Pehlipora is dripping green on a rainy day. In this village deep inside South Kashmir’s Shopian district, everybody knows everyone else. Most families own orchards. They are fairly well off, some even wealthy.

To reach the village, outsiders must pass through miles of apple orchards and woodland crowding close to the road. Pebbled streams are crossed on the way. Local residents invariably point out Rambiar Nalla, where the bodies of two girls, Asiya Jan, aged 17, and Nilofer Jan, aged 22, were found in 2009.

According to local accounts, they were raped and thrown into the river by men from the security forces. The incident had triggered widespread protests in the Valley. Months later, a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation ruled that the girls had drowned in the river, that medical reports of rape were doctored. Local residents still believe the inquiry was a cover up.

The rest of the Valley moved on to other outrages and protests. But in this corner of Shopian district, the memory of the two girls is still fresh, still a live source of anger. “We saw it happen in front of our own eyes,” said one resident. “They are not individuals anymore. They are our sisters, everyone thinks our sisters were outraged. Intiqam (revenge) is on our minds.”

In the years that followed, this anger would put Pehlipora on the militancy map, and in 2016, it would bring the women of the village out on the streets to protest.

Arms and the man

“We used to suffer oppression, but they can’t tolerate it,” said Mohammad Iqbal Malla, who owns an orchard in Pelhipora. He was trying to explain why the younger generation took up arms. Five years ago, his own son, Inamul Haq Malla, later known as Waseem Malla, had left home to join the Hizbul Mujahideen.

In 2009, Waseem was part of the crowds protesting against the alleged rapes. He would go to the bridge across Rambiar Nalla to pelt stones, drawing the attention of the police. In 2010, he left to join militant ranks for the first time. Three days later, he was caught by the police and jailed for four months, says his sister, Ifshana Iqbal. But in 2012, he left again to join the Hizbul Mujahideen, after snatching the rifle of a local policeman. This time, there was no returning.

In 2015, Waseem would become one of the 10 militants surrounding Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani in the picture that went viral across the Valley. He is standing next to Wani, on the right, long-haired and bearded, a quiet smile on his face. On April 7, 2016, he would be killed in an encounter in Vehil, in Shopian, along with Naseer Pandit, the policeman turned militant from Pulwama district. After Waseem’s death, security forces described him as one of Wani’s close aides, involved in several attacks on policemen.

Waseem’s departure changed the sleepy village of Pehlipora.

‘Newton’s third law’

“Now the youth here say that the life that Waseem had is a life worth living. They all want to become him,” said Mohammad Iqbal Malla. Along with Waseem, Burhan Wani also became a household name in Pehlipora. And after Waseem left, says the militant’s father, local boys lost their fear of the police and the army.

Local teachers speak of students who will not silently bear “zulm” (oppression) anymore, who are no longer “darpok” cowards. “The 16, 17 year olds, they don’t take anything, even a teacher’s scolding. It’s like Newton’s third law: to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” joked one of the teachers.

Not far from Pehlipora is the village of Heff, home to Saddam Padder, Shopian district commander for the Hizbul Mujahideen. Padder house stands in a clearing on the side of a hill, with airy rooms and a well-kept garden. Some of the window panes are missing, traces of a recent visit by security forces, the family says.

Padder had been under police lock up, his cousin recalled, then he was released during the floods of 2014. “He was home for a few days, then he left,” she said. “We looked for him for six months but did not find him.”

More youth would soon leave from Shopian district. Wasim Shah from Pehlipora, once known as an ace cricketer, is now the Lashkar-e-Toiba’s Shopian commander. Both Shah and Padder also featured in the poster of 11 militants. A recent encounter in South Kashmir killed Nasir Wani, another Lashkar-e-Taiba militant from Heff. Just last month, local residents say, a boy from the Kanipora-Balapora area left home.

Back in Pehlipora, Waseem Malla’s decision to take up arms has also wrought darker changes. Ifshana speaks of suspicions that have riven their little village, that there are mukhbirs (informers) among them. They told the police where militants hid and which boys pelted stones. After Waseem left, a regime of raids was unleashed on Pehlipora.

Wasim Shah (in the top row), Waseem Malla (below, right), Saddam Padder (left).

The women of Pehlipora

“When they came the last time, I asked them, why do you come like this? Come during the day if you have to, not at night. They said, what do we do, we are bound by our duty,” recounted a woman who identified herself as Shaista.

Shaista is 30 years old, her fine, fierce face is framed by a head scarf. She sits on the dark red carpet of her kitchen in Pehlipora, pots and pans arranged behind her, calmly describing how she had questioned security forces who had come for a search operation.

After the death of Burhan Wani, she said, the struggle for azadi had drawn new life, engulfing the women of Pehlipora. It was not that they loved to go out protesting, she explained, they usually went out when “something happened”, a police raid, an encounter death, an injury. They went out as mothers and sisters, defending their sons, their brothers and their homes.

“So many men and children are locked up in jails. When our men are locked up, women must go out more,” Shaista said. When there was a death, women played a more prominent role, she explained. Theirs was the burden of grief.

But what does azadi mean for them? “It means release from India,” Shaista said promptly. But there is something else driving their protest, a sense of sexual threat that has hung over the place after Asiya and Nilofer died. “Azadi means that there is Islam here, that women are safe, that such things do not happen again,” said Ifshana Iqbal.

Both Ifshana and Shaista have BEd degrees, completed through correspondence courses. Shaista holds a masters in English while Ifshana went to Shopian Degree College as an undergraduate. Neither has a job. Ifshana says she does not want to leave her village. But Shaista is bitter about nepotism in the state. “With our government, who sees qualifications?” she asked. “You get jobs only if you have approach.”

Both know that the alternative system of government they demand will mean stricter rules for them. “When there is an Islamic hukumat, I don’t think women will have so much freedom to go out, because there are rules of purdah,” reflected Shaista.

Was she willing to accept these rules? “It’s fine,” was her short reply.

A year after Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed, triggering months of protest in Kashmir, returned to the picture that first made his band of militants famous in the Valley. This series is the story of the places they came from and how a year of protests have changed them. Read the other parts here.