Got into an argument recently. The bone was the fellow's contention that Hindus have been uniquely and brutally victimized all through history, to a degree far greater than any other people, any other faith. What's more, this persecution continues even now. This explains the Hindu psyche of today, as also much of modern Indian politics. I was trying to say, I know there have been terrible things done to Hindus, but calling them the most victimized people in history is a stretch.

Of course this was not what the man wanted to hear. Not at all. He grew steadily more angry, and finally spat this at me: "If you don't agree with me, if you can't see how Hindus have been oppressed, you can't be a true Indian like me!"

This is the "psyche" we hear about often: apparently it's about seeing yourself, showing yourself off to the world, as a victim. Forget everything you learned as you grew about taking responsibility for yourself, not crying to the world, solving your own problems, standing on your own two feet. No, suddenly it's become desirable to moan. Suddenly, there's a competition to be Victim Number 1, and all else counts for nothing, and in fact the highest virtue in life is victimhood.

When did all that happen?

Wandering in Jammu and Kashmir of late, I've had plenty of fodder for this particular puzzle. So much, that I'm starting to wonder if this is the age of the victim. It's not that I don't have sympathy for the tales of neglect and oppression I heard, not that I don't see truth in them. It's just this: can everyone be a victim?

Suddenly, there's a competition to be Victim Number 1, and all else counts for nothing, and in fact the highest virtue in life is victimhood.
 •  Democracy as the antidote
 •  Chutney. That's all.
Started with Kashmiris in Srinagar. Nearly everyone I sat down and had a serious discussion with ended up speaking about politics. About their aspirations and hopes for their homeland. It was no surprise that many of them spoke easily and with extraordinary reasonableness about freedom. Azadi: I heard the word over and over again, and it wasn't the sentiment itself that surprised me, maybe even alarmed me. It was that reasonableness, the sort of friendly confidence with which they made their case.

And what was this reasonable case? Going back over a century, to well before Independence they tell me, Kashmiris have asked for the right to determine their own future. Whatever that may be. They have been repeatedly assured this right; they feel other peoples have had it; but they believe they have never enjoyed it for themselves. In 1947, they felt they finally had their chance, but it didn't happen then either. Nor in the nearly six decades since.

My point here is not the details of this long history, nor even the legitimacy or otherwise of it. My point is that this history of feeling they have been denied control over their own future is one aspect of the frustration and anger Kashmiris feel.

The other is the way they must live every day. Srinagar is overrun with soldiers, barbed wire, bunkers, guns. In some areas, there are armed soldiers every few dozen yards. Some are in bunkers, peering out at the passing world from little slits. They watch the people, wander among them.

Of course it's all in the name of security and fighting terrorism -- and so you can't help wondering about the tension these soldiers must themselves feel. You also wonder what life must be like in these circumstances. What does it do to you if normal life includes men with guns strolling your streets, your city, all the time, for 15 years? If it also includes the occasional shootings and deaths of friends? How much of a factor is this in the frustration you feel? "You're a reasonable man," people I spoke to in Kashmir said as they made their reasonable case. "So you will see just how reasonable our demands are. You will see how we have been ignored and subjugated like nobody else. If you really care about India, you will understand those things, and see that there's no option but to let us have what we want."

And in truth, there in Srinagar, it did sound reasonable. I don't know about the "no option" bit, but I did not miss the implication, friendly though it was: you can't be a true Indian if you don't understand our pain. Indian patriotism is founded, at least partly, on our suffering.

Then I visited Kashmiri Pandits in camps in Delhi and Jammu. What has happened to the Pandits is well-known. Starting about 1989, they were systematically driven out of their homes in Kashmir. Some recall demagogic diatribes against them in mosques. Others recall visits from suddenly hostile neighbours saying they should get out. Still others recall visits from sympathetic neighbours saying the climate was getting worse and perhaps they should leave Kashmir for a while.

Whatever it was, they left. But not before terrorists killed plenty of them and terrified more.

Nor did their torment stop once they were gone from the Valley. Many spent years in tent settlements, bringing up children there or in tenements a few dozen feet square, watching parents wither in heat and dust they had never known. (I have a Pandit friend whose parents visibly wasted away like this, until they died within weeks of each other). Through all this, they had to endure stories of how their homes and businesses in Kashmir had been taken over. They had to listen to innumerable politicians making innumerable empty promises about their return, empty because they were never made to feel secure about that return. Or Farooq Abdullah saying they could come back, but only if they "earned the goodwill of the majority community" in Kashmir. (Why? If Pandits are to return, they must do so on their own terms, not on someone else's sufferance). They had to come to the bitter understanding, after a decade or more, that nobody really cared about their return to Kashmir, least of all political parties. That such parties only saw them as pawns useful for making a noise over. And the final indignity: they had to cope with hostility from people around the camps in which they lived. In Jammu, people speak openly and with contempt about the Pandits there, that they are cheats and liars. In Delhi, citizens have taken petitions to the authorities urging the eviction of Pandits.

When I spoke to Pandits, whether in Jammu or Delhi, these were the kinds of things I heard. Couple it all with the trauma of their flight from Kashmir, and you get that feeling again. Kashmir's Pandits have been tormented, and the prospects are that they will remain that way. They certainly feel that way. The way they see it, their plight is unique: whether in numbers, or in being the only community who are refugees in their own country, or in the brutality they have endured.

And of course, their plight has become a litmus test of Indian patriotism: if you don't speak up for the Pandits, you can't really be Indian. It just sounds so reasonable.

More of which comes your way if you pay attention to the third vocal demand for autonomy in J&K: the people who want statehood for Jammu. I spent a morning with Virender Gupta, physics professor at the University of Jammu and the articulate ideologue of the Jammu Mukti Morcha (JMM). He exuded the feeling of considered reasonableness that by now, after several sessions with so many actors in this theatre that is J&K, seems so familiar.

For Gupta and the JMM, Jammu and Kashmir has always been an oxymoron at best, an artificial construct that, if it ever had any validity, has none today. Jammu has always suffered at the hands of the domination from the Valley, he says. There's little in common between the people of Kashmir and the people of Jammu in particular, and that applies even more if you extend your gaze to the people of the third major area of the state, Ladakh. In Kashmir, they are mostly Muslim; in Ladakh, Buddhist and Muslim, with a strong Tibetan influence; Jammu, in contrast, is largely Hindu. People in Jammu speak Punjabi and Dogri, languages not known in the other regions.

Yet the political power centre of J&K has always been Srinagar, in Kashmir. As a result, Jammu's people, says Professor Gupta, feel steadily neglected and, in fact, oppressed. They are poorly represented in the government. They have never felt like they have a voice in the way their own affairs are run. "The only solution," Professor Gupta says, "is to make Jammu a separate state." Which is just what the JMM is fighting for.

Which, tell the truth, doesn't seem unreasonable at all. When UP has calved Uttaranchal, MP produced Chhatisgarh and Bihar hived off Jharkhand, why not one more state?

Why not indeed. In the heart of Bombay, you will find a soaring monument to the patriotic martyrs of the Samyukta Maharashtra movement, who fought a generation ago for a separate Maharashtra. In Srinagar, I met several ordinary Kashmiris who, for wanting at least autonomy, perhaps that elusive "azadi", described themselves as "Kashmiri patriots". I could put together a laundry list of more names that once stood for too-long suppressed state or national aspirations, and therefore inspired their own patriotism: Biafra, Uttaranchal, Northern Ireland, Chhatisgarh, Telengana, Bangladesh ... now Jammu.

And it's in Jammu, when I run into the ideologues for one more state, and their tales of oppression sound as believable as those others, and their case for running their own affairs sounds as reasonable as those others, and I can understand the earnestness they see as patriotism -- yes, it's here that I begin to wonder, with no aspersions meant in any direction: are we victims first, then patriots?