Irshad Ahmed (name changed) walks down a central Srinagar street after buying yogurt from a vendor.
Irshad Ahmed (name changed) walks down a central Srinagar street after buying yogurt from a vendor. On his way home, he stops, peers through the peep-hole of a sandbag pillbox at the corner of the road and says in an elegant voice to the CRPF men inside, “Kaliya, main lunch ke baad aa raha hoan, tayaar rehna” (“Kaliya, I’m coming after the lunch; be ready”).
At the nearby Jamia Masjid, Syed Ahmed Syed Naqashbandi, Imam-e-Hai (chief priest), has just finished leading the faithful in Friday congregational prayers, or Jumma Namaz, and is in the middle of the post-namaz dua, seeking forgiveness from Allah for himself and them, when the popping sound of teargas canisters being propelled in quick succession is heard from the nearby Nowhatta chowk. The air outside is fogged with teargas and its acrid smell, making eyes water. It soon engulfs some portions of the masjid too but only a few devout leave the premises in a hurry, using the western side exit. Most leave after saying sunnah salah or the optional prayers. After all, what is unfolding outside is now “routine” and people have learnt to take it in their stride.
Among the hordes of youth engaged in the latest round of the ding-dong stone pelting pitched battle with men from J&K police and CRPF along the 300-yard stretch of road between Nowhatta and Gojwara is Ahmed. He, like most others, has not covered his face and is hurling rocks at the men in Khaki after short pauses. Few are, however, wearing bandanas or three-hole balaclavas to hinder recognition. Apart from responding with teargas canisters, some CRPF men also use slingshots to fire stones to quell protests.
Sporadically, the “experts” among the sanghbaaz, or stone-pelters, including Ahmed, pick the burning canisters and throw them back at the men in uniforms and riot gear.
At nightfall, few of the stone-pelters find themselves in some uncomfortable police lockup or on a hospital bed. Most enjoying their evenings with friends and family.
Many of the security bunkers and pillboxes, laid in the heydays of militancy, that had changed the landscape of Srinagar, a 6th century town and the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir for the past about 150 years, were recently dismantled or relocated. But large security foot patrols are out every morning and remain on the move till late in the night. On Fridays, their strength increases in places where stone-pelting is now de rigueur. Like outside Jamia Masjid in Srinagar, and Maisuma, another vulnerable area.
For the past couple of years, pitched battles between stone-pelting young men and the security forces are witnessed not only on Fridays but also on Sundays along the Nallah Maar Road in the Grand Mosque neighbourhood. These are sparked off at the slightest provocation mostly, but were at their peak during the recent turbulence after the killing of Burhan Muzaffar Wani, the 22-year-old new-age poster boy of militancy and heartthrob of Kashmir’s defiant youth, in an “encounter” with security forces on July 8.
The sangbaaz and their supports call these ding-dong fights “Intifada”. Intifada, literally meaning tremor or shuddering, was a similar, relentless Palestinian campaign directed at ending the Israeli military occupation of West Bank and Gaza Strip; first lasted from 1987 to 1993 and the second began in 2000.
Locals talk of some of stone-pelting incidents being initiated or encouraged by political parties of all shades of opinion — separatist and mainstream — and other vested interests, but add that the Kashmiri youth are driven to these distractions mainly because of the alienation they feel and to vent their political frustration and feelings.
The authorities, however, squarely blame the separatists. Chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, speaking about the large-scale violence the Valley is witnessing over Wani’s killing, said, “Unfortunately some elements are hell bent upon fomenting trouble, mayhem and bloodshed in Kashmir for their vested interests and are playing with the lives of the innocent youth by instigating them to indulge in extreme violence resulting in a vicious cycle of frenzy and bloodshed”.
But Kashmir’s chief Muslim cleric and key separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, who delivers Friday sermons and the customary post-namaz political discourses at Srinagar’s Grand Mosque, says he or others in the separatist camp have no involvement whatsoever in the stone-pelting incidents. “It is actually the political sentiment, an upshot of the denial of the promised right to decide their political destiny, that brings people, especially the youth, out on the streets. We’ve nothing to do with it and, in fact, we’ve repeatedly asked these youth not to put their lives in danger because the Indian forces have often responded (to the stone-hurling) by opening fire, killing and maiming them which is a brutal way of dealing with such situations,” he said.
In fact, separatist political leadership is often placed under house arrest or taken into “preventive custody” before Friday Namaz.
Waving of green Islamic and Pakistan’s national flag is a somewhat inseparable part of these street protests.
Of late, masked youth also appear at these with ISIS flags and have ignored repeated pleas from even Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the widely-admired octogenarian separatist leader, that waving of ISIS flags diminishes “our just and indigenous struggle for freedom”.
Police sources here said that a local “small-time” cleric has been found involved in encouraging the ISIS flag waving at the protests. A reporter with a TV news channel is also under the scanner. “We’ve reports that he actually knows beforehand where such flags will go up,” a police officer said. During the Omar Abdullah-led National Conference-Congress coalition government, the police had, during investigations into the increasing incidence of stone-pelting, come across proof of the involvement of some local PDP leaders in not only encouraging the youth but also paying some to indulge in these. Asked if the NC, now in Opposition, is paying back in the same coin, the officer said, “So far we have not come across any such instance.” The police has been able to nab a number of sangbaaz with the help of CCTV footage and intelligence gathered through moles and infiltrators. “We have been able to reform many such youth who have since settled into normal lives,” the officer said.
However, there are complaints of indiscriminate and random arrests during or immediately after each stone-pelting incident and that many boys are nabbed only to extort money from their parents. The police strongly denies the charge.