The New Stone Age

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The politics of stone pelting in Kashmir Valley. Why it happens. How it can be stopped.

In downtown Srinagar in Kashmir, she is known by the name Rani—queen. Her body bears marks of battles she has fought over the past few years. Men who have watched her in the thick of action sometimes quip dreamily that if she had been fighting for the British, they would have awarded her a Victoria Cross. Only, in this case, she fights in Kashmir Valley, and she is a Maruti Gypsy. On Fridays, and sometimes every day for weeks, as is the case currently, Rani saves the lives of policemen whom she ferries to the battle zone where hundreds of angry youth, armed with stones and acid bombs, are baying for the blood of security personnel. This anger is particularly aimed at the Kashmir Police, because most of them are local Kashmiris, and these angry youth cannot grasp the fact that these men could be doing their duty: in this case, confronting these young agitators with tear gas, rubber bullets and even real bullets at times, occasionally arresting some of them under the stringent Public Safety Act (PSA). 

In the past few weeks, the agitation has become rather raucous. There have been a few deaths—six youngsters have died in police action so far this year—leading to curfew-like conditions in some parts of the Valley. The biggest stir of recent times has been provoked by the case of Tufail Ahmad Mattoo, a teenager killed on 11 June during clashes between the police and a group of stone-throwers. The cause of death, as autopsy reports reveal, was a firearm injury—inflicted apparently by a shot fired by a policeman. 

Last week, another man, Muhammad Rafiq Bangroo, succumbed to injuries from a beating by soldiers of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). A relative of his, Javaid Ahmad Malla, died during the funeral procession; some mourners accompanying Bangroo’s body to the graveyard had begun pelting a CRPF bunker with stones, and a soldier fired back. 

While this happened, Kashmir’s Chief Minister Omar Abdullah was away from Srinagar, holidaying at Gulmarg. The state capital was grim by the time he returned, perhaps why it took only a few hours from him to go right back to the cooler heights of the mountain resort. By way of action, the CM quickly ordered the transfer of Srinagar’s Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP), Javaid Reyaz Bedar, for his failure in keeping control of the situation. It is a different matter altogether that Bedar is seen as one of the most efficient officers in the state police, and has been known to clamp down heavily on his men who use even teargas shells unnecessarily. 

On social networking sites like Facebook, young Kashmiris who are tired of this endless cycle of violence are dubbing CM Abdullah J&K’s ‘BlackBerry Czar’ for his reported tendency of keeping busy with his cellphone even during important meetings. 

But why have incidents of stone throwing become so prominent over the past two years—in fact, since the 2008 Amarnath agitation? Distant observers pinpoint the origin of this form of protest to the Palestinian uprising of 2000, arguing that TV coverage of the event has globalised the use of stone pelting. However, that analysis betrays a lazy understanding of local forces at work in the Valley.

For one thing, stone pelting in J&K has a history that precedes the 2000 Palestinian intifada. For another, for a long time such protests were confined to just a couple of spots in downtown Srinagar. Of late, however, it has spread almost everywhere, from Baramulla in north Kashmir to Shopian in the south. 

What’s happening? Consider the lament of a leader from a mainstream political party. Gathering a crowd for a political rally has become very difficult, he complains, since people are being offered much more money to pelt stones in the town’s main market. 

Therein lies the key. Over the past few years, militancy in Kashmir has been on a dwindle. Top police sources reveal that this has caused considerable unease among separatist leaders, who find it hard to justify the flow of funds that comes their way through various channels including hawala. The diversion of funds to troublemakers who instigate the youth to confront security personnel has been a convenient way out for them.

The police slots the Valley’s stone throwers into two groups. One, the money leaders. These are men who are in touch with separatist groups and are given money to keep the Valley astir. And two, the money seekers. These are unemployed youngsters either in need of cash or easily talked into throwing stones for fun or adventurism. “We have even come across proper lists of stone throwers, a proper cadre list prepared by a senior separatist leader,” says a senior police officer serving in one such war zone. 

“The separatists have realised that defeating the State militarily is not possible,” he adds, “So they have developed this alternative.” So, while stone pelting keeps the agitation going, assuring it adequate TV publicity, it also draws the desired funds from sources across the Line of Control (LoC). All in all, it gives an impression that Kashmir is still a ‘disputed territory’, and that the ‘cause’ has not been given up, even if the once-stated goal of ‘azaadi’ has turned hazy in its implications in recent years. 

In some areas, the youth have even begun to see through the designs of separatist groups. In Baramulla, for example, the youth have told the police that they would quit pelting stones if arrested youth are let off. The khaki clad forces are hoping that agitators in other areas will also lay down their stones. 

The question of ‘power’ has been debated ever since the caveman picked up his first rock. And the answer has been tilting towards what’s in the head, not hand, ever since. White collar jobs are needed. Which calls for investment. Which means laying down those stones.