July 2017 News

Game Of Stones: Mapping The Stone-pelters Of Kashmir: A Ground Report

30 July 2017
Bangalore Mirror
Anil Raina

Srinagar: Earlier this week, the National Investigating Agency arrested seven Hurriyat leaders for alleged terror funding from Pakistan. It also identified 60 'habitual' stone pelters, who, it claims, were in constant touch with the leaders. The local and mid-level Hurriyat bosses would pay the men, mostly youngsters, to foment trouble at opportune times and to cause problems for security forces during their encounters with militants. This is the first time any government agency involved in counter terrorism has looked so closely at the people who wield a tool that has been a characteristic of street protests in Kashmir since 2008. I first started reporting from Kashmir, where I was born, in the same year, and it was - and still is a ­- tumultuous time. The Amarnath Land row agitation, which was seen as an assault on Kashmiri identity, birthed a spontaneous and bloody uprising. It was followed by protests that centered around Shopian in 2009, and over human rights violations by the armed forces the next year. Six years later, the deadly unrest, which broke out over the death of separatist militant leader Burhan Wani, had been simmering since the establishment of PDP-BJP alliance, which was seen as a betrayal by Kashmiris. 2008 was a kind of watershed in the Kashmir's three-decade-old protests. The fervor of militancy was complemented by youngsters with stones in their hands and slogans on their lips, and by 2010, the protesting youth were marching towards encounter sites. But it was Wani's death last year, and the rapid deterioration of law and order in Kashmir, that forced the security establishment to investigate the alleged nexus between terror outfits, the Hurriyat and the stone pelters, especially in south Kashmir, the stronghold of the PDP, where lots of educated youth have joined the militancy. According to reports, more than 120 youths have joined the Hizbul and Lashkar outfits, and also the stone-pelting gangs backed by separatists and militants. That was the first step in the making of the JK-48. In 2008, I met Owais Mendala. Mendala was at the time among Srinagar's most notorious-die-hard stone pelters. His father was an automobile mechanic and his mother a housewife. Mendala, then 19 and unemployed, lived with his parents in Maisuma. All Mendala wanted was 'azaadi'; and he believed that throwing stones at the CRPF and the police would help him achieve it. In 2010, he was shot in the chest by the security forces, but recovered. Today, he runs a garment shop in Sumbal, in North Kashmir. The JK-48 dossier prepared by the NIA does not contain details of men such as Mendala. The starting point of the investigation was the over 100 FIRs filed by the Jammu & Kashmir police against the stone pelters. The NIA has taken over the investigation into all the FIRs that were registered by the state police during the unrest after the death of Wani. The list was drawn up on the basis of these FIRs. Phone numbers of stone-pelters and their handlers were listed and tracked over a period of time. The analyses of mobile Earlier this week, the National Investigating Agency arrested seven Hurriyat leaders for alleged terror funding from Pakistan. It also identified 60 'habitual' stone pelters, who, it claims, were in constant touch with the leaders. The local and mid-level Hurriyat bosses would pay the men, mostly youngsters, to foment trouble at opportune times and to cause problems for security forces during their encounters with militants. This is the first time any government agency involved in counter terrorism has looked so closely at the people who wield a tool that has been a characteristic of street protests in Kashmir since 2008. The dossier contains profiles of each of the leaders of the stone-pelters. Each page in the dossier has a map on which locations of the ring leaders have been traced, and each location of theirs corresponds to sites where stone pelting has taken place. The dossier also has information on at least 28 WhatsApp groups whose creators, administrators and some members are based in Pakistan and even include identified cadres of Jamaat-ud Dawa. The WhatsApp groups have around 5,000 members. The NIA's dossier also has information on Facebook pages dedicated to stone-pelters. About 30 percent of stone pelters are overground workers of militants, says Mohammed Aslam Chaudhry, the senior superintendent of police at Pulwama. 'The Hurriyat uses them during shutdown calls and protests, while militants use them during encounters.' They might often be displayed as symbols of resistance by Kashmir's separatists, but the stone-pelters in the Valley are, more often than not, frustrated, unemployed and directionless. They might bear several grudges, but what featured most prominently in my conversations with them was a feeling of being left-out, of having had no part of play in an emerging India, and never having been given an opportunity to do so. And since they can't take their anger out on distant Delhi, they target the security forces, who have often been accused of acting with impunity. Earlier this week, I travelled to Pulwama, Kakapura and Shopian to meet some of the individuals who feature in the JK-48 dossier. In Pulwama I meet D., who is a hero in the city. He is just 22 but has been arrested several times. In 2010, he was even booked under the Public Safety Act and sentenced to Jammu Central Jail, but was released after eight months. D. comes from an affluent family, which is associated with a political party. Life, he told me, starts after death. 'I don't mind dying for the liberation of Kashmir.' In Shopian, outside the grand mosque, I met yet others like D. Most of them were between 14 and 22, and they were quite relaxed as we started talking. Unlike Owais Mendala, though, I worryingly noted that they were already radicalized. Z., became a stone pelter in 2008 after the Army killed his friend. He was 13 then. 'I don't have a gun. Stones are only my weapon against the Army. They have beaten me, my mother and my sister. I will never forget that till I die.' J., wanted to know why security forces kill innocent people, or which democracy bans non-violent protests. 'If we organise a non-violent protest, the government imposes curfew, declared or undeclared. Angry youth pelt stones in response. It's simple.' According to the NIA, their recent move has already paid dividends. Since the arrest of the Hurriyat leaders five days ago, there has not been a single incidence of violence in Kashmir, not even on Friday, the traditional days for protests. What the NIA and the Centre are also hoping is that their latest move will help them gain some breathing room. How far and how effectively the JK-48 dossier will help them achieve that is yet unclear.

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