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Wednesday, December 08, 2021

The Stone War

Clashes between stone-wielding protesters and security forces in Kashmir have claimed 11 civilian lives in the last three weeks. <I><B>Muzamil Jaleel </B></I>looks at how a way of protest has spilled out of the lanes of downtown Srinagar to other parts of the Valley,gaining new converts along the way...

Written by Muzamil Jaleel |
July 4, 2010 12:11:14 am

A stone is a stone,but when it flies midway between a young boy and a soldier in Kashmir,it becomes a political statement.

In a narrow lane in Srinagar,stones and bricks fly like flocks of birds,followed by gun shots and tear smoke canisters fired from automatic rifles,pitting medieval fighters against modern warfare. In this battleground,young boys ‘wage war against the State’.

Iqbal is 23—that’s not his real name though. He knows too well the dangers of giving out his name. A postgraduate student in Kashmir University,he studies politics. “I read and I understand. That’s why I pelt stones,” he says. “It’s not for fun. I would love to join peaceful protests. But they don’t let us gather together,not even for shouting slogans and expressing anger.”

Last month,17-year-old student Tufail Ahmad Matoo was killed in a clash between protesters and security personnel in Srinagar,triggering protests all over Kashmir. Ten more protesters have died since in clashes between stone-pelting youth and police and CRPF in the last three weeks.

Stone pelting or ‘kani jung’ is not new to Kashmir. In the 1930s,when Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s grandfather Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah led a popular resistance against the Dogra rulers of the state,stone pelting was part of that protest.

In the years that followed,stone throwing remained limited to the lanes and bylanes around Srinagar’s Jamia mosque and Maisuma neighbourhood where young boys would throw stones at policemen for a few hours after namaz. In fact,the frequency with which people turned up in Maisuma near Lal Chowk to stone a police post earned it its new name—Kashmir’s Gaza strip.

But in recent years,stone throwing has strayed out of the confines of downtown Srinagar to spread to other towns of Kashmir. The profile of the stone-thrower has changed too. It’s no longer unemployed youth who are fighting this pitched battle. Educated young men are joining in as well. The battleground has expanded from the streets to the internet—Facebook now hosts an application called ‘kani jung’ where you can throw virtual stones to register your protest.

Iqbal is one such educated stone-pelter. He recalls the protest marches of 2008 over the Amarnath land transfer where young men formed human chains around security force pickets in Srinagar. “We were protesting. But they locked us up inside our homes. They imposed curfew and erected barricades.”

“There is no confusion in my mind. The government should shut the colleges and universities in Kashmir if they want us to grow up as conformists,” he says,adding that he does not support any particular separatist leader or ideology. Iqbal,who lives in a crowded neighbourhood in downtown city,says his parents don’t know he is a regular at stone-throwing protests—though they do have their suspicions. “Once I returned home in the evening and my eyes were watering because of the tear smoke. I had to come up with an excuse. My mother would freak out if she comes to know,” says Iqbal,whose father is a government employee.

He has made elaborate arrangements to ensure his mother never finds out. His wardrobe has a hidden drawer where he keeps his Halloween gear—a mask that has slits only for his eyes and mouth. He has shin pads and jogging shoes that he puts on whenever he goes out for the “match”.

Iqbal says he was “baptised” into stone throwing soon after the government restricted public protests in 2008. “Those protests were like carnivals of resistance. I had taken my parents’ permission to participate in them. Everyone joined in. But one evening,I watched a boy’s funeral on a local cable television channel. I seethed with anger,” he says. “That boy had thrown stones at the police near Jamia mosque and the police fired straight at his chest. Later,I joined a few funerals too.”

Often when he’s out on streets,Iqbal is overcome with fear. “But then you don’t go out alone. You are always part of a group and that gives you a sense of security,” he says. Has anybody paid ever paid him to throw stones?

“What do you think? I don’t need to rent myself out for money. I have enough,” he says.

Stone-pelting as a way of protest in the Valley may be old but it assumed serious proportions in 2008 when protests broke over the Amarnath land transfer. After 1990,these were the first such massive—and peaceful— protests in the Valley. Thousands of men and women came out on the streets shouting slogans,men formed human chains around police and security force posts. The government responded by putting restrictions and erecting barricades and the slogan-shouting congregations were soon replaced by groups of young men throwing stones.

The administration was divided on how to deal with the protesters. A section of senior police officers felt people should be allowed to protest. After all,pelting stones,they said,was better than taking to Kalashnikovs.

But the situation took an ugly turn on August 11,2008,when a senior Hurriyat leader was killed in police firing at Chahal on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road. Sixty people were killed in the government’s effort to quell the protests over the Amarnath issue and the subsequent economic blockade of the Valley. The government has never allowed public protest since.

In fact,it was during the Amarnath agitation that the J&K government first started booking stone-pelters under the Public Safety Act. Police claim stone-pelting sessions in the Valley have been funded by separatists. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah too has claimed on more than one occasion that young men were being given money to pelt stones. He even accused a major business house in the Valley of funding stone-throwers and added that intelligence agencies had intercepted calls from across the border and SMSes by separatist leaders that allegedly encouraged youth in the Valley to pelt security forces with stones.

As the stones vs state battle continues,so does the debate over it. Former chairman of the Hurriyat moderates,Maulvi Abbas Ansari,calls stone pelting un-Islamic. Chief of Jamiat-i-Ahlihadith,Moulana Showkat Ahmad Shah,created a stir by coming out with a fatwa that pelting stones on the armed security personnel was not sanctioned by Islam. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq backed him. Meanwhile,separatists,including the hardline Hurriyat leadership,argue that “stone throwing is the outcome of government’s systematic denial to allow protests against the occupation of Kashmir by India”. And so,the stone wars continue.

The politics of protest

The stone-pelting story has its share of twists. According to the police,stone-pelters are often aligned to various separatist parties. In fact,the police have booked several senior separatist leaders under the Public Safety Act,blaming them for orchestrating stone throwing.

There have been a number of cases where ruling party politicians have intervened to release leaders of stone-throwers in Srinagar and Baramulla. The police and other security agencies too have infiltrated groups of stone-throwers to keep tabs on their activities.

The stone-pelters are not a united group either. For instance,in Baramulla town,there is a clear divide between men who are motivated by money and those who are motivated by ideology. The divide surfaced recently when the J-K Police planned to send a group of stone pelters on an all-India tour as part of a rehabilitation package to divert them from “unlawful activities”.

The group was ‘police-friendly’ and had the blessing of a local ruling party leader. A day before the tour was to be flagged off,another group of stone-throwers started pelting the houses of those who had enrolled for the all-India tour.

Then there is the story of two leaders in Baramulla that exposes how stone-throwers enjoy the blessings of ruling party leaders and the police. Parvaiz Ahmad Kaloo has a Public Safety Act warrant and eight FIRs against him but the warrant has not been executed because,say sources,he is close to both the ruling party and the police.

The other case is of Zahoor Ahmad Mala who is booked under the Public Safety Act and has four FIRs registered against him. Sources say Mala was released after the intervention of a ruling party leader in Baramulla.

A bullet for a stone

It’s been a year since J-K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah declared his government would approach foreign governments for training a special police contingent in modern crowd-control techniques,but there’s been little progress on it.

After a number of protesters were killed last year,Abdullah had said his government was looking for a permanent solution to end the “bullet-for-stone” strategy of the police and security forces to curb unarmed protests in the Valley. The government had said it would seek guidance from UK whose police force had done substantial research in modern crowd-control policing. It had also planned to introduce ‘skunk’—a spray that drenches protesters with a foul-smelling liquid—and ‘scream’,a noise machine that makes protesters giddy,helping police to disperse crowds without injuring them.

“I am concerned about these killings,” Abdullah had told The Indian Express last February. “We are planning to approach foreign governments,including the United Kingdom,for help. We want a special contingent of our police force to get trained in crowd control,without loss of human life.”

Though the government has procured tear smoke canisters and rubber bullets to limit causalities,the toll in the confrontation between stone-pelters and security forces has only been rising.

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