On the main road outside Jamia Masjid, hundreds of youths, their faces covered with scarves, raise slogans of “azaadi”. A banner with pictures of several slain militants is tied on the mosque gates. This is Srinagar’s Nowhatta Chowk on the last Friday of Ramzan, and the last Friday before the Centre’s unilateral ceasefire is to run out.
Men and women start trickling into the mosque from noon and as the mosque begins to fill, a row of youngsters queue up on its east side. T-shirts with slogans like “I am Kashmir”, “This is my Kashmir” can be spotted. They take pictures together, video-call friends and tell them about the plan for the day.
Inside, as Mirwaiz Umar Farooq reads his Friday sermon before prayers, the youths prepare in the mosque’s restrooms for their march. They rub salt on their faces and help each other with the masks before stepping out.
As the namaz proceeds, they speak of Qaiser’s “murder”. One of them describes how last Friday, the 21-year-old was “mowed down” by an armoured CRPF vehicle when it came under stone-pelting. The CRPF has said the youth was run over as the vehicle was trying to move out after coming under stone-pelting by hundreds of youths.
As soon as the namaz ends, at about 2.35 pm, the youths bring out the flags, the banners and the slogans and begin a march towards Nowhatta police station. This Friday, just as the last, there has been no visible police or paramilitary presence in the area. As the procession moves deeper inside Nowhatta, the first teargas shell is fired in the direction of the crowds just after 3 pm. The youths, fully prepared, run backwards, only to run forward again, towards the police.
The back and forth between the crowd and police continues and more teargas shells are fired. One that lands further inside the crowd, is picked up by one of the protesters and thrown back at the police.
One of the elders watching from the sides says, “They do not have a choice. No one bothers to listen to them”. As the crowd is pushed back towards the gates of the mosque, a teargas shell lands in the middle of the protesters. “Breathe through your mouth,” the youths tell those unprepared for the sting, “Don’t splash water on your face, just rub salt.”
More than an hour-and-a-half after the mosque empties, the protests continue. However, just beyond the crossing, traffic begins to ply, shops begin to open and employees return to their jobs. The protest remains confined and the protesters remains isolated from the rest of the city.