02/05/2016 4:49 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST

Kashmiri Separatists Are Indians, Free To Speak With Pakistani Officials, Says Modi Govt

Danish Ishmail / Reuters
Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, (R) Chairman of Kashmir's moderate faction of All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference (APHC), and Syed Ali Shah Geelani Chairman of the hardliner faction of APHC hug on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr in Srinagar October 1, 2008. Thousands of Kashmiri Muslims attend special prayers in Eidgah during Eid-al-Fitr, which is celebrated at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar. REUTERS/Danish Ismail (INDIAN-ADMINISTERED KASHMIR)

NEW DELHI -- Kashmiri separatist leaders are "Indian citizens" who can speak with Pakistani officials if they so choose, the Modi government quietly informed Parliament on April 28th.

In the din around the AgustaWestland scam, which consumed the second part of the Budget Session, last week, this rollback by the Modi government of its thumb rule on conducting talks with Pakistan, went unnoticed.

The Times of India reported today that V.K. Singh, Minister of State for External Affairs, submitted a written answer to Parliament in which he said that it was okay for leaders of the Hurriyat Conference to speak with Pakistanis, but their interaction had no role in bilateral talks.

"Since the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of the Union of India and these so-called Kashmiri 'leaders' are Indian citizens, there is no bar on their meetings with representatives of any country in India," Singh said in his answer to Parliament, last week.

"India has consistently maintained that there is no role for a third party in the bilateral dialogue between India and Pakistan as per the Simla Agreement and the Lahore Declaration. India's displeasure at Pakistan's attempts to interfere in India's internal affairs has been repeatedly conveyed to Pakistan," he added.

Singh's answer was in the context of Kashmiri separatists attending Pakistan Day celebrations in March.

In August 2014, the Modi government cancelled Foreign Secretary-level talks between India and Pakistan after a meeting between Pakistani High Commissioner Abdul Basit and separatist leader Shabir Shah.

In August 2015, National Security Advisor-level talks were once again derailed after Islamabad refused to accept "preconditions" which ruled out its officials meeting with Kashmiri separatists when visiting India.

While some welcomed the Modi government's tough approach, others felt that it was unnecessary since Pakistani officials had always met Hurriyat leaders when they visited India, and a hardline stance was not conducive if any headway had to be made in the difficult talks.

The Centre's erratic dealings with Pakistan, which have swung from one extreme to another over the past two years, have been intensely scrutinised and criticised.

After months of New Delhi berating Islamabad over violating the ceasefire, which led to deadly border skirmishes in 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise visit to Lahore on Christmas Day. It also happened to be Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's birthday.

Modi's bold move was hailed as a breakthrough by his party, and it was welcomed by several foreign policy experts at the time, but his political rivals regarded it as a mistake in light of Islamabad's failure to respond to India's long-standing demand of prosecuting the terrorists behind the 2008 Mumbai Attacks, who are living in Pakistan.

At the time, former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah said, "More than grand gestures we need consistency."

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