KULGAM: Deep within a vast orchard, dozens of young Kashmiris laze in the shade of apple trees.
Surrounded by boxes of fruit, they chat and crack jokes. Some play video games on their phones.
For now, they’re at ease, the hilly grove providing a perfect hideaway from Indian police and paramilitary soldiers deployed to hunt them down.
But with winter approaching, the men have taken refuge at night in the homes of friends or distant relatives, changing location every few days and passing messages to loved ones through supporters and friends.
They worry about putting others at risk amid India’s largest-ever crackdown on unarmed civilians, launched to quell an anti-India uprising that has kept this Himalayan territory in virtual lockdown since July.
More than 8,000 people, mostly teenage boys and young men, have been rounded up and put in jail.
Thousands more are being sought as suspects, but police refuse to give an actual count, saying the number is constantly changing.
Authorities say the suspects pose security risks, having hurled rocks at government forces or clashed with police.
Some are suspected of aiding or joining militants fighting for Kashmir’s independence or its merger with Pakistan.
But many are simply identified as having taken part in what India says are illegal protests.
Those dodging arrest by hiding in Kashmir’s many apple orchards say they’re being unfairly targeted by Indian forces bent on criminalizing dissent.
“We’re paying the cost for raising our voice for freedom,” said a university art student now in hiding, one of 40 wanted men who spoke with the Associated Press on condition of anonymity for fear of being caught.
“Now we’re scared even by our own shadows.”
His cousin said he had to abandon his science studies to go into hiding.
“I want to become a doctor,” he said. “But for now, the police have made me a fugitive.”
The crackdown is part of a decades-long cycle of conflict and rebellion that has bedeviled Kashmir since India and Pakistan won independence in 1947.
This year’s violence erupted following the July 8 killing of a popular rebel commander by Indian forces.
There have been almost daily protests since then, often with stone-throwing youths clashing with police and paramilitary forces firing pellets and bullets into the crowds.
Indian authorities also have staged months of nighttime raids.
At least 90 civilians and two policemen have been killed, with thousands more injured, most of them civilians.
Curfews, communication blackouts, roadblocks and separatist-sponsored strikes have largely paralyzed public life.
A top police officer in the main city of Srinagar said nearly 500 of the more than 8,000 suspects detained had been arrested under a law that allows them to be held for up to two years without charge.
He and other officials spoke on condition of anonymity because police and army policies bar them from speaking to reporters on the record.
“A tough approach to deal with protests has worked,” one army officer said at a military camp near the urban center of Anantnag.
“Unfortunately, people will suffer.”
Yet inside one police barrack last week, uniformed Kashmiri officers admitted fears of their own.
One constable said an angry crowd told his family they would torch their home if they saw him in uniform again.
Another said he joined in a protest while on vacation; he nearly lost his job, but avoided retribution from neighbors angry over his job.
“I had no choice. That was the only way for me to save myself and my family,” he said.
The uprising has been most pronounced in southern areas famed for their orchards, rice paddies and gently rolling Himalayan foothills.
Police officers routinely refer to the cluster of villages between Anantnag and the town of Kulgam as one of the most dangerous trouble spots.
Residents in the area accuse Indian forces of raiding neighborhoods, ransacking homes, beating civilians and firing on more than 300 electricity transformers to cut power to homes.
Villages elsewhere have since fortified their transformers with sandbags and wooden logs.
“They come, ransack our homes and hit our mothers and sisters. This humiliation is intolerable,” said a 17-year-old student, wincing with the pain of untreated pellet injuries sustained while resisting a police raid on his village of Hawoora in October.
The student, listed as “wanted” by police, has been too afraid to visit a hospital.
He vowed to never surrender, “even if I have to go underground forever.”
Police neither confirm nor deny the allegations. One officer explained: “When we have to put down this nonsense, there are ugly things going to happen. That’s how it is.”
Families of protesters who have been detained or are in hiding line up by the hundreds outside police stations and courthouses, hoping to plead for their release or removal from the “wanted” lists.
One father in Anantnag spent five nights in police lockup in lieu of one of his three sons, all of whom have gone into hiding.
But another father, threatened with losing is government job, turned his teenager over to authorities.
“My father was helpless. He has to take care of a large family,” the teenager said, after serving 10 days behind bars before being released without charge.
Anger over the crackdown will only make matters worse, the men in hiding said.
More young students will become radicalized; more will be driven underground; and more villagers will step up to help with medicine, shelter and other kinds of support.
At least some in India agree.
Last month in the English daily The Hindu, former national security adviser M.K. Narayanan warned that using force against protesters and would backfire.
He said authorities were failing “to deal with the kind of seismic shift occurring beneath the surface in Kashmir.”-AP