AS THE spring wind got stronger, the hail of stones came to a halt. The CRPF personnel manning the mobile outpost sat for a quick lunch on the Azad Gunj Bridge in Baramulla, located 75 km from Srinagar in the north, one of the most hostile regions in Jammu & Kashmir for these soldiers.
As they finished eating, one soldier from Amravati in Maharashtra cheered them up by singing Bollywood tunes. Another jawan, who was until now humming along, started fiddling with his cell phone to gaze at his wife’s photograph. Clad in riot gear, the jawans rested their AK-47s, pellet guns, shields and sticks against the downed shutters. As they gossiped about their injured colleagues, it was evident that they were trying to understand the outrage.
“It’s been 17 days now. We are eating, sleeping and peeing here,” says a jawan. “Even five-year-olds hurl rocks at us. Afzal is gone, but why are these protesters chanting pro-azadi and pro-Pakistan slogans?”
These soldiers are among the 60,000 CRPF men deployed in the Valley, besides the additional 10 companies brought in, to control the protesters, who are angry over Afzal Guru’s secretive hanging and burial. Guru was was hanged on 9 February for his role in the 2001 Parliament attack.
It’s 10 March and Baramulla continues to reel under curfews. The first was imposed after Guru’s hanging and then the death of Tahir Rasool Sofi, 27, who was allegedly killed by members of 46 Rashtriya Rifles on 6 March. An hour-long drive to Baramulla from Srinagar brings back memories of 2010. Baramulla resembles a ghost town. The only signs of life are stray dogs, ambulances, police jeeps, army convoys and soldiers who have spent 15-hour workdays for almost a month on the streets facing stone-pelters and then loneliness when the angry youth take a break.
The last time Kashmir looked anything like this was the summer of 2010 (Listen to the Stones by Shoma Chaudhury, 23 October 2010). That year, more than 120 people, mostly youth, were shot dead and thousands were injured in the pro-azadi protests. Finally, it took a delegation of MPs and Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani to bail out New Delhi from the quagmire.
The UPA government had thought that a secret hanging wouldn’t trigger ferocious protests although J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah had warned otherwise. However, Omar was proved right. Guru’s hanging has offered a fresh impetus to both pro-azadi cries and separatist politics.
AFTER A shaky calm of two years, the uprising is gathering steam once again. At Azad Gunj Bridge, pitched battles between stone-pelters and security forces have become the norm. On the other side of the bridge, things look gloomy. The smell of burnt tyres and four-day-old fumes from teargas shells and pepper gas canisters are still in the air. Holes made by pellet guns, which send 600 high-velocity iron balls at one go, are visible on the tarpaulin covers of streetside stalls and the bodies of young boys whose images were circulated on social networking sites last week. One of the images shows a boy’s back dotted with more than a dozen pellets, blood oozing from the dark red circles and a nurse removing the iron balls with a small pincer. The image doesn’t show the boy’s face, fearing detention in the nocturnal raids by the police to nab the stone-pelters.
On the rooftop of an elegant but decaying house in Kakerhama, 11-year-old Imran* coils the long thread between his thumb and little finger. For one hour, he is an enthusiastic kite flier. The next hour, he is out on the streets brandishing an ageold weapon: the stone. “This is a powerful weapon of the weak,” he says.
Imran is joined by two other boys — Ali*, a school-goer, and Atif*, an orphan scrap collector. Armed with slingshots, they form a formidable trio and are known for sneaking closer to the soldiers before targeting them. Asked why they are pelting stones, the reply is prompt: “For freedom.”
Between our conversation and chaos, Imran tosses a flat pebble towards the other end of the Azad Gunj Bridge, where a posse of police and CRPF personnel stand guard behind the loops of concertina wire. Seconds later, a stone returns, whizzing past the kids at more than 60 km an hour.
“Sometimes, their response is different,” says Imran, showing his left leg still wrapped in a bandage above the ankle. A few days ago, a bullet scraped past his body. The bullet that later smacked a stone behind him is now a war souvenir, which he proudly brandishes to other children.
These kids are typical stone-pelters in this town of winding lanes, cone-roofed heritage houses and old brick shops that offer the perfect medieval charm. This is also where India has further shrunk from the collective conscience of its inhabitants. Talk to anyone in these streets, people say that Guru’s hanging will cost Delhi dear