Moderate Kashmiri separatists agreed Friday to hold talks with India's government, but hard-liners on both sides oppose significant concessions, leaving little chance of an early end to one of the world's most dangerous conflicts.
If the negotiations proceed, they will be the first direct talks between the Indian government and leaders of the All Party Hurriyat Conference, a loose and fractious alliance of parties and groups opposed to Indian rule in Kashmir, which is also claimed by Pakistan.
The Hurriyat leaders are bitterly divided between moderates -- who are bowing to months of pressure from Western governments -- and hard-liners, who insist that Pakistan's government should have a seat at the table.
Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, a Kashmiri spiritual leader and former chairman of the Hurriyat conference, announced in a mosque that the group had accepted New Delhi's offer of negotiations. Farooq told worshipers at Friday prayers in Srinagar, the summer capital of India's Jammu and Kashmir state, that the talks must resolve the Kashmir issue, but he gave no details of any negotiating positions.
On Thursday, leaders of the Hurriyat's moderate faction adopted a resolution agreeing to the talks as long as "they were formally invited for unconditional dialogue aimed at resolving the Kashmir issue and not for devolution of power," according to local reports.
But India's deputy prime minister, Lal Krishna Advani, who was named in October to head a government delegation for talks with the Kashmiris, insisted at the time that "there will be no compromise on the country's unity and sovereignty."
The government would consider only decentralization, Advani said, without defining what powers New Delhi would be willing to cede. The state once enjoyed a measure of autonomy that has since been eroded by successive federal governments. It has been beset by a bloody insurgency since 1989.
Farooq learned at a young age the risks of going further than the militants will allow. His father, a moderate, was killed in 1990 by unknown gunmen. Farooq, then 17, had to fill his father's shoes, abandoning his dream of becoming a software engineer and stepping into the bloody fray of Kashmiri politics.
The Hurriyat split in half in September when hard-liner Syed Ali Shah Geelani, an ally of Pakistan and Kashmiri militants, was expelled and took 12 of the body's general council members with him.
Geelani had demanded that the Hurriyat throw out the sons of Abdul Ghani Lone, a moderate separatist who was murdered in May 2002 at a ceremony marking the 12th anniversary of the assassination of Farooq's father. Witnesses said the younger Farooq narrowly escaped getting shot along with Lone.
Pressure from hard-liners is only one threat to the talks aimed at ending the conflict in Kashmir, over which India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars.
In 1999, hostilities between India and Pakistan in Kashmir's Kargil region threatened to escalate into a fourth war between the nuclear-armed neighbors, but Washington forced them to back down. They came to the brink again last year over what India said was Pakistan-sponsored terrorist attacks in India.
Both sides insist that they want to make peace, but Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee refuses to reopen direct talks with Pakistani leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf until he completely stops what India calls cross-border terrorism by militants infiltrating from Pakistani-held territory.
Without a deal between India and Pakistan, peace is likely to remain elusive in Kashmir, but talks with moderate separatist leaders in Kashmir could pave the way for a broader agreement.
One possible compromise is to accept a cease-fire line drawn more than 30 years ago, called the Line of Control, as an international border. That would permanently divide Kashmir into the roughly two-thirds under Indian control, another small slice claimed by China, and leave the rest to Pakistan.
But many Kashmiris long for a reunited territory, and Pakistan insists that the final status should be decided through a referendum. But Indian politics makes it a difficult time to make major concessions either way.
India is due for national elections sometime next year, and Vajpayee risks losing crucial support from Hindu nationalists if he appears to be too soft on Kashmiri separatists.
Advani, a powerful hard-liner in the government, first disclosed New Delhi's intention to talk with Kashmiri separatists a year ago, following the territory's first relatively fair elections, which the Hurriyat boycotted, in October 2002.
Advani said in December that talks with Kashmiri leaders would begin "very soon." But months passed, and the death toll from militant attacks mounted. It wasn't until almost six weeks after the Hurriyat conference openly split that Advani made a formal offer of talks.
Vajpayee has made at least two failed attempts to start negotiations with Kashmiri leaders over the last four years. In both cases, the Kashmiri separatists refused to speak to envoys sent by New Delhi. A third effort, which former Law Minister Ram Jethmalani called a private initiative, also got nowhere.
India and Pakistan have clashed over control of the Himalayan state since 1947, when Britain granted independence to and partitioned the subcontinent.
Britain left it to the state's Hindu maharajah to decide whether his people, most of them Muslims, would join India or Pakistan. Britain insisted that independence for Jammu and Kashmir was out of the question.
India got the maharajah's signature on a treaty of accession, and successive governments in New Delhi have insisted that Jammu and Kashmir belongs to India. Pakistan rejects the claim, saying it violates the religion-based partition, Kashmiris' basic rights and United Nations resolutions.