Stone pelting is not new to Kashmir. When the current Chief Minister’s grandfather Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah led a popular resistance against the Dogra rulers in the 1930s, stone pelting was part of the protest. It has always been a powerful, symbolic gesture in Kashmir – an act of resistance in the face of a brutal Indian military occupation – and is no longer confined to the lanes around Srinagar’s Jamia mosque and Maisuma. It has spread to other towns and villages of the Kashmir valley.
The young boys highlighted in this piece, living in towns far from Srinagar city, are often dismissed as ‘uneducated, unemployed youth’ by the Indian media. Their voices are suppressed. Educated, however, they certainly are. Aware of the consequences of their actions on the streets, they come out and protest against the government forces regardless, in the fight for freedom.
The struggle for Kashmiri self-determination has been ongoing since the partition of the subcontinent in 1947 and continues to be the subject of intense political manoeuvring by India, Pakistan and China. The war on Kashmiri identity has invariably scarred the people of the region, and as the Kashmiri writer Nitasha Kaul has pointed out, ‘wherever in Kashmir they are, their options boil down to bullets or ballots – bullets if they protest being co-opted into the big country [India] which is not their homeland, and ballots if they agree to being co-opted into the big country which is not their homeland’.
Since 1989, the atrocities committed in India-occupied Kashmir defy belief; over 60,000 people in Kashmir have been killed, thousands have ‘disappeared’, and several hundred thousand live with the physical and mental signs of trauma that occupation brings. Thousands of Kashmiri women have been raped, and the tens of thousands of orphaned children and widows speak of the untold crimes committed by the Indian military forces. The scale of the human rights abuses, including scores of unmarked graves across the region, are routinely ignored by the Indian government.
Zubair Ahmad*, a second year BA student in a Srinagar City College, is thin but endowed with an imposing height. He speaks in a polite tone, often pausing before explaining his thoughts. Beneath his mild physique, there is an anger he often taps into. On the receiving end of his stones are the government forces – the Kashmir police and the Indian Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) – personnel that are deployed to quell protests in his locality. “I can hurl stones accurately at long distances,” he tells with a faint smile on his face, “smashing the windows of police vehicles.”
At his home in south Kashmir’s Pampore town, Zubair, 22, remained awake most nights during the peak of the summer uprisings in 2010. During the day he would come out on to the main street near his home and join other boys from the surrounding localities, directing their stones towards government forces. Fearing police arrest at night, he would place his boots beneath his bed and throw open a window in his room. If he heard a police vehicle in the dead of the night, he would jump out of the window and run. Most of his friends, Zubair says, did the same to evade night arrests by the police.
Throughout strike days during the 2010 summer unrest, Zubair and his friends joined demonstrations on the main streets with stones in hand and would often be met with bullets and tear gas. He has seen friends beaten up and arrested, sometimes simply for coming out of their homes and walking on to the street. “They would not even allow people to pray in mosques in our locality,” he says angrily. “When a muezzin [one who delivers the call to prayer] was not allowed to enter the mosque and was beaten up for coming out of his home, we thought that was enough now. We came out to protest and started pelting stones.” Since then he has regularly joined anti-government protests in his locality.
Zubair remembers a boy who was injured during the clashes. While carrying him to the nearby hospital in an ambulance, Zubair and his group were stopped by the authorities. The windowpanes of the ambulance were smashed and the boys carrying the injured civilian were beaten up. Somehow they managed to reach the hospital, only to find that a police party had arrived before them. “They opened fire inside the hospital premises,” he says, as if still surprised by their action. “They did not even spare us in the hospital.”
Days after the stone pelting had subsided, police would come looking for those involved and raid their homes. If the boys were not found, the authorities would cynically detain their parents or siblings, often taking the parents for as long as it took for the accused to surrender. Some of the boys were sent to prisons outside the state and kept in detention for a minimum of six months. “Many [criminal] reports were registered against the boys and some were re-arrested again soon after they were released.”
Zubair recalls one day in the summer of 2010 when a CRPF and police party came to arrest a neighbouring teenager. When his mother resisted, they fired teargas into their garden. “Police had a network of informers to track the boys. They had also recorded video clips of their actions,” Zubair points out. Fearing arrests, many left their homes in Zubair’s town, with some leaving the state for Indian cities like Delhi and Mumbai for months. In Pampore town, Zubair counts seven boys who were killed last year in the anti-government clashes.
Like Zubair, Shabir Ali, a 22-year-old final year college student from the same town, regularly comes out to throw stones during anti-government protests in his neighbourhood. He is well built with streaks of blond hair, and talks in short bursts. “Police and CRPF would beat up people, saying there is a curfew in place. They even beat up shopkeepers,” he says. He and other boys formed large groups that resisted the restrictions and frequent harassment of people at the hands of the government forces. Kashmiris are not only forbidden the right to protest by the supposed democratic government, but are also forbidden any freedom of assembly.
Last year, on the second day of the Muslim celebration of Eid, one of Ali’s recently-married neighbours left his home to buy bread in the morning. The CRPF troopers, seeing him on the street during curfew, opened fire. “He received a bullet in his head. He died in front of my eyes,” Ali says and looks away, trying to gather his thoughts. “I myself saw his brain matter lying on the street,” he adds after a brief pause. Then he falls silent.
When police came looking for Ali at his home, he spotted them from his window. Before they could enter his home, he ran out and disappeared. “I went to my uncle’s home in another town to evade arrest. I did not even tell my parents,” says Ali, whose name figured prominently in the most-wanted list of stone pelters.
Ali is disillusioned with the pro-freedom leadership for ending strikes at the peak of the 2010 summer uprising. He says they have given blood for ‘Azadi’ –freedom – and the boys were determined last year to take the fight to its end. Ali has seen his friends killed, but he feels they didn’t achieve anything during the 2010 protests.
*The names in this article have been changed to protect identities.
Photo Credits: Danish Ismail / REUTERS
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