At a public event in Srinagar on Saturday, Jammu and Kashmir governor Satya Pal Malik strongly hinted that the separatist leadership symbolised by the Hurriyat Conference was ready for talks with the government. This is a welcome announcement.
If talks materialise in any form, these are likely to be welcomed by all sections of Kashmir, with the possible exception of hardened militant elements that may be in regular contact with dubious Pakistan-based entities.
The political and security situation in the Valley has been sizzling for three years, causing great harm to innocent, ordinary folk and vitiating the tempo of everyday life. Even the prospect of talks is likely to have a calming effect on the public mind, although it is by no means certain that militant activity in southern Kashmir will taper off as a result.
It is not clear if the government has been in touch with the Hurriyat leaders and has finally succeeded in bringing them around, or whether hints of conciliation have come from the separatists' side.
In recent months the government has put enormous pressure on leading lights of the Hurriyat by opening investigations into their suspect financial dealings, placing a clutch of them in detention, and putting Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Ali Shah Geelani under house arrest. It will be a surprise if this has not had some effect on the separatists.
After Prime Minister Narendra Modi was returned to power in impressive fashion in the recent Lok Sabha elections, the Mirwaiz said in a statement that the heavy mandate had put him in a situation in which he could hold talks in Kashmir. And he said on Friday he would respond positively if the government was sincere about talks.
As the governor noted, this is an entirely different scenario from 2016 when a Union minister, Ram Vilas Paswan, had knocked on the doors of top Hurriyat leaders and was turned away. This prompts a question: While the Hurriyat was influential at one stage and had the capacity for political mischief, what does it have to offer at this point? For the past few years, teenagers in southern Kashmir have operated pretty much autonomously of the Hurriyat, creating fears of growing irrelevance in the minds of even some top leaders of the separatist combine.
The government has cracked down hard not only on gun-toting militants but also on the financial books of separatist leaders and this has elicited no sympathy for the latter from the public. Nevertheless, creating an environment for talks - substantial or ornamental - has the potential to change the ground situation in a positive way. That should give New Delhi considerable elbow room when it talks to Pakistan and engages with the outside world, including Pakistan's so-called all-weather friend China. The first steps should be taken with deliberation, but without losing time....