Riyaz Naikoo is one of the most wanted armed Kashmiri fighters with a bounty of 12 lakh ($163,000) on his head.
The 31-year-old former mathematics teacher is the commander of Hizbul Mujahideen (HM), a pro-Pakistan armed separatist group that opposes Indian rule in Kashmir.
The HM group, founded in 1989, is regarded as a terrorist organisation by India as well as the United States and the European Union.
The Himalayan region is home to seven decades of conflict, with more than half a million Indian forces deployed to fight rebel groups demanding either independence or merger with Pakistan.
Since the armed rebellion erupted in 1989, more than 70,000 people have been killed, according to estimates by a local human rights federation, Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS).
In 2010, mass protests erupted again, during which more than 100 civilians were killed – the worst violence in a decade that saw stone-throwing Kashmiri youths hitting the streets against Indian rule.
The killing of popular HM commander Burhan Wani in 2016 sparked the current phase of deadly protests that has pushed a growing number of youths towards armed rebellion.
Al Jazeera spoke to Naikoo over the phone to discuss whether he would consider negotiating with India, the strategy behind armed struggle and his vision for Kashmir’s future.
Al Jazeera reached out to the Indian government for comment but was yet to receive a response at the time of publication.
Al Jazeera: Why did you decide to take up arms, what convinced you to join HM?
Riyaz Naikoo: In 2003, a cousin of my mother was martyred. This was when the reality of Kashmir touched me personally for the first time. I was in class 11 (eleventh grade).
My parents wanted me to go outside Kashmir to complete higher education, but I was attracted to the idea of resistance and knew that I will not be able to serve on the ground if I went away.
I worked as a teacher for more than three years and was also involved in social work in Pulwama district. During this time, I came in touch with a senior fighter, Parvaiz Musharraf.
I used to talk to him a lot and would ask him questions about why he had joined and how they would succeed even though they were outnumbered. He would explain my queries, and he also gave me his personal diary, which I would often read, [it] is still with me.
On March 21, 2010, he was martyred. I finally became an active fighter on 1 June 2012 under my code name, Zubair. Those days, it was not easy to survive, as our numbers were low. From the threats to our lives to pangs of hunger, we saw it all. Since then I have met and lost many fellow fighters and friends.
My family has suffered a lot and are routinely harassed since I joined the armed rebellion. Our house has been attacked so many times, and my brother, uncles, and father have been arrested many times.
Al Jazeera: Do you still believe in the strategy of armed resistance?
Naikoo: Allow me to quote the great Nelson Mandela, who wrote the following words in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom: “A freedom fighter learns the hard way that it is the oppressor who defines the nature of the struggle, and the oppressed is often left no recourse but to use methods that mirror those of the oppressor. At a point, one can only fight fire with fire.”
The Indian military occupation of Jammu and Kashmir which we are fighting against is the longest-running and the most brutal occupation in the contemporary era, which compares with the occupation of Palestine in its scope and intensity, yet the reality of abuses here is much less known.
Yes, we have chosen the path of armed struggle, but primarily, we are for peace, not war.
It is the nature of the occupying Indian state that has compelled us to resort to violent methods of resistance. Kashmiri people did not pick up arms for more than 40 years since occupation began in 1947. It was only after continuous repression and scuttling of all peaceful means of resistance that we were compelled to do so.
There are many United Nations resolutions that call for a plebiscite to determine the will of the people of Jammu and Kashmir.
But the Indian state has repeatedly refused to recognise or implement them, and they keep labelling Kashmir as their internal matter, which goes against the legality and history of the dispute.
Armed struggle is not exactly our first choice, but it is a difficult choice that some of us have made, and we will remain steadfast on our chosen path.
You must know that this scenario is not unique in history. Such has been the case with all freedom struggles against colonial rule, be it the Indian freedom struggle against the British, or the Algerian movement against the French, or the struggle of the Libyan people against Italian rule. The people of Kashmir are the life-blood of our resistance.
Al Jazeera: Given that many young men are being killed, what makes you continue to take up arms?
Naikoo: By raising our guns against Indian rule in Kashmir, we want to let them know that we will not accept the occupation of our land under any circumstance. We will respond to their force with force since that seems to be the only language they understand.
We will continue to stand up for our right to self-determination and we are ready to fight until our last breath. Most of all, we want to let them know that we might die in the struggle, but we will never surrender.
No colonial occupation has continued forever, and it is our firm belief that the Indian rule in Kashmir will also collapse sooner or later, until then, we will fight.
Obviously, such resistance comes at a cost, and Indian forces continue to kill Kashmiri people with impunity.
The determination, resistance and sacrifices of our people – men and women, old and young, widows and orphans, half-mothers [mothers whose children have disappeared] and disappeared sons, those in prisons and in torture centres, motivate us to carry on.
Al Jazeera: What are your demands? Do you see Pakistan as part of what you want?
Naikoo: Our demand is very simple – freedom. Freedom, for us, means the complete dismantling of India’s illegal occupation of Kashmir and all the structures that support it, be they military or economic.
We want to get rid of the structures that have enslaved not just the territory of Kashmir but also the free expression and social and economic well-being of our people. We want our freedom with justice and dignity.
We consider Pakistan as our ideological and moral friend. Pakistan is the only country which has consistently supported our cause and raised the concerns of Kashmiri freedom struggle at international forums.
Pakistan’s creation as the homeland for Muslims of the Indian subcontinent links us to it historically as we were a Muslim majority region whose geography was contiguous with Pakistan. Most importantly, even if the Pakistani state’s support for Kashmir cause has, at times, wavered circumstantially, the people of Pakistan have always stood by us and our cause.
Al Jazeera: Would you ever engage in negotiations or back-channel talks with India?
Naikoo: We are not against negotiations with India. But negotiations can only lead to a fruitful outcome when they take place between parties that recognise each other as equals.
Negotiations cannot happen between a master and a slave or, as the great thinker of Palestinian armed struggle, Ghassan Kanafani, very aptly put it, as “the conversation between the sword and the neck”.
Some Indian leaders insist that we must talk within the ambit of the Indian constitution; what they really mean is capitulation. They are not interested in honouring our legitimate political demands. They are only interested in pushing for policies and mechanisms that further entrench the occupational apparatus.
Al Jazeera: What is the ideology behind your struggle? Are you interested in connecting with other armed groups fighting occupation in different countries?
Naikoo: Our ideology is of peace with justice. But our struggle is for each and every citizen of occupied Jammu and Kashmir who lives and suffers under the shadow of occupation.
As followers of Islam, we are taught by our religion to fight all forms of oppression till oppression is decimated. Islam motivates us to sacrifice for the cause of universal justice.
To the people all over the world who might be reading this, let me assure them that we are in solidarity with all those people, irrespective of their religion and their geography, who are living under occupations and are fighting struggles for their freedom.
We understand their plight, their challenges, their hopes and their desires as only an oppressed can understand the pain of other oppressed.
Having said that, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen is an indigenous Kashmiri organisation which derives its cadres and logistics locally and, in that, we are self-sufficient. Thus, we do not need support of any armed group in military terms, but we do encourage diplomatic, moral, and activist solidarity from those who would recognise the legitimacy of our struggle for liberation.
Al Jazeera: What kind of Kashmir do you want? Do you want a religious state?
Naikoo: Freedom struggle is a long drawn out process and it evolves over a period of time. Our immediate goal is to end the Indian occupation and drive its military and political apparatus out of our land.
As for our future, we envision the creation of a free space whereby the nature of the state can be deliberated upon freely. The paradigms of this debate can, and will change with time.
Having said that, as you know, Kashmir is a Muslim majority region and therefore the people have a special affinity with the laws, principles and ethos of Islam.
I must mention here that we, very much based on our religion, envision a system that encompasses the protection of minorities, which appreciates dialogue and tolerance, which has a great tradition of free thinking, which does not tolerate slavery, and which strives for equality.
We seek guidance from Allah, to whom sovereignty belongs, to strive for peace and justice, and unlike the forces of oppression, we are not guided by the egos of the power hungry.
Al Jazeera: When civilians come out on the streets to protect the fighters from Indian forces, they end up being killed, arrested or hurt. Do you feel this will end up fermenting bitterness and have your own supporters turn their backs on you?
Naikoo: Kashmiri people are not new to the streets of Kashmir. They have been protesting the Indian occupation since 1947, and the oppressive Dogra rule [in the 20th century] before that.
While earlier, people used to run away from entire villages the army was about to cordon, now times have changed and we are seeing that people especially our youth are continuously putting their lives at risk.
We are extremely thankful to all those people who in one way or other are fighting this illegal occupation. We must also understand that we as armed fighters are not different from people. We are different organs of the same body.
There is no essential binary of difference between armed fighters and common people. Occupation’s bullets do not make a distinction between civilians and fighters, nor do its prisons. We are united with our people in life and death.