At least 600 people in India-administered Kashmir, which includes Indian soldiers, local police and 160 civilians, lost their lives to violence.
An eight-month-old baby Nitin Kumar, a senior journalist Shujaat Bukhari, an alleged police informer Shameema Akhtar, a Class 7 student Andleeb Jan, a 14-year-old rebel fighter Mudasir Ahmad Parrey, and an Indian army commando Mukul Meena: they're among nearly 600 people killed this year in disputed Kashmir in what's being dubbed as "deadliest year" in about a decade.
According to a monitoring group Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), some 586 people were killed in India-administered Kashmir, a region bitterly contested by nuclear-rivals Pakistan and India since 1947 and where a low-intensity armed conflict has been raging for the last 30 years.
The dead include 159 Indian soldiers and the police, 267 rebel fighters, and 160 civilians.
Figures from the authorities as well as local accounts show violence in the Himalayan region spiked especially after 2014 when India elected a right-wing government of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Narendra Modi.
Modi-led government has avoided peace talks on Kashmir with neighbouring Pakistan, backing a hard-line military approach instead.
"The result is in front of you," JKCCS coordinator Khurram Parvez told TRT World by phone from Srinagar, the summer capital of the picturesque region.
"It's been a year of body bags."
Violence related to Indian elections?
Armed encounters between rebels fighting to end Indian rule in Kashmir and Indian soldiers have also become more frequent since the widespread civil uprising in 2016, sparked by the killing of a popular rebel leader Burhan Wani.
That year, 150 rebels and 82 Indian soldiers and police were killed. Wani's killing fuelled renewed tensions in the Muslim-majority region as rebel recruitment upped.
The following year, at least 213 rebels and 80 Indian army soldiers and the police were killed in gun battles and skirmishes on the heavily-militarised Line of Control (or LoC) that divides Kashmir into Pakistan and India-administered Kashmir.
But this year end, the violence became intense with 267 rebels, 159 Indian police and soldiers and 160 civilians losing their lives.
Nearly 600 incidents of rebel attacks and Indian military operations were reported through the year, double than the previous year.
Indian defence officials in Kashmir couldn't be reached for comments despite repeated attempts.
India has stationed at least 500,000 troops in the region where over a dozen rebel groups have fought them for decades in hope to gain independence or merge the territory with neighbouring Pakistan which also administers part of Kashmir since 1947. The fighting has left tens of thousands, mostly civilians, dead.
As both general elections in India and local assembly elections in Kashmir are slated for next year, New Delhi is likely to increase the presence of troops in the disputed territory.
"The violence has increased in Kashmir this year due to election season in India. In India, politicians hide their failures with body bags of Kashmiris," Parvez of JKCCS said.
"Till elections in India and in [India-administered] Kashmir, it appears we will continue to witness escalation in violence [in 2019]."
The international community continues to ignore the grave situation in India-administered Kashmir, with more than 500 people being killed in 2018, the highest in a decade #StraitTalk pic.twitter.com/AuqxB50a4s— TRT World (@trtworld) December 17, 2018
'Difficult to defeat insurgency'
Despite hundreds of thousands Indian soldiers – armed with latest weaponry and supported by human intelligence – deployed across the region, figures of the monitoring group show the rebels to Indian forces kill ratio in 2018 remained around 2:1, part of a widespread asymmetric warfare that has endured for over three decades now.
Rebels in India-administered Kashmir have intensively renewed the fight against New Delhi's control of the region since 1989.
A significant number of Kashmiris support the rebel cause and are increasingly losing their lives in attempts to save Kashmiri fighters who are as young as 14. While the Indian troops focus on killing the rebels, local population stage protests or hurl stones – a daring act that gives some advantage to a few, inadequately equipped rebels over large and heavily armed contingents of Indian troops.
"Insurgencies like these are difficult to defeat. We saw it in Vietnam, we see it in Afghanistan," Pravin Sawhney, a New Delhi-based defence expert and editor of FORCE magazine that focuses on Indian national security and defence, told TRT World.
"Insurgents not only have safe havens in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir [Pakistan-administered Kashmir], local residents too are openly supporting them. Once fence-sitters in this conflict, civilians are racing to gun battle spots to help insurgents."
We speak with Kashmiri author @MirzaWaheed, who says the atrocities in India-administered Kashmir have resulted in a 'theatre of war'. Watch the full interview #StraitTalk https://t.co/szAw4fuPK7 pic.twitter.com/kdmtbJCTxm— TRT World (@trtworld) December 18, 2018
Support for rebel cause
In recent years, mainly young Kashmiris have displayed open solidarity with the rebels despite repeated warnings from the Indian troops – who often fire live ammunition, shotgun pellets and tear gas on protesters – and recently by the Indian army chief who called stone-pelting protesters "terrorists."
"When my men face dilemma as how would they respond to stone pelting, I tell them you can't pelt stones in return, use arms," Indian army chief General Bipin Rawat told Indian TV channel CNN-News18.
The comments came after Indian troops shot dead seven civilians in Kashmir following a gun battle in which three rebels were killed, sparking anti-India demonstrations across the disputed region.
It's a norm that the killings of rebels and civilians spark more protests and more boys end up joining rebel bands followed by Indian army operations – a cyclic trend that has been repeating itself all these years.
The funerals of rebels killed in "encounters" draw large crowds too. On many occasions, multiple funerals are offered as tens of thousands of people show up to pay homage to the fallen boys.
At times one or two surviving rebels wielding AK-47s appear at funerals to fire gun salutes in honour of their dead companions. The crowds often respond with pro-Independence slogans and cheer the living rebels.
At least 9 people, including a 15-year-old civilian, were killed in a southern village of India-administered Kashmir on Sunday pic.twitter.com/oUseEG2E0U— TRT World (@trtworld) November 26, 2018
India's 'muscular policy' in Kashmir
It's in this hostile mood that Indian PM Modi has chosen a hard-line or what many say "a muscular policy" to contain rebellion in Kashmir.
But despite the "free hand" lent to soldiers, the rebels ranks continue to swell in Kashmir.
"Their number was under 200 in 2016. It moved to around 300 in 2017. Even as around 240 militants were killed in 2018, there're still 280 militants – mostly locals – active in Kashmir," a senior police official, who wished to remain anonymous because he wasn't authorised to speak with media, told TRT World.
"But here's the thing: 300 militants is nothing compared to any global conflict. Look at Yemen or Syria. But militarisation [in Kashmir] is an issue. You don't require this huge army against few hundred militants. There is a need to settle Kashmir politically," he said.
Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a popular resistance leader, favours settlement of the dispute "politically."
"It's extremely painful for us that repression and [Indian] military control are pushing some among the youth to resist it by taking to arms. I would fervently appeal to them to join the political path – whatever is allowed of it – for our just and democratic struggle for self-determination," he told TRT World.
But with New Delhi's approach on the powder keg Kashmir pivoted on "counter-insurgency", Kashmir could be slipping into more bloodshed in 2019.
"I won't say the current military approach to Kashmir is not winning, but it's not defeating the insurgency either," defence expert Sawhney said.
Two years ago, he said, Modi gave preference to Rawat [who became India's army chief in December 2016] over some senior army officers because of Rawat's "counter-insurgency expertise".
"So the situation in 2019 isn't going to improve. Modi will be occupied with elections while the Indian army has a free hand to deal with Kashmir insurgency," Sawhney said.