In the summer rains of Kashmir, this is an election rally with a difference. In what passes for the main square in the town of Hajin, small groups of men are watching their local candidate speak from the balcony of an old wooden house.
While his fellow Kashmiri separatists are boycotting the entire process, Sajjad Lone is running for a seat in parliament. No significant separatist in Kashmir has ever done that before, and Lone has been heavily criticised.
As the rally comes to an end a window is broken. There is momentary panic. No one here forgets that Sajjad Lone's father fell to an assassin’s bullet seven years ago. But Lone says he wants to take his message all the way to Delhi. His constituency goes to the polls in the fifth and final phase of voting on Wednesday, and he is campaigning until the last day.
“The idea is not to seek power or perks from the Indian government,” he says. “The idea is to be able to put forward the same ideology with more credibility and more force. “For 20 years we have had a static strategy -- unchanged and delivering nothing. If we don't change strategy now, when will we change it?”
The rest of the Kashmiri separatist movement doesn’t agree. Election time means shuttered shops and calls for a boycott. In the end little more than 10 per cent of voters in Srinagar cast a ballot. Outside the city the turnout was higher, but once again an election has underscored the extent of dissatisfaction in Kashmir with Indian rule from Delhi. And that's a challenge for the state government, which made its annual move north to Srinagar this week, away from the heat of the plains. It's a well-established summer ritual, dating back to British colonial times, designed in part to reaffirm Kashmir's links with the rest of India. An old tradition, then, for a new chief minister -- Omar Abdullah, another son of a famous Kashmiri dynasty. He is only held office for four months -- at a time when the attack on Mumbai by gunmen who came from Pakistan is fresh in India's collective memory. Relations between the two countries have been fractious and tense -- and that never makes things easy in Kashmir. “The incident in Mumbai has given us great cause for concern because it has derailed the process of dialogue between India and Pakistan,”  Abdullah said.
“Events in Mumbai coupled with events in Pakistan have meant that there has been little or no progress on the dialogue front.” In fact one of the main issues the new chief minister has faced in the last few months has been renewed efforts to infiltrate militants across the line of control from Pakistani-administered Kashmir.
Support for armed militancy has certainly declined over the years in the Kashmir Valley, but infiltration by militants from groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba is a constant threat for Indian forces. “Our border management has improved a lot,” says Kuldeep Khoda, the director general of the Jammu and Kashmir police. "But at the same time the effort from the other side has been relentless. Sometimes when there is international pressure on them they try to calm down, but once they feel the time is opportune for them to push in more infiltrators, then they do it.” And that, say the authorities in Srinagar, is one of the reasons why the security presence in Kashmir is so extraordinarily heavy. Hundreds of thousands of military and police personnel are stationed here.
But over-bearing security leads to public resentment, it leads to clashes with protesters, and it leads to unnecessary deaths. Shahid Ahangar was killed by the security forces two months ago. He was 22, a mechanic and a good footballer. The government says he was a trouble maker -- always throwing stones at the police. His family say he was innocent. On the other side of the city, one of Kashmir's main separatist leaders Mirwaiz Umar Farooq is also sitting at home, waiting for this election season to end. He's under house arrest and it took more than an hour of negotiating with senior security officials just to be allowed in to see him. His solution to the Kashmir problem is independence. He is a significant player, but under current conditions he will take no part in an Indian election in order to prove that he has popular support. The authorities criticise separatists like Farooq, arguing that they are undermining the political process by persuading so many people to opt out.
He says that India needs to engage more with Kashmiris and with Pakistan, to find a solution. “We believe the time has come when there should be some movement forward on Kashmir,” he says, with one eye on international concern about instability across the border in Pakistan. Two or three years ago India and Pakistan did come quite close to a ground-breaking deal on Kashmir’s future, in a series of behind-the-scenes meetings. But as Pakistan's political problems mounted, the deal fell apart, leaving local people still waiting for change. Out on the still waters of Dal Lake, in the cool evening air, it’s easy to forget about these complex problems which churn through the Kashmir Valley. But the Lake’s famous houseboat owners tend to have a way with words.
“We are totally stuck,” says Mohammed Ishaq Chapri. “Personally I feel we are in a jail, surrounded by the big mountains. A rose between two thorns -- that's what has happened to Kashmir.”

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