The Frozen Conflict
Rashid dreaded losing his job. The 88-room hotel in Srinagar where he worked as a waiter had exactly one guest. Management had already slashed the staff from 125 to 35, and promised more cuts if the unrest sweeping the region continued.
Rashid, who chose not to give his real name, was facing the aftermath of the death of militant commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani. It was last July, just weeks after security forces killed the charismatic separatist, plunging Indian-controlled Kashmir Valley - part of the disputed, former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir - into the worst violence in years. Protesters clashed with security forces across the region. The toll of dead and injured kept rising.
"What can I do? I know I will have to go back to my village soon," Rashid, 25, said. "It will not be easy.” His family owns some farmland and a few apple trees in south Kashmir but it was not enough. They needed extra income.
“Right now, I am the only one working," he added gloomily.
Before Wani's death, Rashid’s job felt secure. The tourism industry, vital to the region but devastated by years of turmoil, was reviving. There had been no major incident in the Valley since the unrest of 2010.
“Burhan Wani was fighting for our freedom,” said Rashid, reflecting a widespread admiration among youth in the South Asian region for the 22-year-old militant.
“Since I was a kid, I’ve seen how India treats [Valley] Kashmiris. I have seen the high-handedness of the Indian security forces. I can never like India.”
Yet he also had no interest in seeing greater Kashmir - divided between India and Pakistan -become part of the latter.
“I know the Pakistani army will not even allow us to do what we can do in India. At least we can protest here," he said.
Rashid’s aspirations and despair reflect those of many in the region.
With partition in 1947, the Maharajah of Jammu and Kashmir had a choice – join Pakistan or India or gain independence. Violence prompted him to turn to India. But the violence never really stopped. More than 40,000 people have died in a conflict that involves what are now two nuclear-armed nations. (See timeline below)
After decades of division along the Line of Control, or LOC, and deep rifts within Indian-controlled territory, a new if ill-defined narrative is developing. Separatist, anti-Indian, pro-Pakistan stances have merged into a larger cry for simply “freedom.”
Few opinion polls have been done, but one of the most comprehensive, by London’s Chatham House in 2010,
indicates a plurality on both the Indian and Pakistani sides of the border favors independence.
That sits badly with leaders of both countries, loathe to give up territory. And residents of Hindu and Buddhist-dominated areas are keen on keeping the status quo.
But in the Muslim-dominated Valley, the Chatham House survey suggests, people's support for independence soars.
Yet any reasonable future for the region would seem to require peace and its attendant, if not prosperity, at least a way to make a living.
In the narrow alleys of the Basant Park neighborhood in Srinagar, auto rickshaws stood idle. Their owners played cards nearby, passing time.
“You can see this is our livelihood and, it’s just standing,” said Mohammad Akhtar pointing toward his vehicle.
Because of a curfew imposed during the violence, he and his friends had not worked in days.
Commandant Rajesh Yadav of the Central Reserve Police Force said security forces knew some people would protest after the killing of Wani but failed to anticipate the size and anger of the crowds.
A little preparation would have been in order; Wani was the virtual poster boy of resistance to Indian control.
For Tufail Mushtak, a college student in Srinagar, Wani was a hero who stood against oppression, reaching an audience beyond those favoring Pakistan. “He wanted to unify people and raise a voice against the injustice, said Mushtak, sporting a Che Guevera t-shirt and a Yankees baseball cap. “But his voice was suppressed.”
Wani joined the militancy at 15 after a beating by security forces, his father has told Indian media. Theirs is a relatively affluent and well-educated family; the father is a school headmaster. That he should join the Hizb-ul-Mujahadeen, a pro-Pakistan Islamist group listed as a terrorist organization by India, the European Union and the United States, hints at the fluid mix of separatism and independence, political self-determination and religious ideology.
Much of Wani’s appeal came through social media. His ideological messages were mixed in with photos and videos - playing cricket with fellow militants in the woods, sitting around campfires, and, in group portraits and alone, shouldering a Kalashnikov.
The last image didn’t square with reality; according to security forces, Wani never conducted a militant operation.
What made him stand apart from other radicals is he never hid his name or face. Wani's daring in this respect helped craft an image of a fearless fighter challenging the mighty Indian state. It gained him followers like few others, especially among young, educated Valley youths, even those indifferent to Wani’s Islamist, pro-Pakistani beliefs.
While Wani’s death may have been the spark, long-standing frustrations were the fuel.
By 2003, the insurgency was largely contained and, in the years that followed, signs emerged that a political solution was finally within reach. India and Pakistan began a dialogue in 2004 and the Indian government was talking with Kashmiri separatist leaders.
But talks with Islamabad faltered in 2007, the victim of shifting domestic politics in India and Pakistan. And after Pakistan-based terrorists attacked Mumbai in 2008, the dialogue collapsed.
Many analysts of Kashmiri politics argued that New Delhi wasted the relative calm of recent years by not engaging the people of Kashmir directly to find a lasting peace.
Several young men told VOA the same, that New Delhi showed little interest in a political solution to Kashmir or, indeed, addressing any of their concerns.
Shujaat Bukhari, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Rising Kashmir, said without political engagement, frustration crept in again.
He contends that New Delhi made matters worse by treating the issue as one of law and order, rather than focusing on Kashmiris’ political aspirations.
And in the Valley, signs increased that ignoring aspirations will make the law and order issue a self-fulfilling problem.
In downtown Srinagar, the sun fading behind him, a teenager sat by a fire in the middle of the road, a symbol of protest against India.
An hour before, he and his friends were battling security forces, hurling stones and bottles. They retreated only after the call to prayers from the mosque.
Soon a group of young men emerged from one of the alleys near him. They held crude torches and shouted slogans denouncing India. He joined them.
Young people like these lead the anti-India protests. And they are mostly men. Women turn out for the funerals, and take part in shielding protesters from police round ups, but most women stay away from the front lines of protest.
Several analysts say the hostility of this generation toward India is rooted in the violence of the 1990s.
Editor Shujaat Bukhari says they grew up seeing Indian security forces commit abuses against civilians. Unlike their parents and grandparents, he adds, they have not seen the better face of India.
“India has always tried to suppress the voices of Kashmiris,” said a young man sitting with friends on the banks of Jhelum river.
Another chimed in, saying India commits abuses against civilians. “They do not want a political solution because they are afraid they will lose Kashmir,” he said.
Mohammad Ashraf, a retired civil servant and a newspaper columnist, says the government has to understand that these protesters are not jihadists, rather, college students extremely angry with the Indian state.
And they are angry, too, with the Valley’s established self-determination movement, the Hurriyat Conference, arguing it has failed to make any progress.
One young man said if Hurriyat leaders call for calm, the protesters will burn down their houses.
Tufail Mushtak, the pro-Wani student, vowed the protests would last until they achieved something tangible.
That was then.
On the first Friday of the new year, it's calm outside the Grand Mosque in Srinigar. The season’s first snow is falling steadily and people are interested in getting home. It’s the first time since Wani's death that no protest is held after Friday prayers.
“It’s the same old story,” says student Tufail Mushtak referring to earlier cycles of protests, the most recent in 2010. But as the demonstrations dragged on, and the general public slowly grew weary and lost interest, the youthful optimism of those like Mushtak faded, too.
“It seems I will tell the story of the violence in 2016 to my kids, the way my father tells me about the Gaw Kadal massacre of 1990” says Mushtak.
Many young protesters are slowly coming to terms with the fact that the 2016 unrest will be just another episode in a long struggle, not a decisive moment as they had hoped.
“To make our dream of independence come true we need a leader like Gandhi who could mobilize and lead masses by non-violent means,” Mushtak says.
"People came out on the streets,” he adds, “They were ready to fight and die for the cause," he argues.
But not, at least, for now; Mushtak, like many of his friends, plans to leave the Valley for a better life outside Kashmir.
And Kashmir limps back to normal, until the next time normal isn’t good enough.
Text by Deepak Dobhal
Photographs by Deepak Dobhal, Merajuddin, AP, Reuters
Video by Zubair Dar
Video editing by Deepak Dobhal
Maps by Mark Sandeen
Text editing by Kathleen Dawson and Elizabeth Arrott
Shorthand editing by Deepak Dobhal and Elizabeth Arrott