By Shazia Yousuf
SRINAGAR, Indian-held Kashmir
Burhan Muzaffur Wani, the son of a school principal, was 16 when left his home in southern Kashmir's Tral five years ago, to pick up arms in rebellion against Indian rule in Kashmir.
He has since become a commander for the pro-independence militant group Hizbul Mujahideen in Tral and, Indian police say, has become a poster boy for a new militancy growing in Indian-held Kashmir. Under his command are Ishfaq Ahmad Parray, another Tral youngster who was among the brightest students in the whole Kashmir valley, and Zakir Rashid who in 2013 abandoned a civil engineering degree to fight against Indian rule.
The three of them caused a stir when they and eight others, dressed in their fatigues, posed with their assault rifles for pictures that went viral online. The pictured group were only 11 of 88 local militants who the Indian police say are active in Indian-held Kashmir, and are steadily growing in number.
This week, Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval visited Kashmir amid reports that the Indian government is increasingly worried about a new breed of young, educated boys choosing to fight against India. For the first time in a decade local fighters outnumber those who have crossed from the other side of divided Kashmir.
Though the total number of militants operating in Indian-held Kashmir has remained around 150 for several years, without any significant fluctuations, the Indian Armed forces contend that it is the growing number of local boys joining militant groups that is disturbing.
According to the Indian Police, of the 88 locals making up the militant ranks, 33 have joined only in the first six months of this year.
“As per our assessment, nobody has successfully infiltrated from across the border this year. That is why it is a greater concern that you know internal recruitment is taking place. That is a matter of serious concern,” General Officer Commanding In Chief of the Indian Army’s Northern Command, Lt. Gen D S Hooda said earlier this week.
While acknowledging that the total number of new recruits was not high, Hooda said it was the trend that concerned him.
The Indian army's unrelenting counter-insurgency methods -- including extrajudicial killings, torture, forced disappearances, rape of women and the use of its own militia -- reduced an armed rebellion of 20,000 fighters to less than 100, mostly foreign, fighters.
According to data compiled by the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs, militant-related incidents decreased sharply from a high of 3,860 incidents in 2002 to a low of 170 incidents in 2013.
But in the absence of any attempts at lasting conflict resolution and with continuing tension with and alleged abuses from the more than half-a-million Indian forces, intelligence agencies and other state apparatus, young boys have continued to turn to arms, while other regularly join stone-throwing clashes with Indian forces.
“There is a serious political problem here which must be resolved politically. I have been a police officer for almost 30 years now and I can tell you that the new militants are joining because of social media, peer pressure or because they are being brain washed into it, but those would only be superficial reasons. The problem here is political one which one generation after another is inheriting,” a senior Police official in the IHK told Anadolu Agency. “As long as the political problem, the cliched 'Kashmir Issue', is not solved, we will running in these circles.”
Though there are few signs of militancy in the Kashmiri capital of Srinagar, the region's villages, especially in southern Kashmir, have been the main source of the new recruits.
The increase in the ranks of the local militants has however come at a time when the supply of arms and ammunitions is believed to be at an all time low, forcing the young men to procure their own guns at the time of joining.
“There are no supplies of weapons with the militants this time. So there are gun snatchings that we see every now and then,” a police officer posted in southern Kashmir told AA. “What we know is that anyone who wants to join the militancy is asked to get his own gun and directed to snatch a gun, mostly from policemen guarding banks, hospitals, or at places where they do not suspect an attack.”
The main militant groups operating in Indian-held Kashmir remain Hizbul Mujahideen and Laskhar-e-Tayyiba. While there have been scattered occurrences of flags being raised resembling those of Syria-based militant group Daesh, during street protests in Srinagar, the Indian police say that those have only been an attempt to gain attention.
“There is no link between these flags and the ISIS [Daesh]. These are 13 to 14-year-old boys who have realized that this flag gets them a lot of attention and they like that,” Inspector-General of Police Mujtaba Geelani told the media. “We have apprehended these boys in the past and become convinced that they don’t belong to these organizations; nor do these organizations have any presence here.”
Police says that the new militancy, though small, scattered and without big targets, is different to the militancy of the 1990s, with fighters refusing to surrender.
“In several cases, during a gunfight with the militants when we would completely surround them and they had no chances of escape, we got the parents and families of the militants making them appeal to their children to surrender. In no case so far did it yield any result; they preferred to fight and die,” police said.
Kashmir, a Muslim-majority Himalayan region, is held by India and Pakistan in parts and claimed by both in full.
The two countries have fought three wars -- in 1948, 1965 and 1971 -- since they were partitioned in 1947, two of which were fought over Kashmir.
Since 1989, Kashmiri resistance groups in Indian-held Kashmir have been fighting against Indian rule for independence or for unification with neighboring Pakistan.
More than 70,000 Kashmiris have been killed so far in the violence, most of them by Indian forces. India maintains over half a million soldiers in the Indian-held Kashmir.
A part of Kashmir is also held by China.