Ordinarily, it should wrench anyone’s heart to watch people fall to bullets. But, sadly, it does not – Kashmiris don’t lament the soldiers who die at their hands. Nor does a large section of India mourn the killing of boys throwing stones at security forces. The same section of Indians certainly celebrates the mowing down of terrorists, whom Kashmiris describe as freedom fighters.

Underlying the contrasting responses is an explanation which no one wishes to admit, but perhaps everyone is aware of. It could be stated thus: There will never be a solution to the Kashmir problem. Nor will it have peace. Not, at least, in the “foreseeable future” – a euphemism for “our lifetime”.

The pathology

This is because the idea of nation-state runs so deep in us South Asians that it has become pathological. We cannot contemplate the shrinking of our territory, as none of the other South Asian countries can either, unless, obviously, they lose it in war. By contrast, we don’t mind acquiring girth, as we did to gobble up Sikkim.

No leader will agree to a slice of land to be hived off from India. To even think or talk of it, he or she should be prepared to write his or her political epitaph. Even Muslims outside Kashmir, suspected of harbouring sympathy for Kashmiris, will not – they know vivisecting India again will invite butchery worse than what was witnessed during the Partition.

Let us face it – we are not Canadians or British who would conduct a referendum to decide on a state’s demand to secede.

For Kashmiris too, azadi or independence has been conceived within the framework of nation-state. Their only marker for freedom is to have their own independent state or, alternatively, be granted the right to decide whether they wish to join Pakistan or remain with India. But their idea of freedom and nation-state comes into conflict with that of the rest of Indians.

The third actor in the tragedy is Pakistan, which we Indians think of as villain. Many Kashmiris think of Islamabad as a friend and guide. Pakistan is interested in neither formulation, intent on proving right the two-nation theory – that Hindus and Muslims constitute two separate nations – which constitutes the historical foundation of its existence. An increasingly large number of Kashmiris repose their faith in this foundational idea as well.

But because the two-nation theory was proved wrong through the birth of Bangladesh, Pakistan wishes to midwife an independent Kashmir to undercut the idea of composite nationalism, which seems ragged and in tatters – in Kashmir anyway. Till such time as success is achieved, it would wish to tie-down India in Kashmir. Tit-for-tat is the cardinal principle of international relations.

The problem

The three actors at the table, therefore, have conceptions of nation-state at variance with each other. They cannot even hold an iftaar party together, let alone discuss their ideas of the future. We think azadi means different things to different segments of Kashmiris. This is why some say, Grant a degree of autonomy to them. Reduce the presence of armed forces, many more add.

Who in India do you think will move in that direction?

Not the Modi government. The credo of the Bharatiya Janata Party is the abolition of Article 370, which has been diluted over the years. Its predecessors never thought of granting autonomy to Kashmir because they were, among other reasons, apprehensive of the backlash the Sangh could trigger. A generation of Sangh activists weaned on muscular nationalism will perceive autonomy to Kashmir as an inexcusable compromise.

Otherwise too, autonomy to Kashmir will inevitably prompt other states to demand the same concessions – for sure, those in the North East. The Modi government’s cooperative federalism is about states cooperating with the Centre, not the other way round. A Centre that will not even allow the Delhi government to function can scarcely ever think of granting autonomy to Kashmir.

An aspect of the paranoia that the idea of nation-state breeds is to think of the Centre as synonymous with India. This is why it must impose its will on other entities. It is precisely why the proposal of drastic reduction of security forces will never get accepted, as it will be construed as an example of Kashmiris imposing their will on the Centre.

Forget a reduction of troops, the Centre hasn’t even thought of withdrawing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act from Kashmir. It doesn’t allow rampant human rights violations to be investigated. To do so, the Centre thinks, would be tantamount to loosening control – it could embolden the people to demand their rights to be expanded further. In Kashmir, it could shoot the graph of cross-border infiltration northwards.

It is said the Jammu and Kashmir police are competent to provide security to the state. To have Kashmiris firing at Kashmiris will at least not project India as an occupier, which is what many Kashmiris think it is. But the nation-state’s paranoia conjures up another dreadful scenario – what if Kashmiris in uniform decide to rebel? We have drawn lessons from our history – remember the Indian Navy mutiny of 1946. So cancel out this proposal as well.

The examples

Consider how Manmohan Singh and Pervez Musharraf were close to working out a Kashmir solution – soft borders, joint management of resources, without having to exchange territory that would have riled the hawks in both countries. First Singh hesitated, then Musharraf, and an opportunity was lost.

But their hesitation wasn’t on account of any of their personal traits. It was linked to the idea of nation-state people have. The two leaders dithered because they feared the people’s reactions. This is precisely why such opportunities will continue to be missed, and why Track II diplomacy also will not yield concrete results other than study papers.

For example, it is an established fact that both India and Pakistan were close to resolving the Siachen problem. But India said it would withdraw from the icy heights after its position had been authenticated on the map by Pakistan. But Pakistan refused, believing its people will see the move as capitulation. It led India to suspect that Pakistan intended to betray it in the future, as it had in the past.

Or recall Atal Behari Vajpayee’s initiative in Kashmir as Prime Minister. He wanted to resolve the Kashmir imbroglio within the parameters of insaaniyat (humanity), Kashmiriyat and jamhooriat (democracy). A wave of jubilation receded soon thereafter. Another opportunity lost. Mohammad Ali Jinnah was secular, so said Bharatiya Janata Party leader LK Advani, whose career nosedived thereafter. Advani’s pronouncement wasn’t even an opportunity.

Azadi in Kashmir is a flame which is lowered or enhanced from time to time, as we do with a gas stove, depending on our needs. The number of pro-azadi Kashmiris varies from time to time. What doesn’t is the number of Kashmiris who detest India. We can’t conceive of a people who can participate in elections – for sadak, paani, bijli and makaan (roads, water, electricity and housing) – and still want independence. It leads us to conclude, at every outburst in Kashmir, that yet another opportunity has been frittered away.

We say Hurriyat leaders are cowards who do not wish to prove their popularity through the electronic voting machine. They fear the intelligence agencies will ensure they lose any poll they participate in. Their other fears, never expressed, are that scramble for power could further divide the disunited lot and incur them the wrath of people and Pakistan, which could organise their assassinations should they dare to step out of line.

The alternatives

Finally, can’t Kashmiris lead a non-violent movement, emulate the anti-colonial struggle against the British colonial rule? They also know strikes and bandhs won’t make a difference to the rest of India. This is because we are not dependent on Kashmiris, as the British were on Indians to maximise their gains.

There’s isn’t a railroad or highway in Kashmir that protestors can takeover to bring parts of India to a halt, as the Gujjars did in Rajasthan a few years ago. Kashmiris don’t supply a commodity which we can’t forego. They can, obviously, shutter down the Valley for days. It is like closing the doors of your house to which no one has any need to come.

Sure, widespread bandhs de-legitimise the ruling power, in this case, Delhi. But Delhi doesn’t have any illusion about its legitimacy as far as Kashmiris are concerned. Outside Kashmir, most people think the Indian state’s actions in Kashmir are legitimate. The actions are brutal because Kashmiris want independence, which is unacceptable, they reason.

Nevertheless, Kashmiris press on and court death because they too have drawn a lesson from the history of the national movement – that a struggle for freedom is prolonged, spread over many decades, is cyclical, the highs alternating with the lows, until…

So they will continue to throw stones, and get fired upon, and die. There won’t be a singer in India who will ask, “How many deaths will it take to know that too many people have died?” – and for something to be done to alleviate their plight. There will not be such a song because all of us can hear the wind howl the answer – Kashmir’s future will be like its past. There cannot be a tragedy greater than that.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.