Kashmir teens leaving home to volunteer to fight India for Independence

One morning in September, Shawkat Ahmed Dar told his father he was going to pluck apples in a neighbor’s orchard — and disappeared.

For weeks, as demonstrators in the Indian-ruled portion of Kashmir rained stones on security forces and troops fired back with tear gas and lead pellets, Dar had stayed home. The 25-year-old who once took up arms against India had renounced violence, working as a baker and farmhand to support his elderly parents, and knew that joining the crowds would get him arrested again.

But then, Indian police clashed with demonstrators protecting a meeting of pro-independence religious leaders in his village, firing tear gas and wounding several of Dar’s friends.

Now, friends say the tall, broad-shouldered young man has left home to rejoin a separatist militant movement that is seeing a resurgence amid the latest season of unrest in Kashmir, one of the world’s most enduring conflict zones.

Since Indian forces killed a young militant commander in this disputed territory in July, mass protests have raged for nearly four months, even as soldiers and police have carried out a crackdown that has left more than 90 civilians dead, 12,000 injured and thousands more languishing in jails under vague charges — or no charges at all.

Across the Kashmir Valley, a rippling blanket of fruit orchards and saffron fields tumbling down from the Himalayas, residents say more young men are joining militant groups, intensifying a struggle for self-determination that is as old as India itself.

“I think every Kashmiri is willing to join the militancy now,” said Shawkat Hussain Wagey, a teacher in the village of Panzgam. “No one with a sound mind would choose to kill himself. But being peaceful hasn’t given us anything.”

The former princely state of Kashmir has been divided between predominantly Muslim Pakistan and predominantly Hindu India since both gained independence in 1947. It is the defining dispute between the nuclear-armed rivals, which both lay claim to the entire territory and have fought two wars over it.

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