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When the Mughals invaded Kashmir in the late 16th century, they built a fort on a hilltop in Srinagar. It’s part of folk history that, brimming with anger, young Kashmiri men would clandestinely appear on the streets of old Srinagar. Holding stones in their hands, these men would divide themselves into small groups, and on seeing Mughal soldiers coming down from barracks on the hilltop, hurl the stones at them, prompting them to retreat. This act of resistance to the Mughal occupation would earn the young men the title of Dilawar or braveheart.
More than four centuries later, the primitive stone continues to be the weapon of choice for yet another generation of angry Kashmiris. They say they are carrying forward the ‘torch of freedom’. Incidentally, the area of Nowhatta, a stone’s throw from the historic Mughal fort, still remains, after 430 years, the ground zero of stone-pelting protests in the Valley.
Stone-pelting is not, however, confined to the alleys of downtown Srinagar. It has spread far and wide, to villages and towns across the Valley and also the Muslim-majority Chenab valley of Jammu. It intensified after the 2008 agitation over transfer of forest land to the Amarnath shrine board and later during the 2010 agitation. Since then, stone-pelting has remained a weekly affair, taking place on Fridays. This summer, it has become a daily affair.
Even after the curfew which lasted 52 days was lifted, the facade of normalcy that often cloaks Kashmir is missing from the streets. What remains is groups of boys holding stones in their hands.
Why do these boys, mostly educated and tech-savvy, nurse such deep hatred in their hearts? What is their idea of azadi? What drives them to risk their lives? Do they receive money for throwing stones?
To know answers to these and many more questions, Outlook met four stone-pelters in the middle of a stringent curfew in restive downtown, where the walls are painted: ‘Go India, go back’, ‘Indian dogs go back’, and ‘Pakistan zindabad’. These youths, all of them teenagers, refused to take off their masks before the camera and revealed only their first name.
They shared a common thread of experience: all have been witness to, or have experienced first-hand, beatings, torture, harassment and humiliation at the hands of the security forces. Throwing stones, the boys admitted, is a kind of cathartic release for them. “We’re making a political statement by throwing stones. India is an aggressor; it is unwelcome here.”
A successful career is the last thing on the mind of these boys. They laugh off the suggestion that they are paid money by separatists to pelt stones and that Pakistan and its secret agency ISI are behind them. (The authorities too have failed to establish the money angle so far.) They also understand that their stones would not result in the end of Indian rule in Kashmir, at least in the foreseeable future, and can only invite bullets, pellets or teargas shells, often blinding them for life or leaving them dead.
Also, contrary to the oft generated suspicion by sections of the mainstream, it appears that it’s not religion that drives these teenagers to the streets. Although they wear masks scribbled with pro-Pakistan slogans, carry Pakistani flags and in one instance, one of them even brandished an ISIS flag, none of them mentioned Islam or ‘Islamisation of Kashmir’ even once. Their story in their own words:
Farooq, 17, student: I have three sisters. My father is aging and my family looks to me as the breadwinner. I know I figure on the police radar for actively participating in stone-pelting protests. Sooner or later, I will be arrested, jailed or even killed. I also understand that it will be my father, or my sisters, who will have to beg and bribe the local thanedar for my release. Yet, in spite of all this, I choose to be a stone-thrower.
When I take part in stone pelting, I am conscious of the fact that I may die. But I no longer fear arrest and death. Even family understands this now. Earlier, they would stop me from joining protests. No more. Life seems meaningless and empty when you see death up-close. I feel anger building up inside me. It’s when you no longer apply your mind that you go to the extreme.
During the past 50 days, I have hardly spent a night at home. My parents and my sisters long to see me. But I know that azadi doesn’t come cheap. You have to keep on offering sacrifice for achieving the goal. I lost many friends during the 2010 movement. I was just 11 then. Even this year, Yasir, a teenager, was shot dead in front of me. When you witness such things, you don’t need any one to motivate you to throw stones.
A Kashmiri youth stands in front of blackened ISIS graffiti in Srinagar
That we are paid to throw stones is nothing less than a filthy insinuation. Do you think anyone will risk his life by taking on bullets and pellets for a few hundred rupees? Do you know how it feels after being hit by a bullet or a teargas shell? The pain is killing. They say that the security forces are to here to protect us. That’s a complete lie. It’s they who are paid to kill us. This movement will stop after the last Indian soldier leaves Kashmir. I may not see the dawn of azadi, but it’s now our duty to keep the movement alive. The torch of freedom has to be carried forward. One day we will be an azad country.
Bashir, 19, salesman: Stone- throwing is not cricket. It’s as serious as picking a gun and becoming a militant. It’s another form of resistance against India. I heard that Jews jail Palestinians for 20 years for throwing stones. I’m sure such a draconian law will find its way to Kashmir too. Yet, such measures only harden us, turn us stone-like.
We are not paid by anyone. Indians say stone-throwers are ready to die for Rs 500 paid by Pakistan. Do you think I will face bullets for just Rs 500? That is too cheap a price for a life! What is the aftermath of stone throwing—FIRs, torture, jail, constant harassment of family members. Who would volunteer for this nightmare—and for just Rs 500?
To protect ourselves from teargas, rubbing toothpaste around eyes or putting a pinch of salt under the tongue helps. What other means are left with us when they handle peaceful protests with teargas shells and bullets? It’s only stones through which we make ourselves heard.
I was a child in 2008 (when the Amarnath land agitation broke out) when I picked the first stone. Since then, my hatred for India has only surged. But my biggest worry is that our leadership should not sell us like they did in 2008 and 2010. If this time our leadership succumbs to pressures and no result-oriented measures (towards resolution of the Kashmir issue) are taken, I will call it a day. I will not take to the streets and engage with ruthless cops any more.
You’ll be surprised to know that my brother works in the police. But for me, he is just like any other CRPF trooper. Both represent India in Kashmir. He acknowledges that India is an oppressor, but he has chosen to side with them. Sometimes our discussions lead to confrontations. So, in a sense, I’m fighting the oppressor both at home and outside.
Wamiq, 15, student: Recently, a bullet pierced my abdomen, injuring me critically. A cop shot at me from a point-blank range with the clear intention to kill. But Allah saved me and allowed a speedy recovery. When my parents came to know about my injury, they virtually beseeched me to stop pelting stones. But I told them, without mincing any words, that I want to attain martyrdom.
Some days ago, the police killed my friend Irfan Wani, an 18-year-old from Fateh Kadal in downtown Srinagar. It was a target killing, as Irfan was a mentor for hundreds of stone-throwers like me. He had 21 FIRs in different police stations in Srinagar. They were hounding him round the clock. If he hadn’t had two unmarried sisters and a widowed mother to take care of, he would have joined militants long ago. I am yet to find a stone-thrower like him anywhere in Kashmir.
Since guns aren’t available—though I tried hard to get one—all I have is a stone in my hand. I don’t see any difference between a brother killed with a gun in his hand or a youth killed while throwing stones. Both are martyrs in the cause of azadi.
Our stones have frustrated the Indians. They have now infiltrated their agents into our ranks. But that won’t end it. The 2010 agitation had paid PDP stone throwers. Now in 2016, there are some stone-throwers belonging to National Conference. I have seen them. If the Indians are referring to these pre-paid and post-paid stone-throwers, then it is true. However, they actually want to say that it’s Pakistan and the Hurriyat which is paying us. It’s a preposterous charge.
I don’t follow any leader. In fact, most political leaders see stone pelting as a threat to their own agenda. They know they can’t thrust anything here until this resistance is alive. I, for one, have never met a Hurriyat leader. But we do follow their protest calendars in letter and spirit and respect their decisions. I am fighting my battle with stones and arguments. My two uncles were working with the police and I convinced one to resign.
Some people try to pacify us by pointing towards the repercussions. We have seen it all. I had to move during nights for dressing up my wound. I want to tell my enemy that to stop stone-throwing in Kashmir, they will have to kill the entire stone-throwing army. After all, don’t we have more than 50,000 children orphaned in the conflict?
Rayan, 15, student: I am aware that by throwing stones we’ll not get rid of Indian rule. India is a powerful country and has led an all-out war against us. It is a symbolic form of resistance. We want to tell India that you can rule our land but not our hearts and minds. When you see an eight-year-old child beaten to death, you stop thinking normally. You start hating the occupier and want to do everything that will hurt them. Azadi marches and sit-INS may be sponsored but not stone throwing. Those who utter such nonsense have no idea of the Kashmiri psyche. I wish guns were as freely available today as they were in the 1990s. There would be a mass armed movement, better organised and more effective than the previous one. I would be the first to enlist.
The Kashmiri leadership has tried to solve the issue peacefully, but we have been betrayed each time. In fact, it has been a misjudgement by our leaders to trust New Delhi time and again. But New Delhi must know that the more they oppress Kashmiris, the more rage it will generate against them. Though freedom is a distant thing, resistance is in our blood and we will continue to resist.
By Showkat A. Motta in Srinagar with Aasif Sultan