LELHAR, INDIA - On a crisp morning in February, Indian troops surrounded a sleepy, riverside village in the disputed mountain region of Kashmir. Intelligence had suggested three anti-India rebels were hiding out in homes set among the willows and poplar trees.
As the soldiers prepared to lay siege on a cluster of houses, they were surprised by a barrage of rocks, bricks and abuse hurled by hundreds of villagers demanding they go away. The rebels also began firing, drawing the soldiers into a battle on two fronts. Two students and one rebel were killed before the troops eventually retreated and the other militants got away.
The incident marks a recent shift in how local Kashmiris are responding to the hundreds of thousands of Indian soldiers deployed in the Himalayan territory. For decades, local villagers had remained behind locked doors when troops arrived to root out rebels bent on ending Indian control over the region.
Frustrated after decades of political stasis and worn out by military operations to root out rebels from their midst, many Kashmiris are rising up at the first sight of troops entering their villages, and protecting the very militants Indian forces are trying to locate.
“We're all militants now. Our men, women and children are all warriors against Indian rule,” said Adbul Rashid, a farmer of Lelhar in his mid-40s. “Stones are now the people's weapons.”
When the soldiers returned to Lelhar in April, the villagers were ready. Public announcements asking women and men to beat back the troops had already gone out from the minarets of various mosques, and the troops were met by a hail of rocks.
Intense clashes erupted, but this time the soldiers did not fire. And the three hiding militants fled to safety.
Both India and Pakistan have claimed Kashmir in its entirety since 1947, fighting two wars over the picturesque mountain region. Each country controls a portion of Kashmir, which is divided by a U.N.-drawn militarized line of control. On the Indian side, about 68,000 people have died in an armed insurrection and Indian military crackdown since 1989.
Indian military officials estimate there are some 200 militants in the region, staging attacks on Indian law enforcement and crossing back and forth over the de facto border with Pakistan. It's a steep drop from the 20,000 estimated to have waged the insurgency in the early 1990s, but military officials say their job is getting harder as the villages increasingly get involved.
“It's a big problem, a challenge for us to conduct anti-militant operations now,” said Lt. Gen. D.S. Hooda, India's senior military commander in the region. He noted that armed soldiers had little hope of competing with the militants for public sympathy.
Most citizens in the mostly Muslim region have long resented the Indian presence, and support rebel demands that Kashmir be independent or part of Pakistan.
“Frankly speaking, I'm not comfortable anymore conducting operations if large crowds are around,” Hooda said. “Militarily, there's not much more to do than we already have done. ... We're losing the battle for a narrative.”
Human rights activist Khurram Parvez said that, while the rebels are fewer in number, their influence has grown. Beyond their usual guns and grenades, rebels now carry smartphones to coordinate their movements with village supporters, and load photos and videos onto social media sites.
“It's a more like a symbolic militancy now which tries to rally the support for freedom, and glamorizes militants, resistance and defiance,” Parvez said. “But people listen to them and support them more openly and fiercely.”
Kashmiris in the countryside regularly defy the curfews imposed when the military plans an operation in their area. Some militants have even become household names.
“India's military might have crushed militancy to a large extent, but they've failed to change people's minds,” Parvez said. “Their support for militants and freedom (from India) is now increasingly manifesting in fierce ways.”
Indian forces admit the village defiance is forcing them to change their strategy.
“During an average counterinsurgency operation, general law and order has become more important to tackle than the actual operation itself. It's a matter of serious concern,” top paramilitary officer Nalin Prabhat said.
They're trying to reach out to Kashmir's youth, organizing school debates, sightseeing trips throughout India and visits to sporting events in hopes of persuading them to stay away from the insurgency and anti-India protests.
But the so-called “Operation Goodwill” campaign has so far had little impact among Kashmiris aged 18 to 35 - two-thirds of the region's 7 million people - who have grown up politically radicalized over decades of brutal armed conflict.
Kashmir continues to be one of the most militarized regions in the world. The countryside is crisscrossed by coils of barbed wire. Police and army checkpoints are a common sight, and emergency laws grant government forces sweeping powers to search homes, to make arrests without warrants and to shoot suspected rebels on sight without fear of prosecution.
“Earlier the sight of an army soldier would send us into hiding,” said Zahoor Ahmed Reshi, sitting amid the rubble of what was once his home in the southern village of Gudroo, near Lelhar. The modest wood house was destroyed by an army mortar fired at a rebel who took shelter there during a firefight.
When the village came under siege again in May, hundreds of men and women clashed with the soldiers to help three trapped militants escape.
“People have overcome their fear,” the 48-year-old villager said. “Everybody is now saying, it's do or die.”