SRINAGAR, India — After a decade of relative quiet, Indian and Pakistani troops are shelling each other with vigor again along their disputed border, raising tension between the nuclear-armed nations and forcing hundreds of villagers to flee.
Many fear there is worse to come. As the American military withdraws from Afghanistan, some Pakistan-based militants who had been fighting there have pledged to turn their attention to the Kashmir border region — and their old foe, India. Already, there are signs that militant activity is on the rise in this area, with graffiti appearing saying “Welcome Taliban.”
In recent days, the disputed border that separates much of the Indian-controlled state of Jammu and Kashmir from Pakistan has turned into a virtual war zone. A month of cease-fire violations by both sides has resulted in the deaths of at least 11 soldiers and two Pakistani civilians and the wounding of several residents.
“We can’t sleep at night,” said one village head, Lal Din, 38. “Whenever we hear gunshots and mortars we huddle together in the corners of our shacks. We are helpless to do anything to prevent it.”
The two sides have fought for more than six decades over this hilly and verdant land, which has been at the heart of two of the countries’ three wars. While few people see the current skirmishes as exploding into a full-scale conflict, the fear of further deterioration is widespread.
“In three or four months, the people fighting in Afghanistan or Pakistan could come here,” said Sheikh Younis, 42, who runs a mobile phone shop in a mall in downtown Srinagar, not far from the lotus-fringed lake where tourists take rides in colorful boats. “People are very concerned about it. What’s going to happen after 2014?”
The current skirmishes began in August, when five Indian soldiers were ambushed and killed while on patrol in Indian-controlled Kashmir. That triggered near daily mortar and machine-gun fire from both sides along the Line of Control — some 460 miles of razor-wire fencing, surveillance cameras and heavily armed military posts snaking through the Himalayas.
Although no major population centers have been hit, the exchanges of fire have renewed tensions as leaders of the two nations were to try and meet later this month during the U.N. General Assembly.
Kashmir, whose population is mostly Muslim, has been bitterly contested since the British granted India independence in 1947 and the land was split into Hindu-dominated India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. In the late 1980s, an Islamist insurgencybacked by Pakistan emerged, seeking to end India’s control over the disputed territory. Kashmir suffered more than 50,000 dead in that conflict.
Over the last decade, India and Pakistan have crept toward normalcy, with easing visa restrictions and hopes for increasing bilateral trade. Violence along their disputed border ebbed, too, after a 2003 cease-fire agreement. Insurgent activity also declined dramatically, in part, experts say, because many of the fighters now had a far more compelling target nearby — American and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
Now, residents say the relative calm could be over.
The army and police say cross-border incursions by militants are on the rise. In recent days, Indian army officials claimed they shot and killed five foreign fighters in Kashmir, including one from Pakistan’s lawless North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan.
As the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan wanes, leaders of Pakistan-based militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba — which carried out the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks — have publicly pledged to turn their attention again to Kashmir. On Friday, its founder, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed — who lives openly in Lahore despite a $10 million U.S. bounty offered for his arrest — gave a fiery speech laced with anti-India rhetoric to thousands in Islamabad, demanding the “liberation” of Kashmir.
Stephen Tankel, an assistant professor at American University and author of “Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba,” predicted that Lashkar and smaller militant groups “are going to seek to ramp up as the U.S. draws down its forces in Afghanistan.”
“It’s pretty clear there is some sort of a strategy in place to slowly polarize the situation once again and do it in a way that looks as indigenous as possible,” he added.
Local residents say they are worried by growing support for militants, with funerals of home-grown fighters drawing larger crowds. Many young Kashmiri men — who consider the Indian army a brutish occupying force — are seeking to join insurgent groups like Lashkar and Hizbul Mujahideen to win an independent Islamic state, they say.
Yasin Malik, a former militant who is chairman of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, a separatist political party, said that everywhere he goes in the region he hears from young men, many of them well-educated, who want to fight for Kashmir’s independence.
Many of these youth, who resent India’s presence but at that same time feel left behind by its growing prosperity, took part in civil protests in 2010 that degenerated into rock-throwing clashes with security forces that left more than 100 dead.
Now, instead of stones, some want guns.
“I think if America leaves Afghanistan, the Taliban might come here, and a lot of Kashmiri youth would surely welcome this, including me,” said Qadri Inzamam, 21, a soft-spoken college student. “We have been born in a conflict zone. We have seen it from our childhood. It’s in our veins to get liberated from this occupation.”
Inzamam said he attended a funeral in December for one of those who threw stones in 2010, Aatir Yousuf Dar, a 19-year-old business major from the village of Sopore. He had dreamed of becoming an entrepreneur but instead joined Lashkar-e-Taiba. Dar was killed, along with five men from Pakistan, in a 30-hour gun battle with police and army forces in Kashmir, according to local press reports.
Thousands turned out for his funeral, Inzamam said. The women of the village showered his corpse with sweets and rose petals and painted his hands with henna, as if he were a bridegroom.
Few believe this month’s talks between India and Pakistan — if they happen — will have much impact on the border clashes.
Pakistan’s newly elected leader, Nawaz Sharif, has pledged cooperation with India but must grapple with hard-liners within the military and the country’s own Islamist insurgency, experts said.
On the other side, India is heading into an election season, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government preoccupied with domestic issues as its once vibrant economy has slowed dramatically.
Stephen P. Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of a new book on India and Pakistan called “Shooting for a Century,” said that the relationship between the two countries is likely to remain hostile, but not flare into full-fledged war.
“Nuclear weapons play a paradoxical role — they make war too costly but they symbolize rivalry,” he wrote in an e-mail.
The renewed fighting is already putting a damper on the few areas of cooperation that exist between the two rivals. A plan for India to export electricity to its power-starved neighbor has stalled. At the spot on the border where Indians and Pakistanis trade almonds, dates and tomatoes, the number of trucks carrying goods has fallen by about half in the last month, according to a police official in the Poonch district, further south in the Jammu region.
Villagers up and down the Line of Control have found their lives suddenly disrupted by the cease-fire violations.
Masood-ur-Rehman, the administrator of the Kotli district in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, said that in recent days officials have had to move more than 500 people to temporary camps for their safety, and dozens more have fled to stay with relatives.
Before the cease-fire a decade ago, residents of the tiny village of Kirni in Jammu had been moved down the hillside into temporary quarters away from the violence.
In 2011, they finally decided to return to their ancestral homes. Villagers organized a big celebration with the savory turnovers known as samosas, sweets and dancing.
But their joy vanished on Aug. 22, when machine-gun and mortar fire again rained down on them from Pakistani positions up the hill. The firing — “like an earthquake,” one said — lasted for four terrifying hours, wounding a six-year-old girl and a older woman. The village was shelled again Sept. 3.
Now village council head Mohammad Sayeed, 40, is pondering whether he will have to move all his people again.
“Unfortunately we are thinking there is no hope for us,” he said.
Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad and Varun Suthra in Poonch contributed to this report.