Ask Kashmiris on either side of the border if they would prefer to be under the rule of India or Pakistan. Whether in Srinagar or Muzaffarabad, most will give the same answer: neither, they consider themselves to be Kashmiris. A united, independent Kashmir is nearly an impossibility in the foreseeable future. Influenced by three major powers - India, Pakistan and China - it has been embroiled in three regional wars and is at the nexus of national ambitions that have little to do with the aspirations of Kashmiris themselves.
As some separatists in Indian Kashmir rejected a New Delhi peace overture out of hand yesterday, it was difficult to see their vision for the road forward. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a hardline leader of the protests against Indian rule that have seen more than 100 civilians killed in the past three months, insisted that New Delhi accept the "disputed" status of the region before talks could begin. What is on the table is far more modest. New Delhi has offered an eight-point plan, which includes compensating the families of civilians killed in the protests, freeing protesters accused of throwing stones and, crucially, reviewing areas classified as "disturbed", where the army and police have sweeping powers to arrest and even open fire on civilians.
It is those draconian measures, more than any enunciated drive for independence, that has kept the fires burning in recent months. Since a teenager was killed by a tear gas canister in June, there has been a self-perpetuating cycle of violence. In recent encounters, Indian troops have been accused of opening fire without warning. "Ten boys in the protest were taken away by police, so everyone was angry and gathered at the police station," Muktar Ahmed, a 24-year-old protester, told AFP. "There was not even a baton charge before firing began. I was shot and then beaten as I lay on the ground."
New Delhi will dispute that description of events, but there is growing acknowledgement that heavy-handed security tactics are worsening the situation. Kashmiri leaders are right to be sceptical about long-term prospects; the region has too many intractable disputes to yield an easy solution. But the negotiations on offer could have another, immediate benefit: if cooler heads prevail, there is no need for more young men to die on the streets. That is the only place where the process can begin, whatever the outcome.