Atif Hassan is 31. He has 44 cases against him. “I am out on bail in all these cases. I don’t know if the police have named me in more cases since last year,’’ says Hassan, sitting with his friends in a tea stall in a largely deserted market in Anantnag, south Kashmir. It is evening and soon, the police checkpoints will be out for another night of siege. “I first took part in protests in 2006. I was a student then… Sixteen Kashmiri schoolchildren had died after a Navy boat capsized in Wular lake. We protested and raised pro-freedom slogans. I was arrested, but police didn’t register a case,’’ he recalls. “In 2008, I was arrested for another protest.” He adds he was part of the 2010 and 2016 protests too.
In 2009, Hassan’s family — his father is a retired forest officer and mother a retired assistant matron – got him married. “I had just graduated. They hoped marriage would tie me down, but it didn’t,” he says. Hassan’s story is illustrative of a deep generational divide in Kashmir, where youngsters constantly defy their parents to go out and protest, shout slogans and throw stones. They have grown up internalising every dinnertime talk about “the injustices done to Kashmir”. And unlike the older generation, they know little fear.
“This status quo has done us no good. I want Kashmiris to get the right to self-determination. Let us choose our own fate,” says Hassan. “I am not scared of getting arrested. If you are politically conscious, how can you not [join protests]?” Hassan says he has been charged with “unlawful activities” in 10-12 cases, “criminal conspiracy against the state”, and stone pelting. “I don’t sleep at home even today,” he says. Police sources say they know about Hassan and that he faces several cases but add they would need to check for specific details.
While Hassan admits marriage “made me more careful”, he says he doesn’t agree with his parents when they tell him to stay out of the streets. “When my father was younger, he was in jail for three years for protesting… Now, my parents tell me not to get involved. It’s not that they think I am doing anything wrong but they don’t want to lose me.” The reason he still joins the protests is to “try and do something so that my five-year-old son and his children live in freedom”. The other youngsters in the tea stall listen intently, nodding in agreement each time he talks about “our demand for freedom”.”
“I offer prayers five times a day… I am a believer. But I don’t seek Khilafat in Kashmir,” he says. “But if there is a non-Muslim who is pro-azadi, I will wholeheartedly accept him.” Not everyone shares his views. In Qaimoh in south Kashmir’s Kulgam, a 19-year-old says azadi has “no meaning if it is not in the name of Islam. I am ready to die. I pelt stones only because weapons are scarce these days. If it was like in the 1990s, I would have become a militant”. He too says his parents don’t agree with him. “Perhaps age has made them weak,’’ he says. He is also critical of the separatist leadership, calling them “meek and tired”. A few boys who hang around to listen to the conversation nod in agreement.
After the boys have left, an older man, who had been overhearing the conversation, says, “You should have asked these youngsters that if religion is so important to them that they are ready to give up their lives for it, why don’t they go to the mosque? You should have asked them how much they know about Islam. This is a political struggle. These children are angry and will understand eventually.” While there are these disagreements —primarily about the methods they use — these youngsters strongly agree that Kashmir’s demand for azadi is legitimate and it comes with a wider political, social, and historical legitimacy in Kashmiri society.
In Redwani, a village in Kulgam, a 24-year-old sits on the pavement. Redwani and nearby villages were on the boil during the uprising triggered by Burhan Wani’s killing in July 2016. Though protests have subsided, the situation is far from calm. The 24-year-old says 23 FIRs are registered against him, his face lighting up as he repeats- “23 cases”. “I used to pelt stones whenever I got a chance. But my family got me married. Once you have children, things change,’’ he says. “My heart hasn’t changed. I still feel the same way. But my circumstances have changed. Each time I go out to protest, I think of my family, my wife and daughter – if I am killed, what will happen to them. Marriage has made me weak,” he says. He says that after Wani was killed, he wanted to join militancy. “I couldn’t. My family became this unbreakable chain on my feet,” he says.
He insists, however, that his views remain the same. “My parents aren’t ready to take any risk. I disagree because we can’t wait and do nothing.” What will a few hundred youngsters with guns achieve? “This is exactly what my father says. I have an answer to that. We haven’t become numb like our elders. Our generation is angry because the only thing we have seen is tragedy after tragedy, funeral after funeral. “When you become a militant, you at least get your own freedom.”
In downtown Srinagar, a 47-year-old counsels his 17-year-old son, a polytechnic student, not to join the street protests only to arrive at their family’s tragic past — two of his brothers were killed in the 1990s. “They were both militants,” says the father. He says his son recently saw old photographs of his uncles and asked him why they were killed. “He kept asking me why I didn’t seek revenge. I always avoided his questions,” the father says.
But one recent evening, he found himself confronting those questions again, along with some new ones. “I was riding my scooter at Gojwara [in downtown Srinagar] when I saw my son among a group of protesters – throwing stones at policemen,’’ says the father. That evening, he says, he confronted his son. “His reply made me shudder. He told me I have been throwing stones for the past year and a half. He said, ‘You don’t have courage. You know well why do I do it. Don’t stop me from throwing stones. If you do, I will pick up the gun’. I do not want to lose my son. I am scared. I can’t talk him out of it because I have no answers to his questions,” the father says.
A government employee in south Kashmir, whose 18-year-old son was arrested last year for stone throwing, says “children born after 1990” have gone through a difficult time. “They have seen so much brutality. They have heard elders talk about it. The grown-ups are all tied up with their daily lives, so all we do is talk, oblivious that our children are listening. Once they go out of home, they face this oppression and humiliation that have become part of our lives. These children are angry, they don’t weigh their options,” he says, adding that he doesn’t question his son’s reasons for protesting because “he isn’t a thief; he is only asking for azadi. But I am also scared he will get killed. That’s why I try and stop him. Perhaps this is how every father and mother feels about their child.”