The imagery of the first Intifada (1987-93) drew its strength not from the stones the young Palestinian boys threw, but from their situation of desperate powerlessness. The contrast between the protesters’ helplessness and the brute force and dazzling weaponry of the state and its forces presented a striking David vs Goliath symbolism.
The stonethrowing in Kashmir is sometimes described as the Valley’s own Intifada. It was first seen during the Amarnath land row in 2008 — at the time, with the armed militancy of the 1990s being seen as having receded, the stones seemed relatively harmless. The stones flew again in 2010 after the Machhil fake encounter, and this time drew comparisons with the Palestinian Intifada. As many as 120 teenagers were killed as police fought stones with bullets.
Since the return of militancy and the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani in 2016, stonethrowing has been the most visible expression of street anger in the Valley. Security forces have used pellet guns in response, and the numbers of youth who have died or have had to be treated for injuries, have fuelled the David-Goliath narrative. Young stonethrowers or onlookers blinded by pellets have become the living martyrs of this new phase of Kashmir’s rebellion.
Events of the past few weeks have, however, sent an unexpected ripple through the surface of this narrative.
A 22-year-old tourist, R Thirumani of Chennai, died after being hit on the head by a stone on Monday, and a Class 2 student was grievously injured after his schoolbus was pelted with stones in Shopian last week. Earlier this month, another group of tourists had been targeted.
Suddenly, what was read as a protest of the powerless against the might of the state and the Army seems like an end in itself, or worse, a weapon with which to intimidate or hurt those who have no means to protect themselves — innocent tourists, and children.
There is shock in Kashmir at Thirumani’s death. Mainstream politicians have condemned the attack, and separatists have called it “hooliganism”. The Joint Resistance Forum of the three main separatist groups — the two Hurriyat factions and the JKLF — on Tuesday condemned Thirumani’s death. The separatists have withdrawn their hartal, which will enable schools, shut for many days since April, to reopen.
Last week, following the attack on the schoolbus, there was an outpouring of regret on social media. The widespread dismay over Thirumani’s death is not just because it might well have sealed the fate of the ongoing tourist season. “There has to be an investigation into the incident (which led to Thirumani’s death), and the investigators must find out who threw those stones, and they must be brought to book,” human rights activist Khurram Parvez said.
While it may be too early to expect that this moment of horror and anger could be the tipping point for stonethrowing in Kashmir, it may well lead to the realisation that what was once a protest of the weak (against the might of the Indian state) has now become a collection of random acts of violence by groups of youth who are answerable to no one, and who should be in school or college, instead.
Parvez argued that stonethrowing was an expression of youth anger that could not be separated from the situation in Kashmir. “Today, if these protests have turned into chaos on the streets, the government is to blame. There is no one who can counsel youngsters against throwing stones, and that is because the government has prevented the elders from political mobilisation,” he said.
According to him, cutting off the Hurriyat’s links to the grassroots was the government’s biggest mistake — one that had created a situation of leaderless, undisciplined protests, and unaccountable protesters.
Gul Wani, professor of political science in Kashmir University, said while there were no words strong enough to condemn the attacks on tourists or other civilians, stonethrowing remained a “trivial” form of protest in comparison to militancy and guns.
Had the state government’s amnesty for 4,800 people charged with stonethrowing from 2008-14 emboldened the stone throwers, and should it be withdrawn?
What the government should be asking itself, Parvez said, was why the amnesty had not stopped stonethrowing. “It was a confidence building measure, but it cannot work by itself. It has to be part of a larger process. The government has started no such process.”