Hajin, Jan 16 (AP/UNB) — On a hot day in August, members of a Kashmiri youth soccer team watched their 16-year-old captain, Saqib Bilal Sheikh, and goalkeeper Mudassir Rashid Parray, two years his junior, walk off the field toward a man on a motorcycle. The two teenagers were not seen again until months later, when they were returned to their hometown in body bags.
Dying with his teammate in an 18-hour firefight in December, Mudassir became the youngest militant slain fighting Indian troops in a three-decade insurgency in Kashmir. The rebellion is drawing greater numbers of teenage boys and young men as New Delhi has increased its suppression of protest against Indian rule in the Himalayan region.
Anti-India unrest has been on the rise since a charismatic rebel leader was killed in a 2016 gunbattle with Indian troops in southern Kashmir. Police say since then, hundreds of young Kashmiris have joined rebel groups, leading to a surge in attacks on government troops and pro-India Kashmiri politicians in the region, which is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both in its entirety.
Indian authorities have responded by stepping up anti-rebel operations and cracking down on civilian protests, often responding to stone-pelting with live bullets.
"Young people feel frustrated and pushed to the wall," said Khurram Parvez, a program coordinator for the Jammu-Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society. "They feel the only way by which the government of India is going to listen to them is by coming out and joining militancy."
Saqib and Mudassir came from different economic backgrounds, united by their passion for soccer and their hometown, Hajin, which since the 1990s has seen brutal fighting between anti-India rebels and pro-India counterinsurgent groups armed and funded by the Indian military.
The two boys watched as the peaceful summertime street marches that began in Kashmir in 2008 turned into battlegrounds.
Their parents had generally distanced themselves from the civilian uprising against India. But both families described their sons as martyrs, speaking to a common resentment of India in Kashmir as a violent occupying force.
Saqib, who was famous among his friends for appearing as an extra in the Bollywood film "Haider," an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" set in Kashmir, grew up in a wealthy farming family, excelled at school and aspired to become an engineer.
From their two-story home in Hajin, Saqib's elder brother, Aqib Bilal, played a video on his phone of his brother using an iron to straighten his thick, black hair. He flipped through one of his brother's notebooks: mathematics exercises, physics notes and poetry.
One couplet, written in Urdu, read, "Everyone should participate in the freedom struggle; everyone's dream is freedom but no one wants to fight and die for it!"
Unlike Saqib, Mudassir was skinny, soft-spoken and shy, and struggled with his studies.
He sometimes took menial jobs to help his sickly parents, younger sister and mentally disabled elder brother, his parents said from their modest home, some 500 meters (yards) away from the Bilals.
"At such a tender age, he was already our family's backbone," Mudassir's father, Abdul Rashid Parray, said as he shuffled kangri, a traditional earthenware firepot filled with embers used in Kashmir to keep warm in the harsh winter months.
"Police snatched my son from us," Mudassir's mother, Fareeda Begum, shouted in tears, surrounded by consoling women.
"He was fated to die on that day," Parray said in response. "Thank God he died as a martyr."
Mudassir's cousin Ahmed, who gave only his middle name, fearing reprisal from the authorities, said police had detained and tortured Mudassir for over two weeks in 2017, listing him as an "over-ground worker," a term Indian government forces use to describe people who actively support rebels.
Police denied detaining Mudassir, saying they only brought him into the station to counsel him as part of what police call a de-radicalization campaign.
"We called Mudassir to dissuade him from participating in protests and stone-pelting," said the area's police chief, Sheikh Zulfkar Azad. "We counseled his father as well. But Mudassir had already been too radicalized."
Conflict observers say that last year's death toll in the insurgency was the highest since 2009, including at least 260 militants, 160 civilians and 150 government forces.
The United Nations has called for an independent international investigation into reports of rape, torture and extrajudicial killings in Kashmir. In a June report, the U.N. particularly criticized Indian troops for firing shotgun pellets at protesters, blinding and injuring hundreds of people, including children.
India's Foreign Ministry dismissed the report as "fallacious."
Kashmir has known little other than conflict since 1947, when India and Pakistan gained independence but were unable to resolve their rival claims on the mountain territory. Since then, the archrivals have fought two wars over those claims.
The Indian side of the territory has seen several uprisings, including the ongoing bloody armed rebellion launched in 1989 to demand independence or a merger with Pakistan. Since then, about 70,000 people — mainly civilians but also soldiers and rebels — have been killed.
India has long treated the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination as Islamabad's proxy war against New Delhi, responding to public protest with disproportionate force, critics say.
The conflict has intensified since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014 amid rising attacks by Hindu hard-liners against minorities in the country, further deepening frustration with New Delhi's rule in Muslim-majority Kashmir.
Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharitya Janata Party-led government has toughened its stance against both Pakistan and Kashmiri separatists with policies that experts say are intended to project the BJP as strong and uncompromising.
"This all becomes perversely useful for the BJP in the run-up to elections" due this year, said Paul Staniland, a political science professor focused on South Asia at the University of Chicago.
Amid mounting public defiance against Indian rule in Kashmir — including publicly mourning dead rebels as martyrs, disobeying curfews, producing resistance art and engaging in social media activism — some former federal ministers and Hindu nationalists have questioned Modi's Kashmir policy.
India is holding Kashmir "only by dint of the fact that we have our armed forces there," India's former finance and foreign minister Yashwant Sinha said during a recent panel discussion in New Delhi.
"Unfortunately, Kashmiri body bags and anti-Pakistan rhetoric sells well in India for gaining votes," said Parvez, the human rights activist. "That's exactly what Modi's party is doing."
Modi's policies have also had the unintended consequence of strengthening the resolve of those fighting for an end to India's rule in Kashmir.
"How can any Kashmiri ever back India?" said Ali Mohammed, one of the Parrays' neighbors. "Supporting India is like supporting soldiers killing and blinding children and destroying our homes. Supporting India is just inhumane."
During armed confrontations, Indian soldiers are often engaged on two fronts. Increasingly, when soldiers approach suspected rebel hideouts, civilians barrage troops with stones while shouting anti-India slogans and sheltering the militants, even at the expense of their own lives. In the last two years alone, more than 120 civilians were killed and hundreds wounded during such confrontations.
"We're not just fighting militants, we're fighting masses as well," said Azad, the police officer.
Such was the case for the two teens from Hajin.
On the evening of Dec. 8, Indian troops surrounded a neighborhood on the outskirts of Srinagar, Kashmir's main city, and cornered Mudassir, Saqib and a militant commander, leading to a fierce gunfight. As the battle raged, residents tried to march to the site, hurling stones at the troops to try to help the rebels escape the security cordon.
Troops destroyed at least seven homes in the fighting, blasting them with explosives and shells. By the end of the night-long clash, the boys and the commander were dead.
One bitterly cold December day, Saqib's maternal Uncle Asim Aijaz visited a cemetery in Hajin reserved for martyrs, where over three dozen militants and civilians killed in the armed conflict in the area are buried, to pray and light incense at the two boys' common grave.
"This occupation must die, not our young kids," he said.