LELHAR, India (AP) — 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.