It was the 1990s. The Gaw Kadal massacre was memory. So was Hawal. The exodus of the Pandits was memory too. Around the core of such Kashmiri memories was an oft-cursed name: Jagmohan. When Kashmiri streets weren’t curfewed, bands of children would walk through the streets beating tin boxes hung around their necks and sing, “Jagg borukh teenas.” Jagmohan’s been packed in a tin box. Comic lyrics would emerge from the lips of grim-faced children and reverberate in the cold air: “Gooil aayas seenas.” And a bullet has pierced his heart! Jagmohan was long gone, yet the songs of curse remained.

When Girish Chandra Saxena replaced Jagmohan as governor, people talked of him as the Indian spy who would leave Jagmohan far behind in cruelty but so cunning would be his methods that none would even mention his name. It turned out to be true; nobody speaks of him. Or, maybe, Jagmohan was remembered so much because he was the first ruler sent directly from “Hindustan” to handle the armed rebellion that began in 1989 and state violence was first unleashed upon Kashmiris under his watch, not to talk of the massacres of unarmed civilians committed in broad daylight that people soon lost count of.

The infamous transfer of forestland to the Amarnath Shrine Board in 2008 led to a mass uprising and the summer air reverberated with new songs. Famously, imaginary Indian flags were stamped upon by circles of men and women shouting, “Ye ragda!” Here, stamped it! It marked an epoch in Kashmir, now remembered simply as Ragda. Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad was sung to, too: “Nabin qabar? Kasheeri nebar!” Nabi’s grave? Outside Kashmir!

The main characters change with time – Jagmohan, Azad, then Omar Abdullah, now Mehbooba Mufti, tomorrow Abdullah again – but the songs remain more or less the same.

The sentiment is manifested in other ways as well. The grave of Abdullah’s grandfather, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah – often described by Indian writers as Kashmir’s “tallest leader ever” – has armed guards round the clock lest people come and dig him out.

All this should help put to rest the question, “Do Kashmiris really have a preference among pro-India political actors, whether they come from Srinagar, Jammu or New Delhi?” It also begs the question: just what is mainstream about “mainstream politics” and its actors in Kashmir?

Profile of a Kashmiri

Nazir Khan is from the border district of Kupwara. He is a labourer. When it suits, he doubles up as a mason, sometimes a carpenter. This past month, he has been talking about selling his house in Kupwara, an idea his father does not particularly like, and buying a home of his own in the city where he has been living as a tenant for many years. I asked him why.

There is no electricity in his village, he said, or water supply. They walk a mile for water; they walked longer to school. Nazir dropped out of school but I know his brother, Irshad, has two master’s degrees. A couple of years ago, I remember Irshad took home a solar-powered battery set and a fluorescent bulb.

Has their legislator not helped them get water supply, if not electricity? I asked. They always promise everything, he replied, but nothing ever happens. Then he burst out in laughter. “The PDP henchman has everything,” he said, referring to the People’s Democratic Party, which was in power until this month. “Even a concrete pathway that practically extends from the highway right up to his threshold.” Where the ground is too steep, Nazir told me in a spell of amusement, there are stairs made of concrete.

I looked at him as he told me this, amusement refusing to leave his expression.

It was the same expression he had a year ago when he described how two militants hiding in his village’s forests frustrated the Indian Army for two whole months, but were never caught. “Army walon ko paagal bana diya!” he had laughed in rare excitement. They drove the soldiers mad!

A couple of weeks ago, he was sad for a former classmate who had been killed at the Line of Control. The village waited all night for his body but news came that people from the other side had taken the militant’s body for burial. His village, Nazir said, offered a funeral in absentia. He carries a photo of the militant’s young children on his mobile phone.

Who is this “PDP henchman”? I asked. Is he a party leader? No, he replied, he is just a party member. Do you go to him, does he help? “Sometimes we do,” he replied. For water, for electricity, for arrested boys, for missing girls.

Just the kind of things the likes of Abdullah and Mufti seek votes for. Things they say have nothing to do with Kashmir’s political future. Once in power, though, they reinvent themselves to represent the repressive Indian state. And abroad, of course, they become the poster kids of Indian democracy in Kashmir – all is beautiful in paradise. Reasons they are crowded around by people one day and mercilessly heckled the next.

Water, electricity, arrested boys, missing girls, but nothing ever works. But then, there are no expectations either. Rather indifference, if at all. But did the henchman participate in the funeral of the militant? I asked Nazir. Of course he did.

After the Bharatiya Janata Party pulled out of its coalition with the People’s Democratic Party last week, Amit Shah held a rally in Jammu, and attacked his former ally. Mufti responded in kind, but she betrayed more reasons for why she should have been the one to quit the alliance. It showed, for the umpteenth time, why the people accuse the “mainstream politicians” of representing India in Kashmir rather than the other way round. It is a fact that their loyalty is foremost to the Indian state, which an overwhelming majority of Kashmiris seeks independence from, not with Kashmir. It is what offends Kashmiris. But it is not surprise, or even frustration, that the people have for this anymore. It is contempt: “Mahboobin qabar? Kasheeri nebar!” Mehbooba’s grave? Outside Kashmir.

So what do you choose as a Kashmiri: governors appointed by New Delhi or Kashmiri chief ministers? It does not really make a difference, even though, once in a while, when the costs of aspiring for independence – Kashmir’s actual mainstream – become too much to bear, Khan’s village does contemplate if it’s still worth going for a walk on the highway to the henchman.

But rumour has it that Jagmohan was good at building highways too.

Nawaz Gul Qanungo is a Kashmiri journalist and Editor, The Polis Project. He lives in Srinagar.