India says it is taking a new approach to the decades-old conflict with Pakistan over the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir. The Indian government is seeking a dialogue with Kashmiri separatists.
Both India and Pakistan claim the Muslim-majority state on the edge of the Himalayas. After the British empire in India ended in 1947, the rivals fought three armed conflicts over Kashmir, the last in 1999, after the two sides had acknowledged acquiring nuclear weapons.
Since then, the Indian government has largely suppressed the Pakistan-backed insurgency, but the conflict has taken on a new dimension -- an indigenous street protest movement, not unlike the Palestinian uprisings against Israel in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The protests are carried out mainly by young men and boys. Since June, many of them have devolved into stone-throwing clashes with Indian security forces. Over the past four months, Indian forces have killed scores of Kashmiris.
The Indian government has sent a team of independent facilitators who are trying to restart a dialogue with all parties in the conflict. But so far, the key players in the conflict, the separatists, are refusing to talk.
Containing Protests Difficult
The protests have spread beyond cities like Srinagar, the state capital, to small towns in the countryside, making it more difficult for authorities to contain is the demonstrations.
On a recent day in Bandi Pora, a farming community surrounded by fruit orchards and the fabled peaks of the Himalayas, the chilly air was filled with the acrid smell of tear gas from sporadic protests by small crowds of young men and boys.
The protesters moved from street to street, many of them masked by scarves with holes cut for the eyes.
They chanted slogans, calling for azadi, or freedom, and shouted: "India go back."
The young men hurled a rock at armed Indian security men who had blocked one end of a street. The security forces answered with tear gas.
Many of these confrontations escalate into stone throwing by protesters and beatings or shootings by police. Each side accuses the other of starting the fights.
According to separatists, since June more than 111 people have been killed in encounters with the CRFP, India's paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force. Police won't comment on individual cases, but spokesmen have accused the protesters of provoking fights by throwing stones at police.
Kashmiri Separatists Refuse To Talk
Separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani says the violence all originates on the Indian side. He says no police officer has been killed by stone throwers, "but 111 people have been killed by their guns and their tear-gas shelling … and bullets."
Geelani is the chairman of Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, an umbrella organization of Kashmiri separatist groups. At 81, he's spent some 15 years of his life in various Indian prisons.
Currently under house arrest at his home in Srinagar, he is in no mood to compromise.
Specifically, he is refusing to talk with the Indian team that is trying to revive a dialogue in Kashmir.
The team is led by Dilip Padgaonkar, a retired journalist who covered the Kashmir conflict for years before he rose to be the editor of the prestigious Times of India.
He says he wants the conflicting sides to focus on two things.
"One is, you must spell out what you want, in absolutely clear, precise, concrete terms," Padgaonkar says. "We cannot proceed on the basis of sloganeering. Secondly, every proposal you make must take into account the big picture."
Padgaonkar says that includes how the proposal will be received in India and Pakistan as well as the various regions of Kashmir, including Jammu, a predominately Hindu city south of Srinagar.
The atmosphere there is far different.
"We are Indians. Kashmiris are part of India," says Akash Gupta, who is studying for an MBA at Jammu University. Gupta says most of his fellow students, especially the Hindus and Sikhs, would be fearful of independence or a merger with mostly Muslim Pakistan.
Meanwhile, Geelani regards the proposal for negotiations as a stalling tactic by the Indian government. He says he will talk when the government agrees to his group's five-point proposal, which includes acknowledging that Kashmir is a disputed territory and withdrawing Indian forces.
He also wants investigations and trials for the soldiers responsible for the shootings of protesters.
Deaths Continue To Mount
The pain of those shootings is fresh. In the town of Sopore last week, the Kachroo family marked the 40th day after the death of their 20-year-old son, Mudasir.
In a room lined with wailing women, Mudasir's cousin, Waseem Kachroo, poured out a litany of praise for the dead man and complaints against the Indian administration.
"He was 20 years old," Kachroo said. "He was a software designer and a soccer player, not a protester."
He suggested that his cousin was a random target of police violence and said the police refuse to investigate their own. The CRFP has declined to comment on individual killings.
Geelani, the separatist leader, says the Kashmir conflict ought to be on President Obama's agenda during his visit to India that begins on Saturday.
"This is the responsibility of you people, particularly the United States," says Geelani. Since the United States says it is in favor of justice, democracy and oppressed peoples, he says, it should favor the cause of separatist Kashmiris.
Padgaonkar, the Indian negotiator, and his team say they'll return to Kashmir at least every month, and that when separatists like Geelani are willing to talk, they'll be ready.