The third round of Advani–Hurriyat talks was scheduled for June 2004, on the assumption that the BJP would win the general election in May. The BJP lost the election, however. The Vajpayee government fell and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) came to power. The alliance continued with the peace process that began in 2003-04, and built on it.

Indeed, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, on assuming office, asked Vajpayee if he would act as the Indian government’s special envoy to head an India-Pakistan-Kashmir peace process. Had Vajpayee accepted the offer, it would have been a tremendous boost for Indian peacemaking. He had invested considerable political and personal assets in his Kashmir policy and had acquired large credibility in the valley with his 2000-01 talks initiative and the famous phrase “insaniyat ke daire mein”. He had won Musharraf’s respect despite a difficult transition. He had silenced critics from within his party, the BJP, and its mentor RSS, as well as alliance partner the Shiv Sena.

Unfortunately, Vajpayee refused. The next years belonged to Singh and Musharraf.

Their first meeting was in September 2004, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Though Vajpayee had refused his offer, Singh held a one-hour briefing with him in preparation for the September meeting, at which Foreign Minister Natwar Singh and former foreign minister Yashwant Sinha were also present. Natwar Singh also met with Advani to canvass his support for the Singh administration to take forward the process that he and Vajpayee had begun.

By this point, Singh, a former professor of economics who took policy research seriously, had enormously expanded the Vajpayee administration’s support for civil society. I was one among a few dozen Kashmir watchers whom he consulted while developing his Kashmir policy in the months after he assumed office. We had first talked Kashmir when I went to him in the summer of 2000 to ask that he get the Congress to support the Vajpayee peace process instead of so severely attacking it.

True to his word, Singh succeeded in persuading Congress leaders that the peace process was in the national interest and should be supported. He asked me to let Brajesh Mishra know that the Congress would mute its criticism, which I did. Upon becoming prime minister, Singh asked me if I could explore whether Vajpayee would consider carrying forward the peace process as a special envoy. I took the offer to Brajesh Mishra, who thought Vajpayee would be interested. Some days later, he told me regretfully that the BJP was not in favour and Vajpayee would have to decline.

Following their September meeting, Singh and Musharraf issued a joint statement reiterating their commitment to peace, and the two countries increased institutional contacts between their border security forces, coast guards and foreign offices.Visiting Kashmir in November, Singh appealed for Kashmiri support and advice in a peace process, and promised immediate economic and human rights relief.

The Hurriyat track proved more difficult.

Though Singh called for talks, the Hurriyat took umbrage at Home Minister Shivraj Patil’s statement that talks would only be held “within the ambit of the Indian Constitution” and refused Singh’s invitation. The Congress party was “not sincere”, Mirwaiz Umar said. The initiative shifted to India–Pakistan breakthroughs, though still with a Kashmir focus.

The first major breakthrough came in February 2005, when the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers announced at Islamabad that the two countries would start a Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service, reopening a route that had been closed since the war of 1948-49. In both symbolic and actual terms, the reopening of the route was a landmark achievement of the nascent peace process. The idea of a Srinagar–Muzaffarabad bus service had been first bruited during the Sharif-Vajpayee talks of 1999-2000 and had been revived by Chief Minister Sayeed and Vajpayee in 2002, again without gaining much purchase from Pakistan. As a coalition partner in the state, the Congress was already on board and Sayeed suggested to Singh the proposal be refreshed. The move was supported by civil society groups such as the Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation-Delhi Policy Group initiative, which had already taken up the proposal.

In the late summer of 2004 we sent a note to Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran suggesting a Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service be the priority CBM on an India-Pakistan talks agenda. Saran was unusually open to civil society interaction: he told me he was putting the proposal on the agenda of his talks with Pakistani foreign secretary Riaz Khokhar, which started in September 2004.

When the two countries’ foreign ministers announced the bus service, Sayeed seized the opportunity to claim it as his own and, overnight, billboards sprang up every few metres along the Srinagar–Muzaffarabad road advertising its reopening. This was the first step in peace for Kashmir, the PDP trumpeted, and it had been achieved by the state and union governments working together and with Pakistan.

Sayeed’s publicity blitz helped build large support in the valley for the bus as the harbinger of a new peace process.

The bus’s inaugural journey on 7 April was flagged off by Prime Minister Singh, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Chief Minister Sayeed. Guerrillas tried to disrupt the launch by setting fire to Srinagar’s Tourist Reception Centre on 6 April but the government decided to go ahead. PDP president Mehbooba Mufti, in fact, boarded the first bus as far as its last stop in Jammu and Kashmir, the Kaman Post. “The opening of the road can be considered the biggest Kashmir-centric confidence-building measure,” an observer commented.

Though the Hurriyat, JKLF and other dissident leaders had been invited to the bus’s inaugural journey, they refused the invitation.The Hurriyat had not been involved in negotiations to reopen the road. In fact, there had been discussion in the PMO on whether and how to involve them; I was one of what I presume were many, who suggested that – in continuance of the Vajpayee policy to let the Hurriyat be bridge-builders with Pakistan on Kashmir – the Hurriyat be encouraged to claim the Srinagar–Muzaffarabad reopening as their achievement. Whether the offer was made or not is unclear.Years later, I asked Mirwaiz Umar if the Hurriyat had been asked, and he said no. Had they been asked, he said, they would have accepted.

Within ten days of the launch of the bus, Musharraf visited Delhi to watch a cricket match (shades of Zia’s cricket diplomacy), and he and Singh issued a joint statement pledging to enhance trade and intensify transport links between two parts of divided Kashmir.

Both also agreed to set up a joint business council to improve trade, launch a rail link between the two countries, raise the frequency of the bus service crossing Kashmir and open new bus links between the two countries. Soon after, they opened the Line of Control to cross-Kashmiri trade, another major CBM that was intended to boost local economies.

Following a devastating earthquake that ravaged the statelet in November 2005, Pakistan allowed another route to be opened, this time in the Jammu sector of the Line of Control. Pakistani agreement had been difficult to get. Opening the route would make Poonch, Mirpur and Muzaffarabad vulnerable to Indian influence, the Pakistan military feared. But the shortest route for aid to the region was through Indian Jammu, and international aid agencies pressed the Pakistani government to open the route; some even made aid contingent on its opening. The Indian government made its own offers of aid, and calls mounted from within the region too.

Reluctantly, the Pakistani government allowed five “meeting points” to be opened along the Muzaffarabad–Jammu and Kashmir border, where earthquake victims could come to receive medical treatment and other relief. When the first point was opened, at Mirpur-Jammu, the throng to cross over from Mirpur was so large that Pakistani soldiers fired tear gas at them. Pakistan finally accepted Indian aid only after India agreed to remove all the labels that identified goods as Indian.

Grim as they were, these events paved the way for another bus service to unite divided families. In June 2006, the Poonch-Rawalakot bus was launched. This time it was Ghulam Nabi Azad, who took over as Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir in November 2005, who flagged it off.

The Hurriyat also began to thaw.

When the Singh administration revived the three-track formula that had been developed under theVajpayee administration and allowed a Hurriyat delegation to visit Muzaffarabad for peace talks, hopes revived. In early June 2005, a seven-member Hurriyat delegation left for a two-week visit to Pakistan-administered Kashmir – Poonch, Mirpur and Muzaffarabad – along with the JKLF’s Yasin Malik, who, however, travelled separately from the Hurriyat.

In Muzaffarabad, the Hurriyat and JKLF leaders appealed for an end to violence, accompanied by talks, a step that had been planned in 2002-04 and initiated by Abdul Ghani Lone. Their appeal met with mixed reactions in both Muzaffarabad and Islamabad, where they went next. Groups such as the Lashkar and Jaish opposed the proposal and Malik had a public spat with Pakistani Information Minister Sheikh Rashid at his press conference. Rashid, said Malik, had himself been involved in training and sheltering guerrillas for the Kashmir jihad. Malik later clarified that he had spoken of shelter not training.

Musharraf also met the Hurriyat delegation. Returning from the visit, Ghani Bhat declared, “We did the talking with the Pakistani leadership and now we will be talking to India...this has lent credibility to the ongoing dialogue process as Kashmiris are being involved for the first time.”

Though Singh’s administration had made efforts to mobilise all-party support for the peace process, focusing especially on the opposition BJP, the party went on an offensive against Singh for allowing the Hurriyat to visit Islamabad. “The Pakistani government should have ensured that they did not enter Pakistan without Indian passports. Our apprehension that the bus to Muzaffarabad would facilitate separatist elements to enter Pakistan without Indian passports has been proved true,” BJP parliamentary party spokesman VK Malhotra was reported as saying. The BJP demanded that the Singh administration “explain what action it contemplated against Hurriyat leaders”.

Reportedly, the BJP’s broadside followed an editorial exhortation in the RSS journal Organiser, “Giving political cover to Manmohan Singh’s Pakistan mission – if there is one – is not [the] BJP’s role.”

Singh’s own willingness to accept civil society support was as great if not greater than Vajpayee’s.

He not only consulted a very large group of Kashmir experts and activists but also encouraged Track II endeavours.With his approval, I went to Brajesh Mishra again – Singh had persuaded the Congress to support Vajpayee’s peace initiatives, I reminded Mishra, should not the BJP now reciprocate, especially since Singh was expanding the framework that the BJP-led previous government had put in place? Mishra heard me out and did try to persuade BJP leaders, he later told me, but to no avail. Vajpayee was by now sidelined in the party’s decision-making.

Singh held his first round of talks with the Hurriyat – and separately with Malik – on 5 September 2005, eighteen months after the last round of Advani-Hurriyat talks. The 2005 meetings were prepared by Dulat, who used his Hurriyat backchannel, and Habibullah, who had known Malik since the 1990s.Talks with the Hurriyat were held ten days before Singh was due to meet Musharraf in New York, where both would attend the UN General Assembly. Talks with the JKLF took place after Singh’s return from New York; Malik had said he would prefer the Hurriyat to go first.

According to Vohra, the talks focused on CBMs that would impact on the ground. Singh told Hurriyat leaders that “his government would consider troops’ reduction, among other measures, to boost the peace process in Jammu and Kashmir”. Hurriyat leaders wanted to pick up where the Advani talks had left off, the release of political prisoners.

“The Home Ministry has advised the Government of Jammu and Kashmir to examine the cases and make their recommendations at the earliest for the consideration of the joint screening committee” that had been set up under Advani, media were told. Union Home Secretary VK Duggal said the review would “be completed in a time-bound manner, as desired by the Prime Minister”.

After a second round of talks, Singh announced that 40,000 troops would be redeployed out of civilian areas in the valley, and spoke of a “meeting of minds” with the Hurriyat. Mirwaiz Umar told reporters that “we have undertaken to evolve very shortly a mechanism to carry out a continuous dialogue”. For the first time since the 1989 uprising, guerrilla violence fell to below its 1990 levels.Total fatalities declined from the high of 4,507 in 2001 to 1,810 in 2004 and further to 1,116 in 2006. Civilians killed in crossfire fell from over a thousand in 2001 to around 350 in 2006.

Excerpted with permission from Paradise At War: A Political History Of Kashmir, Radha Kumar, Aleph Book Company.