JULLA, India – Shaukat Khan hiked across a valley to collect food and supplies he thought were being handed out by authorities.
Instead, he found what thousands others discovered after the massive earthquake that shattered their villages: a lot of help was coming from Kashmiri separatists on the Indian side of the disputed territory.
It's an aid effort that has not gone unnoticed in a land sharply opposed to Indian rule amid a 15-year insurgency that has claimed more than 66,000 lives, mostly civilians.
The Islamic rebel groups say they are only trying to help the needy but admit with some satisfaction that the tragedy could end up boosting their cause to wrest the bitterly disputed Himalayan (search) region from mostly Hindu India (search).
"We are the ones who are here with blood, with food, with medicines — the people can see that," said Yasin Malik, leader of the separatist Jammu and Kashmir and Liberation Front.
Or, as Hidayat-Ullah Sheikh of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a leading separatist alliance, put it: "No one else is giving the people as much as we are giving."
In mountainside villages, members of the two groups have been handing out everything from milk to medicine as the Indian government and army have faltered in their relief efforts.
Within hours of the quake that devastated towns and villages on Saturday, separatists had started up what three days on remains the most visible aid operation in Indian Kashmir (search).
Malik said his group also has begun working with Pakistani counterparts on the other side of the heavily militarized frontier — an artificial division of the beautiful region known for its apple orchards, gardens and azure lakes.
"In some ways the separatist groups have won round one with their initial aid effort," said W.P.S. Sidhu, a Kashmir expert with the Geneva Center for Security Policy (search), a think tank based in the Swiss city.
"If the Indian establishment stays aloof and lets the separatists take initiatives ... then I think the Indian state would have done itself irreversible damage," he said in a telephone interview.
Kashmir, a largely Muslim land, was a protectorate under British rule that remained nominally independent after the creation of India and Pakistan in a bloody partition of the subcontinent following independence in 1947.
But within a year, the two neighbors began a war that left India with two thirds of the region and Muslim Pakistan (search) controlling the remainder. Both now claim it in its entirety.
For men like Malik, the quake has exposed the fiction of that division — the two sides have for centuries shared a culture, language and religion. Today, they share a tragedy, and, as far as the separatists are concerned, a relief effort.
"There are no Pakistanis or Indians here, just Kashmiris," he said on his way out to the Uri valley, a border region that was the worst hit part of India in the quake.
The idea of a single Kashmir is a long-cherished dream of many residents and dozens of groups have openly campaigned for independence or a merger with Pakistan since the 1950s. Unarmed separatist groups enjoy broad support even if violent militant groups don't.
The Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front also has a operational wing in Muzzaffarabad on the Pakistani side of the border and has strong ties with people there, as do other separatist groups, including some components of the Hurriyat.
The results of that struggle are clear in Indian Kashmir today, with at least half a million Indian troops peering at civilians from sandbagged bunkers, patrolling streets in green camouflage vehicles or plotting strategies in garrisons dotting the state. Dozens of soldiers on both sides were killed in the quake.
India accuses Pakistan of arming and aiding the Kashmiri militants, a charge denied by Islamabad, which says it only gives moral support. The Kashmir dispute is central to the enmity between the two nuclear rivals, which has eased recently with a two-year-old peace process.
Analysts say the strong showing by separatist groups in the aftermath of the quake also could help win them a role in the peace process from which they have so far been largely excluded.
India and Pakistan will have to "take them more seriously ... listen to them and have them as participants in the process," said Mohammed Tariq, a Kashmiri political analyst.
The separatists are showing that they "are part of Kashmir — they can't be ignored," he said.
Similar situations have had mixed results. Faced with unprecedented death and destruction after the Dec. 26 tsunami, separatist rebels in the Indonesian province of Aceh (search) and the government agreed to stop fighting and forged a peace accord.
Tamil Tiger (search) rebels and the Sinhalese government also joined hands to help shelter and feed survivors in Sri Lanka after the earthquake and killer waves last year. But their peace was short-lived: the Tamil Tigers last month assassinated the country's foreign minister.
The brunt of the quake in India hit the fortified Uri valley, forcing authorities to throw open an area that has been for years largely off-limits to outsiders for security reasons.
That has given separatists bearing aid a chance to enter an area and burnish their leadership credentials.
"The separatists must feel that the situation will broaden their support base," said Ahmad Hussain, a political analyst and human rights activist.
For Khan, who hiked for half a day after hearing about the food handouts from a neighbor, the assistance from the separatists came as a surprise.
"Why are the soldiers not giving us what we need?" he asked, pointing to some troops who stood by as blankets and rice were distributed.