KULGAM, Indian-held Kashmir: A Kashmiri farmer Yusuf Malik learned that his son Owais, a 22-year old arts student and apple picker, had become an armed freedom fighter via a Facebook post, reports foreign media.
Days after Owais disappeared from his home in this picturesque occupied valley below the Himalayan ranges, his picture appeared on the social network, posted by a user the family said they did not recognize. The short, thin, curly-haired young man in casual jeans and a T-shirt stared resolutely at the camera, both hands clutching an AK-47 rifle.
“He was a responsible kid who cared about his studies,” said Yusuf, 49, staring down at the carpeted floor of his brick home where he sat on a recent winter morning, clasping his folded hands inside his traditional pheran cloak.
The family said it has not heard from Owais since. Owais is one of a rising number of local freedom fighters. Hundreds of thousands of Indian troops and armed police are stationed in this lush region at the foot of the Himalayas. An increasing number of locally-born Kashmiris are picking up arms, according to Indian officials.
Just a month before Owais Malik showed up on Facebook, another young man, Adil Ahmad Dar, left his home in a nearby part of Kashmir to join a freedom group. This February, his suicide attack on a paramilitary convoy killed 40 Indian policemen, and took India and Pakistan to the brink of war.
After Dar’s attack, Indian security forces launched a major crackdown, searching Kashmiri homes and detaining hundreds of supporters, sympathizers and family members of those in armed groups. At least half a dozen gunbattles broke out between Indian police and freedom fighters.
The families of Dar and other young fighters, as well as some local leaders and political experts, say run-ins between locals and security forces are one of the main reasons for anger and radicalization. After the recent crackdown, they expect more young people to take up arms.
Outside the narrow lane that leads to the Malik family home in Kulgam in southern Kashmir, children walk to school past shuttered shopfronts and walls spray-painted with the word “azadi”, the local word for “freedom”. The graveyard at the end of the lane has an area for freedom fighters who are remembered as martyrs.
Dar’s family claims he’d been radicalized in 2016 after being beaten up by Indian troops on his way back from school for pelting stones at them.
Syed Ata Hasnain, a retired Indian army general, who has served in Kashmir for over 20 years, said the rise in homegrown fighters does not surprise him.
“Those who were born in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the conflict started, have now come of age,” he said. “This is a generation that has only seen the jackboot. The alienation of this generation is higher than the alienation of the previous generation.”
Tensions have risen after Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in New Delhi in 2014. Modi promised a tougher approach to Pakistan and gave security forces the license to retaliate forcefully against the uprising.
Around that time, many young Kashmiris started rallying around Burhan Wani, who had left home at the age of 15 to join the freedom struggle.
Wani and his brother were beaten by security forces when they were teenagers, his family told local media. Wani was 22 when he was killed by security forces in 2016 and thousands attended his funeral despite restrictions on the movement of people and traffic.
The United Nations said in a report last year that in trying to quell mass protests in Kashmir since 2016, Indian security forces used excessive force that led to between 130 and 145 killings, according to civil society estimates.
Thousands were injured, including around 700 who sustained eye injuries from the use of pellet guns by security forces, it said. Thousands of people had simply disappeared since the insurgency began, it said.
Instead, India points the finger at Pakistan. Officials allege the rebellion in Kashmir is being funded and organized by Pakistan and if they cut off those resources, the insurgency will weaken and it can then focus on building Kashmir’s economy.
Pakistan says it only provides moral support to the Kashmiri right to self-determination.
Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the Muslim spiritual leader of Kashmir who is considered a moderate separatist, contests that India has true plans to engage politically with the people of Kashmir.
“In the past five years we have seen that the government of India has only spoken to Kashmiris through the barrel of the gun, that’s it. There is no political approach,” he said.
“Nobody is dying in Kashmir for lack of roads, electricity and water.”
A few miles south of Owais Malik’s home in Kulgam lives Masuma Begum, who said her son and brother had been called in to an army camp two days after the latest bombing and have been held since then.