Kashmiri fighters and Indian soldiers have engaged in an average half-a-dozen gun battles each day in the last few weeks.
Although Indian officials continue to blame “foreign mercenaries” from Pakistan for the upsurge in violence, there are indications that more young boys and girls in Indian-administered Kashmir are gravitating towards separatist groups.
The region has seen bloody conflict before, but India and Pakistan had moved towards a tentative rapprochement. This had sparked hope that violence would cease.
But the killing of nearly 300 people over the past three weeks has forced hardliners in both India and Pakistan to stiffen their stances.
The Indian government has expressed anger at the upsurge in violence. Pakistan has denied the charge it is behind the violence and has in turn resorted to its familiar India-bashing rhetoric.
The killing on 30 August of Ghazi Baba, the commander of the separatist group Jaish-e-Muhammad, was seen as a major breakthrough by the Indian security forces.
Baba was considered to be the alleged mastermind of the attack on the Indian Parliament.
India suffered its worst setback on 13 September when a former fighter, Kuka Parray who broke ranks and joined Indian security forces to combat the separatists, was killed.
Indian security forces stretched to
the limit by Kashmiri separatists
In his death, the Indian Army lost one of its most trusted men in Kashmir. Kuka had turned the tide in India's favour by switching sides at the height of the previous phase of violence.
Indian Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani admitted his death was a “great loss” to India and pro-Indian forces in Kashmir.
The killing came two weeks after one of Parray’s former associates Javed Hussain Shah was shot dead by attackers in the Kashmiri capital.
That killing coincided with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to Srinagar.
If the killing of Ghazi Baba encouraged the Indian security forces to hunt for other key players in the struggle for independence, the killings of Parray and Shah motivated them to seek reprisals.
The forces claimed to have killed more than 90 separatists, mostly Islamist fighters from outside India, whom they refer to as foreign mercenaries.
But in some of these cases, the residents disputed their claims. They took to the roads to protest against “gruesome killings” of the local youth in fake encounters. These refer to the killings of civilians who have been detained on the grounds of being separatists.
Kashmir’s police chief Gopal Sharma denied his forces were killing civilians. “All those killed were either terrorists eliminated by us in encounters or civilians who were either caught in crossfire or targeted by the terrorists.”
No one is sure why violence has spiralled of late. One of the several theories in circulation suggests that since India seems to be reluctant to talk to Pakistan on Kashmir, Islamabad must have decided to bring it to its knees.
Some try to link it to President Pervez Musharraf's problems on the home front, particularly the rise of the Islamists who want him to step down.
“If Kashmir is burning, he can silence his critics by pleading that in the national interest this is not the right time to disturb him,” says political commentator Tahir Muhiuddin.
What is also possible is that he may have no control at all over the Islamist outfits like the Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad, known to be mainly involved in the violence in Kashmir.
But the fact that the indigenous Kashmir group Hizb-ul-Mujahedin has also become active again places a question mark on such an observation.
India and Pakistan exchange angry
words over the increase in violence
Muhiuddin feels that by encouraging more and more Kashmiri youth to cross the de-facto border to receive arms training, Pakistan as well as separatist groups are looking to dispel the Indian claim that it is now mainly “foreign mercenaries” who are creating trouble in Kashmir.
Neither wants to give the diplomatic edge to India, which will lose the argument if those killed or captured in Kashmir turn out to be locals.
The internal struggles of Kashmiri groups are also having their own impact.
New Delhi’s covert endeavour to win over the Hurriyat Conference suffered a setback as Kashmir’s main alliance of separatist parties split in early-September.
The talk in Kashmir’s political circles before the split was that the alliance’s leadership was eager to begin talks with New Delhi to arrive at a settlement.
But the faction led by Geelani pre-empted the move by causing a split in the organisation. He has since taken over as the chairman of a parallel Hurriyat Conference.
Rebels accused the leadership of “deviating” from the Hurriyat Conference agenda and “betraying” the cause of the Kashmiri nation.
Shia cleric and Hurriyat leader, politician Moulvi Abbas Ansari strongly denies the allegation. He asserts, "What the enemy could not achieve all these years has been done by our own people,” implying that his rival, Geelani, has weakened the organisation, which had emerged as a force to reckon with.
Apparently conscious of the damage inflicted on their credibility by Geelani and supporting outfits, Abbas’s predecessor Prof Abd al-Gani Butt came out with a hard-hitting statement.
He asserted that he would not consider talks with New Delhi unless it acknowledged that the people of Kashmir were the principal party to the dispute.
“All those killed were either terrorists eliminated by us in encounters or civilians who were either caught in crossfire or targeted by the terrorists"
Kashmir police chief
Kashmir watchers say that Geelani's attempted takeover of the Hurriyat is a calculated move.
The Hurriyat Conference is the brand name that still sells within and outside Kashmir and it would have been foolish on the part of the hawks within the separatist echelons to abandon it for a new party.
In addition, it is now an open secret that Pakistan supports the parallel Hurriyat Conference’s stance on Kashmir or vice versa.
Pakistan has worked hard, in fact, to introduce the organisation to the outside world as the “true representative body of the Kashmiri people”.
Nobody at home and abroad would have accepted the logic behind the shift in supporting a new party.
The process of dialogue with the Indian government is likely to be scuttled as Geelani is dead against any such move unless Pakistan too is involved or, at least, the proposed talks between the two countries are monitored by a neutral country.