Catharsis in stone

Catharsis in stone

Every Friday afternoon, after prayers, young men on the streets of Srinagar fearlessly throw stones at heavily armed soldiers of the Indian Army. Shops draw down their shutters, the streets empty out and residents in the area avoid even peeping out of their windows. This is the kan-i-jung, or stone pelting, a phenomenon that has become a daily feature since the agitation over the Amarnath land controversy last year. Since that time, some 70 pelters have been killed; seven were killed in June alone, when this writer was in Srinagar.

The kan-i-jung is a way for unarmed youths to show their anger toward what they view as an occupying power, often chasing security forces down the alleyways, chanting slogans for freedom. Suddenly, the troops will position themselves to push the protestors back – that is when the trouble begins. Protestors charge at the band of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel, as the uniformed men take cover behind an armoured vehicle and 'the match' starts anew. Both sides pelt each other with stones; when the battle begins to get out of hand for the security personnel, teargas canisters are fired. That does not deter the young boys, however, who run into the by-lanes in an attempt to surround the security personnel, who then resort to teargassing at close range. But the attackers keep engaging them.

During one battle where this writer was present, a masked teenager rushes at one of the armoured vehicles, dubbed the Taj Mahal by the youths, and kicks it, seemingly unmindful of the two gun barrels sticking out of the back door. "This vehicle has been stoned so many times, it is ruined," laughs a protester. The protestors flee to escape the shots fired by the security personnel. A number of people on the street take shelter in someone's house, where a wedding is taking place. Ten minutes later, when the firing stops, everyone steps out to find the soldiers gone. "They'll be back," says a local photojournalist. "They've gone for reinforcement. It's about to turn ugly."

In Kashmir today, the two-decade-old conflict continues to take its toll, especially on the young. Though the insurgency of the 1990s was crushed by Indian forces, the thirst for independence seems to have been seamlessly inherited by the following generation. And they can only vent their anger at the government by pelting stones at the state security forces – the Jammu & Kashmir Police (JKP), the CRPF and the army. Government officials allege that local political leaders, purportedly controlled by Pakistan, are behind the mayhem. But psychiatrist Muadsir Firdosi explains it differently: "For a youth," he says, "his stone is equal to the soldier's bullet." Indeed, boys from all corners of the Kashmir Valley travel to downtown Srinagar specifically to take part in the fierce clashes that take place regularly with the security forces.

Today, the ratio between Indian troops and Kashmiri people in the state is the largest soldiers-to-civilians ratio ever recorded, anywhere in the world. There are approximately 600,000 Indian troops – including regular army, paramilitary troops, the border security force and police – currently deployed in the Valley. This is in addition to thousands of Ikhwanis, ex-militants hired by the Indian Army to crush the uprising. Meanwhile, the Defence Ministry itself states that only 600 militants operate in the Valley, of which 40 percent are said to be foreigners.

Bravado and manipulation
Eager to dispel the idea that the stone throwing is a genuine expression of frustration and helplessness, Inspector General of Police A G Mir, who says he has studied stone pelters in Baramulla and Anantnag districts, claims to have discovered a correlation between drug addiction and stone throwing. Those addicted to prescription drugs, cannabis or opium, he explains, find stone pelting a lucrative way to support their habit. "We have found that there are people who organise these events and mobilise people for political gains," he says. "These people distribute 100 to 300 rupees to each protestor. The second group, or the nominated leaders, are known for their 'heroic acts' in each locality – typical teenage mentality, which boosts their ego. The rest who join this group formation don't get paid."

The environment in Kashmir is certainly conducive to addiction, with non-stop tension and uncertainty, soaring unemployment rates and violence. According to Mir, the current generation of youths seeks escape, with kids attempting to prove their worth through bravado on the streets.

Testimony from others on the ground refute Mir's claims. Firdosi, the psychiatrist, believes that the addicts participating in the protests are a minority: "Some of them come to us for treatment, but the numbers are negligible." Likewise, a local journalist wishing to remain anonymous says that addiction is a small part of the problem. Rather, he believes that as long as the basic issue of "colonisation" remains unresolved, frustrated Kashmiris will continue to pour onto the streets. An underlying factor in all the demonstrations, after all, is the extent to which life holds such little value in the Kashmir Valley, where thousands have been killed, and many more have simply disappeared.

Salman (name changed) is a case in point. Growing up in Srinagar, state violence in the neighbourhood was a part of his youth. A soft-spoken young man in his mid-20s, Salman works with an aid agency, a far cry from the typical profile of an aggressive stone thrower. "I used to pelt stones when I was younger, but not anymore," he says.

I saw my close friend being beaten up by the CRPF just outside our home and I felt helpless, as I couldn't do anything to save him. Often the security forces abuse us. On every street we are asked for our identification cards. We want them out of here. Last year, during the two-month Amarnath land row, they shot and killed 70 protestors and hundreds were injured, but no one was brought to book. I remember how boys would attend the funerals of their friends and start pelting stones again to seek revenge. When people don't get justice, they have no choice but to come onto the street and demonstrate.

This year, there have been two major state-wide clashes with security forces. First, the 29 May alleged rape and murder of two women by policemen in the village of Shopian led to numerous demonstrations across Kashmir, with large numbers of women joining the protests. Close on the heels of this incident, at the end of June, security forces in Baramulla shot dead one person and critically injured several others who were agitating against the police for harassing a woman at a police station. The state government then moved the CRPF battalion out of the district, only to replace it with a JKP installation. In both of these instances, the perpetrators have yet to be brought to justice, with a clear lack of political will in terms of launching honest investigations into what really took place.

With no hope of receiving justice from the state, it is not surprising that Kashmiris resort to street protests and stone pelting to make their voices heard. Take Ali Sheikh (name changed), whom this writer finds shouting, "I get angry at what is being done to our people – we don't have guns and bombs, or we'd use them to attain freedom!" Sheikh is at the home of a 14-year-old who had been injured in a protest the day before, and the family is accusing him of having used minors as stone-throwers. "I have sacrificed too!" he yells, pointing to his legs and back, where he has suffered teargas blasts thrice in his decade and a half on the streets. People such as Sheikh feel they have very little to lose, and are willing to sacrifice anything for azadi. "My brother is a mujahid, the other one is jailed under the Public Safety Act," says Sheikh, bitter that he does not receive much social support. "In Palestine, people pray in mosques for stone pelters. Here, they abuse us."

Societal disapproval, including some clerics having declared stone pelting to be un-Islamic, has not dampened the spirits of 14-year-old Hussain (name changed). A stone pelter, Hussain injured his leg when the police fired a teargas shell at him in Srinagar. Post-surgery, with his left leg in a cast, baby-faced Hussain recuperates at home but is petrified that the police, who often film the protests, might trace him and book him under the stringent Public Security Act (PSA). Indeed, while many have demanded that apprehended youngsters be directed to juvenile homes instead of jails in Kashmir, there is as yet no such provision in the state. Psychiatrist Zaid Wani believes that once a minor is booked under the PSA, he will no longer be able to lead a normal life. "Once the kids mingle with hardcore criminals and there's a socials stigma attached to being jailed, there's no looking back," he says.When asked why he was protesting,

Hussain replies simply: "For my community." An orphan who lives with his cousins in Srinagar, Hussain meekly says he is not afraid of police brutality or being jailed. Inara (name changed), his 21-year-old cousin who is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree, tearfully admits that the family has tried to stop him, and has failed. Inara refuses to believe that Hussain, who happens to be a good student and a skilled athlete, is 'fearless'. "When we rushed him to the hospital, he was afraid to enter the lift," she says. "Are you telling me he is not afraid when they fire shots on the street? We even tried to give him sleeping pills to make him stop, but it didn't work. He doesn't realise he's being used. We don't want him to die."

Often, the protests are not necessarily triggered by any specific event or injustice, but rather remain part of a larger dynamic. Saked Dar (name changed), a professor at the University of Kashmir, says that the violence is usually politically – and individually – motivated. "Children and unemployed youth are used as pawns, and the sentiment of freedom is being manipulated to fill the coffers of local leaders who are hungry to stay in power," he says. This certainly could be the case, as the protestors are egged on by separatist politicians who then are able to use this version of people power to intimidate the state government. As they also function as a vote bank of these politicians, the latter come to power due specifically to the clout and influence they exert over these crowds. Most of the protesters, including Sheikh and Hussain, were not even born during the 'bloody nineties' – they have not experienced the bloodshed firsthand, having only heard about it from their elders.

The motivations for the individual participants in a protest vary, but the reason for protests is obvious: the military presence that is termed 'Indian occupation'. Demilitarisation and repealing draconian laws that protect the armed forces are only the first steps in a lengthy reconciliation process that the Indian government has been urged to take by separatist leaders, time and again. Yet to date, the government has given no sign of relenting. Instead, it has been advised by the army not to reduce the number of soldiers in this area. In such a scenario, a plebiscite or issues of self-determination are a far cry. Ultimately, unless those who have suffered human-rights violations receive justice, peace in Kashmir will always be a distant dream. And the violent dance of marking territory will continue to unfold on the streets of Srinagar every Friday.

~ Dilnaz Boga is a photojournalist from Bombay.

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