreseeing a prompt end to the hopes of peace. "The statement of the Indian Prime Minister has dashed all hopes of the people of Kashmir that their black days were near to an end," he said. "A decision on HM's ceasefire will be taken by the command council of HM and the responsibility for it will lie with the Indian authorities."

Mr Dar and his Pakistani backers will also have been upset by the fierce anti-Pakistani rhetoric in Mr Vajpayee's speech.

"Every time we have tried for peace through dialogue," the Prime Minister said, "Pakistan responded by launching a fresh terrorist offensive. It happened on the day I went to Lahore. It has happened once again, coinciding with the ceasefire declared by the Hizbul Mujahideen."

Mr Vajpayee's sentiments about Pakistan have yet to recover from the betrayal he experienced when his signing of a peace declaration with the former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif in Lahore in February 1999 was swiftly followed by Pakistani incursions into Indian territory in the mountains above Kargil. A bloody mountain war resulted.

Mr Vajpayee appears to see last week's massacres, in which more than 100 Hindu pilgrims were butchered, apparently by rivals of the Mujahideen opposed to the ceasefire, as another dose of Pakistani perfidy.

The subtext is that the very last thing Mr Vajpayee wishes to do is talk to Pakistan about anything, least of all the status of Kashmir.

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