The Stone War4 July 2010
The Indian Express
New Delhi: A stone is a stone, but when it flies midway between a young boy and a soldier in Kashmir, it becomes a political statement. It is the pent up anger, frustration, and aspiration of an entire generation that crystallizes into a quarter of a brick, a boulder or a pebble. It is a game - of hide and seek, of attack and retreat, of running away from an almost certain death through narrow lanes blinded by tear-smoke, of confronting plastic pellets and live bullets with sharp edged stones. At times, it is a weapon put in rented hands by politicians and even police officials to create chaos or corner their adversary. It is a visible sign of a transition in the contours of the larger Kashmir conflict where young men pick a piece of brick or a rock and not an AK rifle to confront the state. It’s a tool of resistance: a genuine protest to exhibit frustration against political status quo. It’s also an instrument of a conspiracy: a deliberate mischief to create chaos. In a narrow lane stones and bricks fly like flocks of birds covering the view of blue sky followed by gun shots and tear smoke canisters fired from automatic rifles, making it medieval fighters against modern warfare. It is young boys ‘waging war against the State’. The spin doctors have even termed it as 'agitational terror’’ and 'gun less terror’’. In the last three weeks alone, 11 young boys have been killed in Kashmir for stone throwing, and it seems that for each one who is shot, two are ready to take his place. Kashmir is on boil again and curfew is the shivering lid to this boiling cauldron. Stone pelting or 'Kani jung’ is not new to Kashmir. There is historical evidence that the origin of stone throwing as an instrument of protest dates back to the Mughal rule in 16th century. After Mughals successfully invaded Kashmir and dethroned its last independent king Yousuf Shah Chak, Kashmiris would throw stones at the Mughal soldiers walking down from the barracks situated on the Hari Parbat hill top to run daily errands in the old city. Its recent history, however, goes back to 1930’s when Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s grandfather Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah lead a popular resistance against the autocratic Dogra rulers of the State. It has remained a popular tool to protest especially in Srinagar’s downtown city all through. Srinagar city used to be divided between Sheikh’s supporters, nicknamed as Sher’s or lions, and the followers of Mirwaiz Umar Farooq’s grand uncle Mirwaiz Mohammad Yousuf Shah ridiculed as Bakra’s or goats. While Sheikh was pro-India, the elder Mirwaiz’s constituency was smaller but entirely pro-Pak. And each time, there was a fight between these arch rival political groups in the city, it would involve stone throwing. There are only two changes now: more people die in police and security force response while the ambit of stone throwing has expanded from the maze of lanes in old city to the towns and villages across Kashmir. During the Amarnath land row, 60 protestors were killed in police firing while more than a thousand were injured, several among them maimed for life. Ever since the decline of militancy in the valley, stone throwing has become the only expression of anger of a generation of young men who grew up in the conflict of last two decades. How did stone throwing take such a centre stage in Kashmir protests? Who are the stone throwers? What is their motivation? Why is there no other means adopted by the police to halt stone throwers but open fire at them? For years, stone throwing was limited to the lanes and bylanes around Srinagar’s Jamia Masjid and Maisuma locality, where young boys would throw stones at policemen for few hours after Friday prayers – both parties retrieving later. Maisuma lanes in the vicinity of Lal Chowk, in fact, was dubbed as Kashmir’s Gaza strip because of the frequency with which young boys would pelt stones at a nearby police post here. The policemen would call it a limited day match and there would be pauses for lunch and tea. The stone throwing, however, became an issue in 2008. Militancy was at its lowest ebb and Srinagar city had limped back to calm. In the absence of a political initiative to fill the void, this tranquility soon turned out to be a façade. However, when thousands of people took to streets to protest the Amarnath land transfer, the signs of a changed Kashmir were evident. These were first ever massive and peaceful protests that were taken out in the valley ever since 1990. While thousands of men and women came out shouting slogans and marching on the streets here, men formed human chains around police and security force posts to avoid a confrontation. But once the government decided to put restrictions, erect barricades, spread loops of concertina wire and clamp undeclared curfew to stop the massive protest marches, the slogan shouting congregations were replaced by groups of young men throwing stones. At that time, there was a heated debate within the administration regarding the government’s strategy to tackle the situation. A section of senior police officers were arguing that the government must allow people to protest because the pent up anger can manifest into a more dangerous reaction. Their argument was that after all stones are much better than Kalashnikovs. The situation took an ugly turn on August 11, 2008 when a senior Hurriyat leader was killed in police firing at Chahal on Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road. Sixty young men were killed in the government’s effort to quell the protests against Amarnath land transfer and subsequent economic blockade of the valley in Jammu. The government never allowed public protest ever since. As stones have literally replaced guns, it has become an intifada and a large section of separatists are now comparing it with Palestine to legitimize stone throwing as a genuine tool of the resistance. There is a strong view that stones and slogans fall in the realm of protests and a legitimate way to vent anger against the State. The debate isn’t however over. Recently former chairman of Hurriyat moderates Molvi Abbas Ansari termed stone pelting as an unislamic act thus again racking the old controversy. The debate was initiated by former SSP Srinagar Ahfad-ul-Mujtaba in January, 2009. Mujtaba quoted a hadith, which suggested that stone throwing was not an acceptable mode of protest in Islam. In fact, separatists also organized a seminar last year to debate the legitimacy of stone throwing as a tool for resistance once 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. Shah too had quoted a hadith. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq also had backed Shah in his interpretation. In fact, Mirwaiz had made a fervent appeal to the youth 'not to indulge in stone pelting as it caused inconvenience to the masses and gave the authorities chance to defame the freedom movement’’. The moderates, however, were rebuffed by other separatists including the hardline Hurriyat leadership, who argued that 'stone throwing is the outcome of government’s systematic denial to allow protests against the occupation of Kashmir by India’’. They argued that “the deployment of thousands of armed personnel needlessly in populated areas was a provocation in itself and it was natural for youth to react with anger and pelt stones”. Though stone throwing is immensely uncomforting for the people in general, this time around the debate has shifted in favour of its supporters and the reason is clear. The Machil fake encounter and subsequent killings of young men, including children, in protests has swelled the streets with anger, swinging the pendulum of debate in favour of the stone throwing boys who are seen as victims and not perpetrators of the trouble. Then the freeze in the discussion on the larger Kashmir issue too has strongly hit the legitimacy of the moderate sections of the separatists and helped the hardliners fill the void in the separatist political landscape. A closer look at the stone throwers exposes a new phenomenon as well. From school dropouts and unemployed youth, its reach has expanded to highly educated young men, who see it an inalienable part of the 'struggle’’ especially because protest marches and congregations are disallowed. Even a special application has been created on the social networking site facebook called 'Kani Jung’ where one can throw virtual stones to register the protest. Portrait of a Stone Thrower Iqbal is 23. And his name is not real. He says he is aware about the consequences to offer his face for cameras or expose his name and address. A post graduate student in Kashmir University, he studies politics. 'I read and I understand. That’s why I pelt stones,’’ he says. 'Its not for fun. I would love to join peaceful protests. But they don’t let us gather, not even for shouting slogans and expressing our anger’’. Referring to the protest marches of 2008, he recalls the human chains formed by men around security force pickets in Srinagar city. 'We were protesting, which I believe is our right. We didn’t show any anger towards police or CRPF. We walked and shouted slogans,’’ he says. 'But they put restrictions. They locked us up inside our homes. They put curfew and erected barricades. The government doesn’t have problem with stone pelting – they have problem with everything. They want us to be mute spectators and how can we accept that’’. Iqbal has a frail frame but you can see the resolve in his eyes. 'I have no confusion. The government should shut the colleges and universities in Kashmir if they want us to grow up as conformists,’’ he says. He says he does not support any particular separatist leader or ideology. 'I want Kashmir issue to be resolved as per our aspirations. People have died. There are graveyards everywhere. How can they (government) even think we will shut up as if nothing has happened here’’. Iqbal lives in a congested neighbourhood in downtown city and says that his parents don’t know he joins stone throwing. 'They do suspect at times though,’’ he says. 'Once I returned home in the evening and my eyes were watery because of the tear smoke. I had to come up with an excuse. My mother would freak out if she comes to know,’’ he says. He says that there is no one group of stone throwers but he is never alone. 'There are scores of youngsters who are studying professional courses. I think once you are genuinely aware, you become restless in Kashmir. Then you see nothing is changing and it burns you with anger’’. To hide his stone thrower side, Iqbal has made elaborate arrangements. His wardrobe has a hidden drawer where he keeps his Halloween gear – a mask which leaves only his eyes and mouth open. He has shin pads and jogging shoes that he wears whenever he goes for the 'match’. Iqbal’s father is a government employee while his mother is a house wife. 'I have two younger siblings – a brother and sister,’’ he says. Iqbal says he was 'baptized’’ into stone throwing soon after government restricted public protests in 2008. 'Those protests were like carnivals of resistance. I had taken permission at home to go. Everyone participated then. But one evening, I watched a boy’s funeral on local cable television channel. I seethed with anger,’’ he says. 'The police officer was justifying his death as if he was a criminal. He had thrown stones at them near Jamia Masjid and the police fired straight at his chest. Later I joined few funerals too’’. He says that at times, he feels very scared. 'But then you don’t go out alone. There is always a group and it gives you a sense of security,’’ he says. Has anybody paid you ever for stone throwing? 'What do you think? I don’t need to rent myself out for money. I have enough. How can you believe the lies of the government? How can money motivate a man like me to put my life at risk,’’ he says. Why police and security force men? Iqbal says that they are the state. 'The government uses them to stop us forcibly whenever we try to take out a protest. They are the only sign of the state on the roads,’’ he says and admits that the individual policeman or CRPF man has no direct relation with the Kashmir conflict. 'I am aware that they are here only because the politicians send them. But then that’s life’’. J&K first started booking stone-pelters under the Public Safety Act during the 2008 Amarnath land row agitation. Nearly 1,500 CRPF men and three hundred policemen have been injured in stone pelting incidents and around 373 vehicles have been damaged. However, no one has died among the security forces. The Police have been maintaining that stone-pelting sessions are being organized by ring leaders and funded by separatists, insisting that this alone explains as to how such protests start simultaneously at several places across Kashmir. The police even blamed few businessmen for funding the stone pelting and a major investigation was initiated to probe the funding by a group of kerosene dealers in Srinagar city. CM Abdullah had claimed at more than one occasion that the young men are given money to pelt stones even as he agreed that several among them are driven only by ideology. Last year, Abdullah had claimed that a major business house in the valley was providing funds for stone-throwing incidents and revealed that intelligence agencies have also intercepted calls from across the border and SMSs by some separatist leaders, encouraging the youth to throw stones at security forces. The other side The story of stone pelting has twists too. The Police say that there are young men, who are directly aligned to various separatist parties. In fact, police has booked several senior separatists leaders under Public Safety Act, blaming them of orchestrating stone throwing incidents to destabilize the situation here. The normal cases for stone throwing have, however, seldom passed the scrutiny of the courts. Even separatist leaders booked under PSA – a law which allows the government to jail a person without trial for upto two years - have been quashed by the courts. Apart from separatist involvement, stone throwing is not limited to be a tool of protest against the state alone. There are a number of cases, where ruling party politicians have intervened to release ring leaders of stone throwers in Srinagar and Baramulla. The police and other security agencies too have infiltrated their men as stone throwers with an aim to keep tabs. For example in Baramulla town, the stone throwers are clearly divided between men whose motivation is either ideology or money. Recently, this divide surfaced accidently when J-K Police planned to send a group of stone pelters on an All India tour as part of a rehabilitation package, ostensibly 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 stones on the houses of those who had enrolled themselves for the All India tour. The police, in fact, had to replace the stone pelters with Special police officials and even regular constables for the tour to escape embarrassment. Then the story of two main ring leaders in Baramulla exposes how stone throwers enjoy blessings of the ruling party leaders and police. Parvaiz Ahmad Kaloo nicknamed Minakumari (son-of Abdul Ahad Kaloo) of Ganai Hamam Baramulla has a Public Safety Act warrant (no 136-DCB-PSA Dated 8-9-2009) and eight FIR’s mentioned in the grounds of detention put forth by police against him. The cases against Kaloo are FIR No. 116-2008-P-S Baramulla dated 11-8-2008, FIR No 141-2009 P-S Baramulla, FIR No. 168-09-P-S Baramulla, FIR No. 147-09-P-S Baramulla, FIR No. 74-09-P-S Baramulla dated 10-4-2009 U-S 147-148-336-427-132-B RPC, FIR No. 95-09-P-S Baramulla dated 6-5-09 U -S 132-B.147.148.424 FIR No. 141-09-P-S Baramulla dated 29-6-09 U-S 147,148.353.336.332.435,307 RPC, FIR No. 168-09 P-S Baramulla dated 28-7-09-U-S 147,336,341,506,RPC. The warrant has not been executed till date because sources reveal that he is close to both the ruling party and the police. Then Zahoor Ahmad Mala alias Raju Chorol (S-O Bashir Ahmad Mala) of Mohalla Mir Shahib, Baramulla was booked under Public Safety Act (Warrant No 117-DCB-PSA dated 25-7-2009). Mala has four FIR’s registered against him. The cases against him mentioned in the grounds of detention are FIR No.132-09 P-S Baramulla dated 14-6-2009 U-S 147,148,336,332 RPC, FIR No. 140-09P-S Baramulla dated 19-6-2009.U-S 147,336,353RPC, FIR No. 141-09 P-S Baramulla U-S 435,307,147,148,353,336,332,427 RPC and FIR No. 116-117-206 of 2008 P-S Baramulla. Though his PSA warrant was executed, sources say Mala was soon released because of the intervention of a ruling party leader in Baramulla. Sources reveal that Malla has a group of stone thrower with him, who too have cases for rioting registered against them but Police is reluctant to arrest them. Instead of an action, the police in the past has been helping Malla and his other relative Kaloo to illegally construct shops on a highly valuable piece of government land at SRTC Bridge in Baramulla town. And when former Deputy Commissioner Baramulla Lateef- U-Zaman Deva ordered demolition of these illegal shops, sources reveal that the police didn’t even provide protection to the district adminstration’s own demolition squad. Two weeks ago, when shopkeepers of Tehsil road Baramulla protested against Malla and his group and even thrashed one of his stone pelters, the shopkeepers had to face the wrath of the group while police didn’t intervene. Malla’s group even pelted stones on the house of Baramulla Auqaf President, Abdul Rehman Shalla when he criticized them for pelting stones on every strike day, especially on Friday. The investigations into the stories of stone throwers across Kashmir, however, reveal that only a small fraction of the young men get involved in stone throwing for monitory or other benefits from either side of the divide. There are few, especially children and teenagers, who join for fun or under peer pressure. A majority of the Kashmiri young men, however, use stone throwing as a tool to give vent to their anger or are ideologically convinced that it is a legitimate instrument of resistance against the state. 'Bullet for Stone’’ Even as a year has passed since J-K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah said that his government is approaching foreign governments to help train special police contingents in modern crowd control techniques, the government is yet to make a move. And in absence of the specially-trained riot control police force, the toll in the valley rises because J-K Police and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) only respond to stone pelting with bullets. And even as the government has procured tear smoke canisters and rubber bullets to halt causalities among protestors, both the forces lack proper training. Tear smoke shells and rubber bullets are often fired straight, targeting the youth above waist especially their neck and head. This has been a reason for several deaths now. The case of 17-year old student Tufail Ahmad Matoo who died after a policeman fired a plastic pellet straight at his head from a close range is a glaring example. Matoo’s killing, in fact, was responsible to provoke this latest round of protests in which ten other young men including children were killed in police and CRPF firing. After a string of killings during protests last year, Chief Minister Abdullah had showed his concern and emphasized that his government was looking for a permanent solution to end the “bullet-for-stone” strategy of the police and security forces to curb the unarmed protests in the valley. The government had even approached United Kingdom for help because their police force has done substantial research in modern crowd control policing. “I am concerned about these killings,” Abdullah had told The Indian Express in February last year. “We are planning to approach foreign governments including the United Kingdom for help. We want special contingents of our police force to get trained in crowd control, without loss of human life”. In fact, when Omar Abdullah had expressed his concern over the killings, the protests were only confined to some pockets of the old city – Nowhatta, Rajouri Kadal and Bohri Kadal. Now the protests have spread across Kashmir valley with hundreds of angry young men taking to streets in Sopore, Baramulla and other parts of the valley every week. The government had also promised that they were planning to introduce ‘Skunk’ – a specially developed spray that drenches protestors with a foul-smelling liquid – and ‘Scream’, a noise machine that makes the protestors giddy and helps the police to disperse crowds without causing injury to them. The government, however, is yet to make any effort on either front. In fact, the government abandoned its plan to seek UK help even after the officials at British embassy had made significant headway to bring in experts to provide special crowd control training to J-K police. The government has not even introduced Taser guns for safe crowd control. The only crowd control machine available with the J-K government is a water canon that is rarely used to disperse the protestors. In absence of these crowd control equipments, the J-K Police and CRPF that was conditioned to fight Kalashnikov-wielding militants during past two decades had been reacting with extreme force whenever they encounter protests. And this has resulted in killing and maiming of scores of protestors.