Even as hopes for peace rise on the eve of the summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation, a move is underfoot in Jammu and Kashmir to cobble together a credible group of separatists under ageing firebrand Syed Ali Shah Geelani to counter the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference faction led by Moulvi Mohammed Abbas Ansari.
The move could cast a shadow on the proposed talks between a delegation led by Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani and Ansari's faction, expected to take place immediately after the SAARC summit. But sources in the Union home ministry said that if Atal Bihari Vajpayee's visit to Pakistan turns out be a fiasco, the proposed talks may be postponed.
Yesterday's decision of the Jamaat-e-Islami to pull out of the Ansari-led Hurriyat faction will add to his troubles. According to sources in Kashmir, the Jamaat's decision came at the end of an acrimonious meeting in which Geelani's supporters clashed with those supporting Jamaat chief Nazir Ahmad Kashani.
Kashani proved his majority at the meeting, then ended it with the decision to pull out of the Hurriyat. But the Jamaat has not declared its support for Geelani's faction either. If, however, Geelani is able to muster support among other separatist groups, he may find the Jamaat backing him again.
According to the sources, Geelani is trying to garner support among Hurriyat constituents to float a new party or organisation that will be able to challenge the Ansari faction's claim to represent Kashmiri separatists. But for the challenge to be effective, he has to mount it before the talks with Advani begin. So the coming days will be crucial for both the government and the separatists.
Among the key leaders with whom Geelani's faction is negotiating is Shabir Shah, who has remained outside the Hurriyat and continues to enjoy some popularity in pockets in the Kashmir valley. There are indications that even the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front and the People's League could desert the Hurriyat and join Geelani. JKLF leader Yasin Malik and Geelani are not the best of friends, but political compulsions may force them to come together.