It was spring of 2016 in the north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. After five months in Udhampur jail, Bilal Ahmed Mohand was a “free man”. The state High Court had just quashed his imprisonment under the Public Safety Act, despite him being sentenced to at least two years in jail.

Police had charged him with being an “overground worker” for militants, but the allegation couldn’t be proved before the court, and it ordered his immediate release.

Bilal, the son of Muhammad Yousuf from Heff village in Shopian, went back to his home in the apple town of southern Kashmir, some 80 kilometers from Srinagar, to celebrate his release with his parents, wife and two young daughters.

There was more good news. Bilal had worked as a daily-wager in the Public Health Engineering Department for 18 years for a meagre salary (around Rs 3,000 per month), but was set to be made a permanent government employee.

Official documents show that on April 20, 2016, the state government issued an order saying 218 daily-wagers would be regularized because they had worked with the department “since prior to January 1, 1994”. Bilal was 72nd on the list.

Officials who knew him said his “macho physique of a six-feet-tall hunk” had been a “bonus point” for his regularization. Engineering staff working in the field said he was often hailed as a “robust man who repairs and fits water pipes like Hercules”.

Overjoyed that his years of hard work were about to reap lifelong benefits, Bilal rushed to the office to complete formalities. The position he was being given would provide a salary of around Rs 20,000 a month, and a pension when he retired.

There was one hitch. The department required that he provide a reference from the police department. That was where Bilal’s trouble started.

The police refused to give him the “character certificate”, as he had been charged with being an “overground worker for militants”. Bilal, his family said, objected and noted that the court had exonerated him of all charges.

And despite repeated requests, they remained reluctant to issue the certificate he wanted.

His elderly father Yousuf said: “Bilal found his dreams shattered. Helpless, he spent time sitting idle at his home, unable to do anything for his family, especially his little daughters.”

Meanwhile, Heff village, in the Pirpanjal range, had become a hotbed of armed insurgency. Militants, mainly from the pro-Pakistan Hizbul Mujahideen, moved around freely, and openly brandished guns.

Amid the rise of militancy, police in the area began to summon Bilal frequently to enquire about his activities. Yousuf said: “My son would be interrogated and humiliated by the police. And this repeated humiliation was killing him by inches.”

To make things worse, the militants became suspicious of his frequent visits to the police station. Villagers say rumors spread that “Bilal is a police informer and this was why his detention was quashed.”

His family says Bilal suffered this uneasy situation for around three months, until July 8, when Hizbul commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani and two colleagues were killed by security forces in nearby Anantnag.

The killing of Wani, who was just 22, spurred widespread protests in the Kashmir valley. Militant-infested Heff became the hub of pro-freedom protests. Bilal, along with hundreds of villagers, would often take to the streets.

“Fed up” with the police continuing to summons him or raiding his home “again and again”, Bilal took the biggest decision of his life – he left home to join the Hizbul brigade and never return.

Despite being cleared by the court, police insist that Bilal was “still a suspicious character” and he could well have ended up joining the militants even if he had been given a character reference.

“He had been an overground worker for militants and such elements have a tendency to end up being militants. But why he was released was due to weaknesses in the current criminal justice system, which needs to be strengthened to address such issues,” a police official explained.

Deputy Inspector General of Police in south Kashmir, SP Pani, who has done extensive research on global terror networks said: “This is the most convenient thing to say, that he wouldn’t have joined militant ranks if he wasn’t denied the certificate.

“But nobody becomes a terrorist overnight. He had such orientation, but he was married – why would he join militants?” Pani asks.

Bilal is, of course, not the only person who critics say have been driven to pick up arms because of poor treatment by government officials.

In May 2017, Zubair Ahmed Turray, another youth from Heff, managed to flee from a local police station after being detained for throwing rocks.

A few days after his escape, Zubair released a five-minute video on social media to announce he had joined the Hizbul Mujahideen and giving the “compelling reasons” behind his decision. He said he was repeatedly restrained by public safety orders issued by the police.

“And even after the last one was quashed by the High Court, I was not released. Instead I was facing illegal detention for three months,” Zubair said in the video, which went viral. “Every effort of my father to get me released failed.”

A similar case emerged shortly after. Javed Ahmed Dar was among three militants killed in an encounter in Sopore, 35km northwest of Srinagar in July. His family said he would have been alive and at work if police had not subjected him to “repeated detentions, torture and humiliation”.

Dar, 22, son of the late Muhammad Akbar Dar of Baramulla, was a “conductor” with a long-permit truck before joining the militants. He was arrested during the uprising of 2016. His family says he was tortured, humiliated and booked in over two dozen cases at many police stations on charges of stone pelting. In 2017, Dar went missing – to join the militants, only to return home in a coffin.

Senior separatist leader Muhammad Yasin Malik, head of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), claims that “police torture is pushing youths to the wall and compelling them to join armed resistance”.

Malik said this on July 17 while visiting the families of three militants from Srinagar who were killed in a gunfight that day in nearby Budgam district.

Observers believe that “home-grown” militancy has emerged as a major obstacle to sustainable peace in the strife-torn region. As police records show, there has been a constant rise in the number of Kashmiri youths joining militant groups over the past three years.

In the first seven months of this year, 70 young men were reported to have joined the rebels. And last year, at least 88 Kashmiri youths took up weapons, according to figures compiled by security agencies. The number of new recruits in Kashmir in 2015 and 2014 were put at 66 and 53, respectively.

“Neutralizing” militants is an unending process. This year, security forces have eliminated over 100 militants including eight commanders. But despite the frequent funerals, the insurgency continues to attract disenchanted young Kashmiris.

Security analysts believe many of those who take up arms are simply fed up with “the system”. One police officer who knew Bilal personally believed he could have been a “classic case of de-indoctrination” had he been given the character reference he desperately wanted.

“There are many like Bilal, whose cases, if handled with extra delicacy, would have saved them from picking up arms. There are a few lost cases, [people] whose minds are poisoned to a level that they become desperate to die as militants. But others like Bilal, who are fed up with their life, could be brought back to [a happier] life through strategic efforts,” a top police official – who has killed militants during encounters and asked not to be identified – said.

Bilal was denied police clearance in the troubled region, where many relatives of top militants or pro-Pakistan leaders still manage to get government jobs. All five sons of Hizbul Mujahideen supremo Syed Salahud Din are permanent employees with the same government their father openly wages war with.

Interestingly, while the uprising over the killing of Wani spurred a turning point in Bilal’s life, a deal was allegedly brokered between senior separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani and the government which facilitated a member of the latter’s family getting a government job.

In the winter of 2016, Geelani’s grandson Anees Ul Islam secretly joined government service via a “backdoor,” after police issued a character reference in his favor. Seven years earlier, police had refused to give Anees such a reference when he wanted to get a passport, due to his alleged connection with militants.

For Bilal, who seemingly enjoyed no influence, the government used a different yardstick.

A man who struggled for almost two decades to get a permanent job with the government picked up arms against the state – when “the system” worked against him. And he has become one of the  most wanted militants in the state, with a reward of Rs 5 lakhs (500,000 rupees) on his head.