Armed with just stones, the protesters in the Kashmir Valley have got the government in a tizzy, reports Parvaiz Bukhari
IN A stable political environment, these young boys would perhaps have started a music band or a fan club of some kind to expend their youthful energy. However, in the congested old town area of Srinagar — witness to intense protests in recent weeks — throwing stones at government forces is what occupies the waking hours of groups of young boys. A transition is taking place in the resistance to security forces in Kashmir — from militancy to stone-throwing. Locally, it is referred to as Intifada, the Palestinian mass movement that first began in 1988 and still employs stone-throwing as a method of popular resistance. It is a movement that is giving India’s security establishment sleepless nights.
These days, the slightest provocation — say an alleged human rights violation by the security forces somewhere in the Valley, triggers a stone-throwing protest in urban areas, and increasingly in provincial towns and villages across Kashmir.
For these young people, angered by the status-quo in the Valley which they find unbearable, even their ‘nights out’ are not fun. Rather, it is a precaution against getting picked up by the police, who might have identified them during the protests.
TEHELKA caught up with one such band of youngsters on a chilly evening near the Jamia Masjid, Srinagar. A few of them were students; others work in small private businesses. From the surrounding darkness, they emerged silently in ones and twos to make sure that it was not a police trap. With the typical belligerence of youth, one of them shot off: “We know what journalists are all about. We still came thinking that at least one person should know how we think and feel.” Extremely cynical and skeptical of political leaders — separatist and mainstream — they appear to have divorced hope of any change or a normal life.
This is a generation that grew up amid turmoil in the wake of the armed insurgency, and the crushing military response to it.“Kashmir mein izzat se zinda rehna hai to India se ladtey rehna hai (To live with honor in Kashmir, you have to keep fighting India all the time),” said one of them. In his twenties now, he alleges that as a kid he saw an Indian soldier slit his brother’s throat and kill him. Another brother, he says, was killed when an unknown attacker hit his head with a shovel.
Each of them narrates a different story of brutality they have witnessed from close. Angrily, they talk about experiences, when police and paramilitary forces enter and ransack their homes and “misbehave” with men and women alike. They believe that the only way to keep the security forces away from their area is to turn “themselves into weapons”. “If they catch one of us, ten others will emerge. How many can they catch?” asks one of the youngsters, undeterred.
Security officials feel these protests have become more difficult to deal with than the armed militancy. “It’s part of a combined effort to keep the pot boiling,” says Kuldeep Khoda, the state police chief. As if in response, one of the youths said that the government wants to “brand us terrorists” to justify arrests and killings, and discourage others. “On most occasions, a few of us would throw the first stones. The hundreds who would then follow, did so on their own,” he says.
In an effort to quell the dissent last year, a Senior Superintendent of Police, Srinagar, invoked Islam to discourage stone throwers. A hadith (instance from the Prophet’s life) quoted by him, triggered an intense media debate on the issue. However, it didn’t achieve any results. “Our clerics and some leaders tell us that stone-pelting is not good. But they don’t tell us how else we can change our situation,” says one of the stone throwers, who appeared from an educated and economically well-off family.
LAST MONDAY, the death of 11-dayold Irfan, amid protests near Baramulla, spread anger, condemnation and gloom across Kashmir. The vehicle in which the family was taking the baby to hospital was stopped and surrounded by “protestors in two vehicles”, police said. “While they were being dragged out, the infant fell from the mother’s lap and was injured,” said AQ Manhas, Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Police, Baramulla. The baby died before the family could reach the hospital. Police have registered a case of murder but it is unclear who were there in the two vehicles. For the first time, ‘unusually’ according to the police, the protestors used cars.
The government wants to brand the stone-throwers as terrorists to discourage others
Meanwhile, the police enquiry on the January 31 tear gas shelling that had killed Wamiq Farooq, a 13-year-old in Srinagar, has raised the temperature even further. The authorities had initially suspended the Assistant Sub-Inspector (ASI) responsible for the firing. But now it has emerged that the dead boy is also going to be chargesheeted. “It is not that we hold the police officer prima facie guilty. The boy had attempted to attack and murder other policeman earlier — in response to which more tear gas shells were fired. We have submitted a report on this to the court of law,” said Hemant Lohia, DIG, Kashmir.
In response, the government plans to decongest Srinagar’s old city. Sources say, a “package is seriously being worked out”, to resettle multiple families living under a single roof to new areas and provide modern housing. If the plan materialses, it could take away some of the immediate motivations of the stone-throwers in Srinagar. But it will take time. For the moment, the concerns remain. “I also want to do normal things. Why should I have to worry about my folks and they about me all the time,” says one of the stonethrowers, reflecting the complexity of their myriad insecurities.