Kashmir as a demilitarised zone with wide autonomy but no political sovereignty could be one of the options to settle the decades-old dispute between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan, Umar Faruq told AP on Friday.
 
Both countries claim all of the Himalayan region - divided between them - and have fought two wars over it. Since last month they have abided by a ceasefire, which has silenced guns along the frontier that divides families and villages.

The All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an umbrella organisation of political and religious groups, is considering various options to find an acceptable proposal for its talks with the Indian government, said Faruq, a top Hurriyat leader and the chief Islamic cleric in the Indian portion of Kashmir.

One proposal, offered by a US-based thinktank, Kashmir Study Group, envisages Kashmir as a demilitarised zone with maximum autonomy but no political suzerainty, similar to Andorra - sandwiched between Spain and France.
 
Possible referendum

Faruq said other options, such as a possible referendum to determine the wishes of the Kashmiri people, rearrangement of present borders allowing Kashmir to unite but remain under control of either India or Pakistan, or jointly administered by the two, were being weighed and discussed.

"Not just political freedom, we are trying to judge our options in the light of economic freedoms as well. In today's world economic considerations are equally important," he said.

"We will have to swallow the bitter pill if we want a durable and acceptable settlement of the Kashmir issue. We have already lost so much"

Umar Faruq
leader, All Parties Huriyat Conference

Last month, some Hurriyat leaders accepted the Indian government's offer to seek a solution to the dispute that has festered between India and Pakistan since they won independence from Britain in 1947.

The dialogue is expected to begin soon, though no dates have been fixed.

"No option is final. The best option will evolve from the many options that are available and new ones that will develop once the ball starts rolling," Faruq said.

Dissension

He cautioned that peace negotiations with India were likely to create dissension among the separatist ranks as a solution would involve a compromise by all sides.
 
"We will have to swallow the bitter pill if we want a durable and acceptable settlement of the Kashmir issue. We have already lost so much," he said.
 
The Hurriyat projects itself as an organisation representing the aspirations of the Kashmiri people.

The 14-year insurgency has left 
thousands dead

Faruq, 30, is one of the seven key decision-makers of the alliance, which has been split by disagreements over the future course of negotiations.

"The necessity to solve this problem seems even more urgent when you consider that every day people are getting killed and this has been going on for nearly 14 years," he said.

Rebels - fighting since 1989 to make India's portion of Kashmir independent or join it to Pakistan - are not party to the India-Pakistan ceasefire.

Indian security forces and rebels continue to battle, adding to the toll of more than 65,000 dead in 14 years.

Plebiscite rejected

Since the early 1990s, the Hurriyat and rebel groups have demanded the right of self-determination as guaranteed in a UN resolution nearly 50 years ago.

India has rejected their demand for a plebiscite, and argued that the resolution also called for both India and Pakistan to withdraw their troops before such a vote.

Faruq, however, said a solution will require a more pragmatic approach.

"The settlement will involve a compromise. Let us be realistic about it: the resolution will involve give-and-take."

But other Kashmiri groups say that a compromise will mean a sellout to India. They fear that Kashmiris will be forced to accept regional autonomy within India.
 

"Right to self-determination is our inalienable right and negotiations should be held to give us that right"


Sayed Ali Shah Geelani
Leader, hardline faction of All Parties' Hurriyat Conference

"Right to self-determination is our inalienable right and negotiations should be held to give us that right," said Sayed Ali Shah Geelani, who heads the faction of the Hurriyat and opposes any dialogue with India.

Faruq said he expects to be accused of selling out, "but we can't afford to stay put for the fear of being blamed. A beginning has to be made."

"We must take cognisance of the bloodstained face of our history and envision a future which will bring happiness and tranquility to this region," said Faruq, whose father was assassinated by unidentified assassins in 1990.

"Distrust won't help. India's credibility is also at stake. We have agreed to talks which will lead to a final solution rather than an ad-hoc arrangement," he said.