SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - Ishfaq first threw a rock at an Indian policeman six years ago. Now he’s thinking about arming himself with a gun.
The 21-year-old is the human face of a trend that is worrying security sources, politicians and a rights group spoken to by Reuters - the revival of violent anti-Indian sentiment among the Kashmir Valley population just as New Delhi fears a renewed onslaught from Pakistan-based militants.
Ishfaq and his friends were among thousands who took to the streets across the Muslim-majority Himalayan state following the July 18 killing of four men by Indian border police during a day of protests against an alleged desecration of the Koran.
Three weeks on, hiding from police in a crowded bazaar of the lakeside city of Srinagar, Ishfaq said several years of unarmed struggle against India’s rule had been met only with violence.
“If the same situation persists, the day is not far away when we go back to the gun,” said Ishfaq, who asked for his second name to be withheld. “We cannot fight without weapons.”
Rising attacks on security forces and evidence that more young people are slipping into the grasp of armed militants risk undoing years of security gains in Indian-controlled Kashmir.
The timing could not be worse for India.
A looming general election has prompted accusations that some politicians are manipulating the instability. Meanwhile, intelligence sources say militant groups may turn their fire on India again when Western troops leave Afghanistan next year.
“People generally feel pushed to the wall here,” said Khurram Parvez, an activist with rights group the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition for Civil Society whose grandfather was shot dead by security forces at a protest. His own leg was blown off by a militant bomb in 2004.
“In the last three or four years they have tried to criminalize protesters and curb public speaking. Unfortunately this pressure and violence from the state is starting a new sense among people where violence is getting legitimized.”
That is certainly the view of Ishfaq, who spoke to Reuters in a room gruesomely decorated with photos of victims of alleged torture at the hands of Indian security forces.
With separatist leaders frequently under house arrest and banned from public speaking, and no sign of dialogue that could lead to a political solution, he feels betrayed by India.
“We are on the threshold, we cannot bear it, we cannot tolerate it any more,” he said.
Last summer was the most peaceful in the disputed South Asian region since an armed insurgency exploded in 1989 as Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan.
Ashok Prasad, the chief of police in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, said the number of attacks by militants was actually down this year.
But the fall in the number of attacks disguises a sharp rise in the number of fatalities. Eight soldiers died in a single brazen ambush on an army truck in heavily defended Srinagar the day before Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited in June.
According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, which tracks the violence, 42 members of the security forces have been killed so far this year, up from just 17 in all of 2012.
That reverses a decade-long trend in which fatalities fell annually as militants laid down arms and protests and riots replaced bullets and bombs.
The violence coincides with an upswing in tension along the Line of Control (LoC) that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan, who have been quarrelling over the region they both claim in full since freedom from British colonial rule in 1947.
Tit-for-tat artillery exchanges regularly rattle the de facto border. Two weeks of shelling between India and Pakistan has followed an ambush that killed five Indian soldiers on August 6.
Pakistan denied any involvement in that ambush. But Indian security officials suggest a new wave of Pakistan-based Islamist guerrillas are trying to cross the LoC, part of a shift in focus to India ahead of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan next year that some feel has echoes of 1989.
The foreign fighters bring weapons and inspiration, but they can only flourish with local support. There are signs that support is growing.
“Anyone who comes across, we welcome them,” said Ishfaq.
Jammu and Kashmir’s Chief Minister Omar Abdullah in June said the numbers of people joining the militancy was still extremely low, but conceded that a trend of young, educated youth joining the ranks of militants was “a serious concern”.
Several factors are blamed for this creeping radicalization. One security source pointed to the growing popularity of more conservative strains of Islam and to high unemployment. Many Kashmiris simply feel India has not made enough concessions despite several years of peace, making normal life difficult.
Widely despised laws protecting security forces from trial are still in place, access to simple technology such as text messaging is limited and the heavy military and police presence in the state has not been lifted.
Though the latest violence is small compared with the worst years of the insurgency, when thousands died in fighting annually, some Kashmir politicians warn that, left unchecked, the situation could quickly get out of hand.
“In 1989 there was almost no violence, but it exploded into a full insurgency within a year,” said Yasin Malik, a former militant who now leads a political movement calling for a Kashmiri nation independent of both India and Pakistan, which polls show is what most people in the Kashmir Valley want.
Some trace the latest uptick in violence to the execution in February of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri convicted of a 2001 attack on India’s parliament. Fearful of a backlash, the Indian government imposed a week-long blanket curfew across the state immediately after Guru was hung, infuriating much of the population.
Others look further back. Parvez, the rights activist, says police shootings that killed more than 100 young protesters in 2010 and a campaign of arbitrary detention, documented by Amnesty International, both helped radicalize opinion.
A security source with close knowledge of anti-militancy operations met Reuters on a wooden bridge across the Jhelum river that runs to Pakistan. He said some of the anger directed at the police was justified because of rights abuses.
“There is a deepening of radicalization and a slight increase in recruitment of locals,” the source said, adding that he feared next year’s election would be fertile ground for violence from militants seeking to undermine the vote.
Ishfaq and his friends, already halfway to going underground, say they are in no mood to back down.
“We are hopeful a day will come when there will be results and until there we will keep fighting. We want independence from both India and Pakistan,” he said.
Additional reporting by Ashok Pahalwan in JAMMU and Fayaz Bukhari; Editing by Alex Richardson and Pravin Char