Protest in Kashmir

Stones of fury

Print edition : May 26, 2017

College girls throw stones at security personnel in Srinagar on April 24. Colleges had reopened after a week’s closure, but fresh clashes erupted as students staged protests against the alleged high-handedness of security forces at Pulwama Degree College. Photo: PTI

A young protester throws stones at security forces in Srinagar on May 5. Photo: Dar Yasin/AP

A paramilitary soldier uses a sling to shoot glass marbles at protesters in Srinagar on May 5. Photo: Dar Yasin/AP

Protesters shouting slogans with stones and a placard that reads “Lift military siege from civilian areas”. Photo: Dar Yasin/AP

The young people who throw stones in Kashmir know that it will not bring a solution but see it as the only option left to them to vent their frustration at the government’s “oppressive tactics”.

Afshan Ashiq, 21, dreams of playing for the Indian national soccer team. She is a second year B.A. student at the Government Women’s College, Srinagar. Every evening, she is seen sporting a Team India jersey and working hard at the football ground outside the Tourist Reception Centre in Srinagar, the Kashmir Valley’s main city. She is one of the few Muslim girls in Jammu and Kashmir who excel at football. The State government hired her as a coach to help budding female footballers of the Valley learn soccer skills. So when she threw stones at the Jammu and Kashmir Police and paramilitary forces during the student protests in April, everyone in Kashmir and Kashmir watchers outside were taken aback.

Observations by former Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram and former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah that Kashmir was slipping out of India’s hands started seeming apt. A wannabe Indian footballer had suddenly switched sides and joined hundreds of other stone-throwing youngsters who love doing anything anti-Centre. “Yes, I threw stones at the police, and, yes, I want to play nationals,” said Afshan Ashiq, who hails from Bemina area of Srinagar’s uptown locality. “The boys of the S.P. Higher Secondary School were staging peaceful protests, and we saw police firing tear gas canisters at them without any provocation. When I, along with eight to 10 more female students, reached the City Centre near Pratap Park, a police officer of my father’s age started hurling abuse at us and slapped one of the girls for passing through the area.”

Shocked to see her friend at the receiving end of police “high-handedness”, she started arguing with the officer. “With no weapon at my disposal, I decided to throw a stone at this oppressive police,” she said, but she was also quick to point out that she was not a regular stone thrower.

Asked whether she would pick up a gun, if she had access to one, instead of stones, she said she wanted to motivate young people to play sports, but the killing of innocent children and youngsters was provoking young people into taking up arms. “Previously, only boys used to get angry at the oppression unleashed by the Indian state in Kashmir and throw stones, but now girls too want to pitch in,” Afshan Ashiq said. The young footballer is also concerned about the safety of Kashmiri militants and says she prays for them whenever she hears of a militant being caught in a gunfight. “They, too, are someone’s children, someone’s brothers. Kashmiri militants are not terrorists and don’t indulge in mindless violence but only fight for their freedom.”

She is critical of all mainstream politicians of the State and believes Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti could have put an end to the killings in Kashmir if she wanted to, as could Omar Abdullah when he was in the government in 2010. “In opposition both sound pro-people,” she said, accusing mainstream politicians of being vindictive. “After the news of my participation in a stone-throwing protest spread, the authorities are not allowing me to participate at a national football event.” Afshan Ashiq also has a word of advice for Syed Ali Geelani, the octogenarian separatist leader and chairman of the hard-line faction of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC):. “Everyone in Kashmir listens to him, and so it is his responsibility to persuade the youth to participate only in peaceful protests. But, then, the youth always protest peacefully until security agencies provoke them.” She commented on the two faces shown by the Army. “They have this one face that saved people during the 2014 floods, and then another brutal face, which kills innocent civilians, rapes girls and beats children.” She was perplexed about people in the rest of India: she finds them “nice” in her personal interactions, but they are vitriolic against Kashmiris on social media.

Afshan Ashiq has made a scrapbook in which she has recorded photographs and news about all recent killings of Kashmiris. “One young person is killed, and there is a cycle of violence in which 10 more youngsters get killed,” she said, breaking down. “My heart goes out to the children who are killed and injured.” The young footballer holds the State Police responsible for human rights abuses in Kashmir. The policemen had shown the Army and paramilitary forces the way to oppress Kashmiris brutally, she said. With the new trend of girls participating in stone-throwing protests, the Government of India decided to raise a battalion of women police in the State.

Guns and stones

The oppressive tactics of security agencies and the apathy of successive governments towards engaging Kashmiris in talks to resolve the crisis may be one reason why young people are picking up stones, but it does not give the complete picture. The biggest complaint of most young stone throwers is that New Delhi does not read the writing on the wall.

“How hard is it to make India understand that the cause of every problem in Kashmir is the denial of the right to self-determination of Kashmiris,” said Rouf Ahmad, 27, of Srinagar downtown’s Nowhatta locality, where most of the stone-throwing protests take place. According to Ahmad, a commerce graduate, Kashmiri youngsters have only two options: to pick up a gun or to throw stones. “The best among us pick up guns, and the weaker ones like me throw stones,” he said. He felt many stone throwers were ready to take up arms, except that guns were now rare in Kashmir, unlike in the 1990s. “Young men like Burhan Wani and Zakir Musa are our heroes, our role models,” he said, referring to the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander who was killed in an encounter last year, and the young man who was made a commander to replace him.

Salman Ali Sagar, National Conference youth wing president and former Mayor of Srinagar, thinks so, too. He believes that the way in which Kashmiri youngsters idolise Hizb militants instead of youth leaders from the mainstream parties is a cause of concern for all pro-Centre politicians.

Another worry for the mainstream parties is Pakistan’s growing constituency in the Valley, if the number of Pakistani flags appearing in protest marches is any indication. Ahmad, however, said youngsters do this primarily to irritate the Centre. Ahmad, who favours independence for Kashmir, said he was happy that the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party had lifted the veil from the “facade of Indian democracy” with cow vigilantes enjoying an enabling atmosphere and Muslims being targeted.

One of the dominant narratives in the mainstream Indian media is that youngsters throwing stones in Kashmir are the “paid agents” of separatists and Pakistan. The case of Inam Shah, a 23-year-old computer engineer, tells a different story. “I never participate in protest calls given by Hurriyat leaders and only protest when there is a killing or an injury to any Kashmiri at the hands of the oppressive forces,” he said.

Shah, who studied engineering in south India, had never participated in a stone-throwing protest until 2010 when the police killed his close friend, Tufail Mattoo. He is contemptuous of mainstream politicians such as Mehbooba Mufti, Omar Abdullah, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Sajad Gani Lone, but he is also critical of the separatists’ strategy. “The shutdown strategy needs to be reviewed,” he said. “The Hurriyat also needs to reach out to the victims’ families.”

He favours an independent Kashmir having trade ties with both India and Pakistan. “The Modi government can keep the development it brags about to itself and just give us azadi,” he said, blaming the massive militarisation for growing human rights abuses in Kashmir. “The number of armed forces personnel is so high in Kashmir that we can find them at every step, and enjoying impunity under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, they indulge in killing innocent civilians and get away with it.”

According to him, the best way to end human rights violations in Kashmir is to withdraw the armed forces from the Valley and put them on the borders until a final settlement is reached through parleys between New Delhi and Islamabad. “Until that happens, Kashmiris are left with no option but to throw stones,” he said. This opinion, though, did not go down well with the Supreme Court, which had asked Kashmiri students to stop throwing stones at the police and paramilitary forces and return to colleges and schools.

In the past, too, Kashmiris engaged in stone throwing against the Dogra and Mughal rulers. But now stone-throwing protests are becoming a cause for concern for both the State government and the Centre, considering that over 70 per cent of the Kashmiri population is under 35. Such protests were never as widespread as they are now, not even at the height of militancy in the 1990s. They formed the heart of the unrest in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2016.

The trend has become so popular since 2008 that the stone throwers formed a group of their own and named it “Tehreek-e-Sangbaaz” (the movement of stone throwers). The police’s response was to arrest a nine-year-old boy and brand him a hard-core stone-pelter. The third standard student was arrested last month on charges of stone pelting and a first information report was registered against him under Sections 147, 148, 149, 152, 427 and 336 of the Jammu and Kashmir State Ranbir Penal Code.

Ahmad Wani, 20, a second semester B.A. student at Amar Singh College, lives in the posh Rajbagh area of Srinagar. He said: “We do not want to throw stones, but it is a compulsion for us as we are left with no other option but to hit back.” He said the “atrocities” committed by the security forces left the youth with no choice. “I have consciously taken the decision not to pick up the gun as I believe the gun is not the solution,” he said. Wani feels India is a good country but only for Hindus. But he does not stand for a caliphate or an Islamic state and blames the mainstream media for propagating this “fake” discourse about Kashmir.

He is an advocate of peace and reconciliation and believes the Kashmir problem can be resolved, but he does not think New Delhi is sincere about it. “Had they been sincere, why would the youth throw stones at them?”

Does not deter youth

The Centre has said that the stone throwers will be dealt with sternly. So has the Army chief, General Bipin Rawat. But that does not seem to deter the youth from staging protests near the gunfight sites in an attempt to save holed-up militants.

“A rebellion is necessary for bringing a revolution,” said Maryam Majeed, a first year BSc student at Government Women’s College. “We should all be rebels.” She sees stone throwing not as a solution but as a way of venting popular rage against the government’s “oppressive tactics”. Maryam Majeed sees Burhan Wani’s death as a turning point in her life. “Burhan’s killing made us conscious of who we are,” she said. “He’s the hero of my era while Muhammad Maqbool Bhat and Ashfaq Majeed were heroes from the bygone era.” She believes that Kashmiri girls have a role to play to take the “Kashmir movement” forward and hopes every Kashmiri girl sheds her fear to become a Rani Lakshmi Bhai: “If the sister of Imam Hussain can play a role in Karbala, why can’t Kashmiri women play a part in Kashmir’s independence?”

Faisul Yaseen is Political Editor of Rising Kashmir.

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