Peace talks start in tense curfew-bound Jammu (Second Lead)

August 9th, 2008 - 3:37 pm ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of Shivraj Patil

Jammu, Aug 9 (IANS) Despite strict restrictions and soldiers dotting almost every yard here, protesters in the winter capital of Jammu and Kashmir came out on the streets Saturday when an all-party delegation visited the state to hold talks over the Amarnath land row. Led by central Home Minister Shivraj Patil, the 18-member delegation arrived here in the morning and drove through deserted streets guarded by several hundreds of soldiers to reach Hotel Hari Niwas.

At some places, protesters managed to defy the curfew raising anti-government slogans to press for the forest land in the Kashmir valley, which was first allotted to and then reclaimed from a Hindu temple trust.

Women from rooftops of their houses were seen raising religious slogans and banging utensils in protest, even as soldiers watched from below.

“Go back go back, go back to barracks”, a crowd shouted at soldiers at Rehari crossing, which falls on the route to the hotel, where the team held meeting with senior civil and police officials and army commanders.

The agitators were angry over the strict enforcement of curfew and termed it a denial of freedom of expression of their demand for the allocation of the plot to Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) - the management board of the Himalayan cave temple in Kashmir.

A piece of 40 hectares acres of forest land was first allotted to the shrine board and then the allocation order was revoked after a nine days of street protests in the Kashmir valley, infuriating the Hindu-majority Jammu region.

The issue has had all of Jammu and Kashmir on the boil for over five weeks now, with incessant violent protests and clashes that left at least 15 people dead. Jammu has been reeling under a series of shutdowns and curfews amid violent protests.

The delegation, which comprises representatives of major political parties including Bharatiya Janata Party’s Arun Jaitley, was supposed to talk to the conglomerate of agitating parties in the Jammu region.

But the talks have already hit a logjam after the Amarnath Yatra Sangarsh Samiti (AYSS), an umbrella organisation of some 30 Hindu groups spearheading the campaign for the allocation of forest land to the SASB, declined to talk “because the delegation includes Kashmiri leaders”.

The AYSS alleged that central Water Resources Minister Saif-ud-Din Soz, who is also state Congress chief, National Conference president Farooq Abdullah and Peoples Democratic Party president Mehbooba Mufti - who are part of the delegation - were “responsible” for the land row and setting the state on fire”.

“We had decided to take part in the all-party meet and place our viewpoint before them. But the very presence of three major Kashmiri leaders - Soz, Abdullah and Mufti - has made us rethink our decision and boycott the meet,” AYSS convenor Leela Karan Sharma told IANS.

A state government official told IANS that the schedule of the talks has been altered. “The delegation will first meet officials before meeting representatives of political parties of Jammu, whether national or regional,” the official said.

An indefinite curfew continues in many communally sensitive districts of the region, which was relaxed for a few hours Friday. But the Indian Army Saturday strictly enforced the prohibitory orders in view of the all-party talks.

The visit of the all-party delegation the state was decided at a meeting convened by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi Aug 6. The delegation, including five union ministers, will review the law and order situation in Jammu region with the state authorities.

Later, the team is expected to meet leaders of various political parties in a bid to end the current crisis. It is also scheduled to visit the summer capital Srinagar to hold talks with various political parties on the situation Sunday.

The central team includes Amar Singh (Samajwadi Party), Mohsina Kidwai, Prithviraj Chavan and Sriprakash Jaiswal (Congress), K.C. Tyagi (Janata Dal-United), R. Paswan (Lok Janshakti Party), Raghuvansh Prasad Singh (Rashtriya Janata Dal), A. Raja (DMK), Naresh Gujral (Shromani Akali Dal), Akhthar Hassan (Bahujan Samaj Party), Sitaram Yechury (Communist Party of India-Marxist) and D. Raja (Communist Party of India).

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