Boys behind the Islamic State’s flags

Photos: Faisal Khan
Photos: Faisal Khan

Shabir, 20, doesn’t wave the Islamic State flags. But on most Fridays he is part of a group of masked youths who throw stones at the security personnel outside Srinagar’s Grand Mosque. And he admires the youth raising the Islamic State flags and looks at them approvingly from across the road while they do it. Given a chance, Shabir would raise the flags too.

His worldview constitutes of those parts of the familiar separatist discourse that goes around in circles in Kashmir and now also makes the dominant conversation on social networks. He knows only some broad details about the Islamic State, its conspicuous battlefield successes against heavy odds and its ideological stance “that resists compromise”. But Shabir knows little about the group’s brutalities. And whatever he has come to know about it through the media, he sees it as a deliberate “wrong projection” to give a bad name to Islam.

“Those who are ready to die for their faith in God can’t be bad,” says the tall and thin built Shabir. “True Muslims don’t love the world and its material offerings”. But he won’t become a militant himself. The “resistance by stones,” he thinks, has more advantages over gun.

“Stone-throwing helps draw more attention to Kashmir. One doesn’t have to go underground to pursue it,” says Shabir an undergraduate student. “But I value gun and admire the youth who have picked it up. They are also fighting for Kashmir’s Azadi”.

Shabir’s observations are largely reflective of what you get to hear from his friends in downtown, the old densely settled part of Srinagar. Bred in the turmoil of the 1990s and its attendant discourse and witness to forms of extreme violence in the streets, these youth have grown up with a deep sense of estrangement from New Delhi.

India for them is not just another country, but some hovering baneful presence, inherently held responsible for everything that is wrong with Kashmir. They rattle off the reasons for this alienation as if learnt by rote: the real and imagined everyday indignities, the endemic security presence, the situation of the past 25 years and, of course, Azadi and its denial. The youth also exhibit a certain deep dissatisfaction with the existing state of affairs. In their heads and in their hearts, they subsume this discontent under the broad rubric of “Kashmir Problem”.

“Take for instance, what happened on 26 January. There was curfew in Srinagar. Phones and internet were shutdown. Does this show we are a part of India?” says Suhail Ahmad. Suhail was just 19 when he led a group of 12 stone pelters through the 2008-10 unrest. He was arrested in 2009 and 2010. The police slapped firs against him in three police stations. “This was done to prolong my stay in jail,” says Suhail, a resident of Khanyar in Baramula, adding many of his friends have cases registered against them in more than one police station. “Even now when there are protests or authorities sense trouble we are called to police stations and detained till the situation gets normal again.”

In 2010, Ahmad was studying in class 12 but he dropped out following “police harassment and the urgent need to help his father in his small shoe business”. But he will not give up on Kashmir cause. For him, the youth of downtown Srinagar are the inheritors of the struggle for Azadi.

“Stone pelters have revived a flagging resistance,” he says. “We have therefore a role which shouldn’t be ignored.” Stone pelting in downtown Srinagar has a hoary past. It dates back to 1940s when Kashmir under Sheikh Abdullah went up in revolt against the autocratic Dogra rule. And after 1947, it surfaced again when the Himalayan state came to be claimed by India and Pakistan.

In the subsequent decades, either as a part of the intermittent political mobilisations for the resolution of Kashmir or as a result of the routine grievances against the state government, stones became the easiest recourse for the protesters.

In the 1990s as the gun took over, stone pelting petered out. Home to some four lakh people, downtown Srinagar was teeming with around 12,000 militants who belonged to a range of outfits like Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), Hizbul Mujahideen (HM), Lashkar-e-Tayeba (LET) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM).

Over the course of one and a half decade, most of these militants were eliminated and the rest were forced to surrender. This drastically reduced violence. By 2010, militancy in Srinagar was down to a single militant – Sajad Ahmad Khan of Firdous Abad Batamaloo. In the same year he was killed in an encounter in Rajouri in Jammu province and Srinagar was declared free of militancy, making the city a strong contender for the revocation of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) along with similarly placed districts, Badgam and Ganderbal.