SRINAGAR - Kashmir's separatist leaders are struggling to win back popular support, and are hoping that a boycott of Thursday's election to the Indian parliament may yet breathe new life into the 20-year movement.
The appeal by the All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference to stay away from the vote in summer capital Srinagar, the hotbed of the separatist revolt, is seen as an attempt to deny New Delhi any credit for holding elections in the restive Himalayan region.
But Kashmiris are questioning whether such tactics have brought them any closer to the long-held goal of self-determination.
Freedom is turning into a dream which may never become a reality if our leaders are not clear how to go about it, Muskaan, a 22-year-old law student said at Kashmir University.
Last November, the Hurriyat which includes two dozen political, social and religious groups, issued a similar call to boycott elections to the Jammu and Kashmir state assembly, saying people should stay away from any election that seeks to legitimize Indian rule over the region.
But more than 60 percent people turned out to vote, dealing a powerful blow to the Hurriyat and its claim to represent the views of majority of Kashmiris.
The separatists seem to be suffering from an identity crisis, Bashir Manzer, editor of Daily Kashmir Images newspaper said. It is time for some introspection.
Though voters saw the assembly vote as a ballot for better governance rather than acceptance of Indian rule, the Hurriyat misread the sentiment of the people, who are fed up with violence and wanted basic amenities, experts say.
They are reacting according to different situations and do not seem to have a clear strategy toward their goal of attaining freedom, Noor Ahmed Baba, dean of social sciences at Kashmir university, said.
More than 47,000 people have died in Kashmir since the revolt broke out in 1989. Separatists put the toll at 100,000. India says Kashmir is an integral part of the country and has twice gone to war over it with Pakistan.
Islamabad and the separatists want a plebiscite in Kashmir in line with U.N. resolutions to determine whether it should be part of India or Pakistan.
On Wednesday, troops patrolled the deserted streets of Srinagar, and armed police stood guard outside the homes of senior leaders of the Hurriyat.
Shops and businesses were shut in the city following a strike called by the Hurriyat to protest the vote.
Voting is happening under the nozzle of guns and we have been unlawfully confined. Is this the kind of democracy India is trying to show to the world? Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq told Reuters in a telephone interview.
India's general election began this month, but voting in the Kashmir valley has been split into three phases starting from April 30, to allow thousands of security forces to move around the troubled region.
The first round of voting in Kashmir was marked by a low turnout, offering a lifeline to the separatist leaders, facing the danger of being marginalized by people fed up at the lack of a cohesive agenda to win independence.
Farooq said the boycott of the election would be a chance to rebuild the separatist movement.
After the elections, we will start spreading in border areas, where there is a tremendous desire to get independence.. we will come back strongly, he said.