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Street War

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Stone pelting is not new to Kashmir, but the discourse around it is perhaps unprecedented. As the government slaps PSAs on alleged stone pelters, Let us trace the history of stone pelting in Kashmir and the psyche behind it.

Taking the local population by surprise and the establishment off-guard, certain masked youth claiming to be stone-pelters held a press conference, mostly attended by local cable TV, and called for a four day strike over 14-year old Wamiq’s death. Police, sources said, were surprised as the strike was observed in all 10 districts of Kashmir.

“We have revived the resistance movement in the form of stone pelting. We will draft our own hartal (shutdown) programme and enforce it on our own. We don’t need a Hurriyat programme. We are mature enough to carry forward the struggle without consulting them,” one of the masked boys told the media present.

Over the past two years there has been a steep rise in anti-establishment protests, which often turn violent. Pitched battles between the police and stone pelting youth have become a routine affair in most old city localities and some smaller towns in Kashmir. More than a hundred young men got killed in such incidents over the period in ensuing police action. As for those who survive fatal teargas shells and bullets, the government has come down heavily on them, especially the stone pelters classifying them as “enemies of the state” and charging them under laws carrying severe punishment and long incarcerations. The widespread use of PSA, for instance, provides for jailing a person for up to two years without trial. Many youngsters, suspected to be regular stone pelters, including boys below 15 years of age have been arrested and wedged in various jails in and outside the Valley.

Justifying the slapping of PSA on stone-pelters Chief Minister Omar Abdullah said, “The other laws are so weak that stone-pelters get bail the day after their arrest, and are back on the streets. It’s the government’s responsibility to ensure the safety of the general public.”

The killing of a ten day old infant in an incident of stone pelting has revived the debate about stone pelting as a means of protest. The debate was set off last year after Srinagar police chief Afadal Mujtaba called stone pelting un-Islamic. The argument was supported by Jamiat-e-Ahl-Hadith chief Maulana Showkat. A seminar on ethicality of stone pelting was organised by Islamic Students League.

Speaking on the occasion, General Secretary, Bar Association, Ghulam Nabi Shaheen said, “Even armed rebellion, according to the United Nations charter, is a guaranteed right of the occupied nations. Stone pelting is a minor form of that. It is our right to protest and resist according to Islam as well, and every single child of Kashmir will continue to do that.”

Commenting on Mujtaba’s assertion senior journalist Zahir-ud-din said, “We want to question SSP Srinagar. Have people just to sharpen their stones or take to latest weaponry as the Hadith he quoted prohibits humans to throw stones having no affect on the enemy or prey.”

Not a single policeman or paramilitary has been killed in the frequent stone pelting incident in the past two years, while more than 100 youth were killed after being hit with police bullets or tear gas shells.

Anti-estabishment protests and stone pelting on police are not new to Kashmir. Its genesis in the Valley is traced to the peaceful uprising against the Dogra rule which was met with force.

On April 19, 1931, Holy Quran was desecrated at Jammu on an Eid. Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah delivered a fiery speech to a huge gathering at Srinagar’s Jamia Masjid. The speech was followed by large scale protests throughout Kashmir.

Though much has changed since Shiekh Abdullah exhorted people to stand up against the ruling Dogra clan that occupied Kashmir, the anti-establishment protests, however, continued to live on except for an almost 18 year lull when the armed militancy overwhelmed Kashmir’s political landscape.

“The armed uprising that started in 1989 is essentially a watershed event in Kashmir’s political history which besides many other things devoured the space for the street protests in the valley,” says a senior journalist.

In the pre-1990 era the anti-establishment protests would turn into ding-dong stone pelting battles between the protestors and the police.

These like other anti-establishment protests were met with force and some of the people joining these protests were arrested and charged under severe laws.

The government traditionally has seen and classified any protest as anti-national. In June, 1988, people came on to streets to protest the sudden steep hike in power tariff in Srinagar. The government ordered use of force to quell the protests. The protests soon turned into stone pelting battles. Police resorted to firing killing three and injuring many others. Many were booked and jailed under the PSA.

“In the backdrop of the use of such disproportionate force and punitive follow up action with summary arrests and long jail terms for protestors the thinking that, either you die or you are behind the bars, overtook the popular psyche plunging most off the populace into despair,” says a senior journalist, who has been reporting from Kashmir for 25 years. The government even rejected the demand for an enquiry.

Many of the young men who were incarcerated for pelting stones on police later proved to be a readily available force for militants seeking recruits. Some of them went on to become top militant commanders.
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A group of masked protesters speak during their press conference against arrested youths in Srinagar. BILAL BHADUR

“Young men like Mushtaq Zargar, Noor Mohammed Kalwal, Altaf Qureshi, Mohammed Ashraf Buch, Javaid Sofi, Altaf Misger and Iqbal Zargar actively participated in protest and stone pelting before the start of armed militancy,” says a retired academic of Maisuma Srinagar. “They later started using crude petrol bombs and actively participate in stone pelting incidents.”

The transition to more virulent street battles was short lived as the crude petrol bombs would be rendered too primitive with the arrival of machine guns, and military grade grenade explosions announcing the start of armed insurgency in Kashmir. Most political scientists here believe that the Gawkadal massacre in Governor Jagmohan’s rule pushed youth towards armed militancy.

On Jan 20, 1990, an estimated 52 people were killed at Gawkadal Bridge when troops fired upon a massive unarmed protest. Governor Jagmohan had joined office a day earlier on January 19.

As militancy went on a decline, the expression of public discontent and anger started pouring on the streets. A tiny spark could inflame the entire valley giving a vent to the apparently pent up anger and simmering discontent besides the presence of thousands of troops deployed in the civilian areas providing the target.

In 2008 spring, the Amarnath land row in Kashmir triggered massive protests in the Valley. The valley-wide protests broke out after the state government transferred 39.88 hectares of forest land to Amarnath shrine board and right wing Hindu parties enforced an economic blockade on the landlocked Kashmir valley by stopping all vehicular movement on the only open road connecting the valley with the rest of the world.

The intensity of the protest and the simmering discontent and palpable anger within the population especially the youth was so deep seated that green flags were hoisted on the clock tower in the middle of Lal Chowk, which is guarded by troops round the clock and housed a military bunker. The row killed at least 54 people, injured scores more and claimed the Ghulam Nabi Azad government.

Land may be a sensitive issue for Kashmiris who have always feared that New Delhi may try to alter the state’s demography, but even seemingly mundane issues can turn the valley into an inferno.

On Nov 5, 1975 the government tried to change the name of Government College for Women, Maulana Azad Road to Nehru Memorial College.

The students of the college and the other colleges especially the adjoining SP College came on the streets. As police tried to remove them with force the students retaliated by pelting stones.

Gulzar Ahmed who studied in SP College then, says, “Many students from our college and also Amar Singh College held demonstrations and tried to move towards the spot and engaged the police in ding dong battles. Some stones were also pelted on Sheikh Abdullah’s vehicle who was supposed to preside over the function.”

The history of stone pelting incidents had also another dimension as two main political families fought over control of politically sensitive assets and territory. The Shiekh’s supporters and Mirwaiz family supporters would engage in pitched battles making it impossible for Shers (loins or Shiekh’s supports) and Bakras (goats; a slang for Mirwaiz family supporters) to move in areas dominated by the other. Many families had to migrate to other areas to avoid persecution.

The other major incident that brought popular resentment and anger out on the streets within the last two years was the 2009 Shopian case. The twin deaths of 22-year old Nilofar, and her teen sister-in-law Asiya, 17, in Shopian set the whole valley on fire.

The year 2010 has already seen many innocents dying unnatural violent deaths including of a father of three, who allegedly was used as a human shield. Three teenagers were killed, one of dubbed as an “anti social” element. These deaths inflame more passions and provoke more demonstrations and the government smelling a rat comes up with more repressive measures.

“The government takes part of the responsibility. We have taped records of conversations in which separatists were instigating gang leaders of the stone-pelters, tracked movement of money for these leaders and monitored conversations from across the Line of Control in which the status report of the day’s stone-pelting is sought. They also bear their share of responsibility. It’s not just a law and order problem. It’s much bigger,” Omar Abdullah said.

The security grid had already branded stone pelting “agitational terrorism” and “gunless terrorism”.

Separatist leaders like Shabir Ahmed Shah and Nayeem Khan were arrested and charged for organizing and abetting stone pelting on police. The PSA was slapped on both of them.

However, social scientist, Professor Bashir Ahmad Dabla holds the heavy militarization and atrocities committed by government forces while combating militancy responsible for the state of mind of the valley youth.

Citing examples from a book published by London School of Economics about “Women in Conflict”, Dabla says that in heavily militarised areas youth, men and children are no doubt the sufferers but it is the women who bear the brunt. “It is the women who are being raped or molested. And nowadays budding youth are witness to everything especially after Shopian incident. So their way of protesting is a normal human behavior,” Dabla says.

Today’s youth, in their teens or having just passed teens were born and brought up in the time Kashmir saw the bloodiest period of its recent history.
Stone pelting incidents have become frequent in urban areas of Kashmir.
BILAL BHADUR

“Compared to 90’s, at present there is immediate connection of sacrifices with youngsters. There are scores of people who have lost their fathers, brothers and colleagues in the last 20 years of perpetual strife,” says Gulshan Bano of Budgam, who lost her husband and her lone son to the strife.

Though there has been a marked decline in militancy and government claimed 2009 to be the most peaceful year in the last 20 years, it is yet to allow any space for a peaceful protest or a dissenting voice. For the last two decades it has been building India’s most efficient anti-militancy police force and the government mentality and approach remains that way.

“Those having stakes in separatist armed strife want to desperately switch over to a different mode of turbulence after militancy has reduced to a trickle. As of now, government’s entire counter-insurgency initiative stands designed on an agitation full of arms and ammunition,” says a police official who has had a 10-year stint in Special Operations Group (SOG) of the police.

The state police was so much preoccupied with building capabilities and armoury to fight militants that during Amarnath land row crisis when people came to the streets in large numbers, it had to import batons, bamboo sticks and shields in bulk from a north eastern state.

The Public Safety Act was earlier named Defence of India Act, which then changed nomenclature in 1967. The Act was enacted in Jammu and Kashmir in 1978 during the rule of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, and was amended in 1987 and 1990.
PSA was enacted in 1978 which empowers deputy commissioner, D.C, and the state government to detain any person for a period of two years.
Under this act there is no trial and no bail but the detained person can only make a representation against the order of detention to the state government or an advisory board can order the release.
An order of detention can be passed if the activities of the detained person are prejudicial to the security of the state or public order. The act can also be applied to the timber smugglers.

The normal policing capabilities apparently seem missing in the J&K police. On the day a tear gas shell killed 14-year old Wamiq Farooq of Rainawari, police fired 998 tear smoke shells on protestors in Srinagar alone. These tear gas shells were worth over Rs 10 lakh. While there is bewilderment among observers as to why the local police does not employ water cannons, which would bring down the costs incurred in controlling such protests as also prove very effective during the cold winter months. Rubber bullets are another cost-effective alternative that has not been effectuated to desired levels.

“We are caught in a system which seems bound to consume lives. How long we have to give the blood of Wamiq’s and Zahid’s,” says a stone-pelter tearing away his mask and exposing a youthful face.

Within days of the stone pelters’ press conference police claimed to have arrested their kingpin and identified him as Irshad Ahmed and another alleged “habitual” stone pelter known as Owais Mandela of Maisuma Srinagar. Scores of other youth have been detained under PSA in Srinagar and other towns like Baramulla and Sopore for their alleged involvement in stone pelting incidents.

Omar Abdullah talking to a Delhi based newspaper however, said that there were no similarities between today’s and pre-1990 situation. “I think you base your perceptions on the handful of police stations in downtown Srinagar. The situation is far removed from the 1990s. It is not even like 2008. What we are going through is a fallout of the 2008 Amarnath agitation when protests, demonstrations and stone-pelting were put into practice. But today’s situation is confined to areas under five police stations in Srinagar. Barring those who are ideologically opposed to our party and family, I don’t think anybody will tell you we are sliding back (to the ’90s),” he said.

There are, however, striking resemblances between the pre-1990 era and today. Then it was an NC government, now it is also an NC government. At that time government came down heavily on the protestors including those decrying the power hike and slapping them with PSA, now even 14 year olds are threatened with PSA and 307RPC.

In the present circumstances even a much older, weaker and more sane Yasin Malik, who shunned the gun 16 years ago is completely dejected.

“For 15 years I have been propagating non-violence but there are signs of frustration among both the youth and the older people,” an apparently desperate Malik said.

What can be the state of youth and where are they being driven?

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