They are young, most of them in their school or college uniforms. Some of them wear burkhas while many of them have their heads and faces covered. Their school bags slung on their backs, now they also have stones in their hands.
Young girls barely out of their teens have become the new face of protests in Kashmir, adding a new dimension to the story of a valley wracked by years of violence and brutal retaliation government forces.
This April, the valley has woken up to fresh violence sparked by the killing of whom people describe as innocent civilians by security forces. The anger has been fanned by several video clips which purportedly show human rights abuse by security forces, including the use of a Kashmiri man as a human shield.
The anger has spilled out on to the streets and young women are leading the charge.
Dozens of pictures have gone viral on social media -- of groups of girls and women pelting stones on police and CRPF personnel.
A young girl seen kicking an armoured police vehicle has drawn particular attention for the anger it represents – she is said to have reacted in the manner after a college girl was injured on April 21 in Srinagar’s Old City.
“Why should we fear? Things can’t get worse than what has already happened in Kashmir. We have seen dead and mutilated bodies. We have seen many of our brothers and sisters defaced by pellets. At the most we will also die,” said Neelofar Jabeen (name changed on request), a 21-year-old arts student of Women’s College in Srinagar.
Protests by women and girls, even at the verge of violence, is not new to India.
Thousands of students, most of them girls, had taken to the streets in 2012 after the Delhi gang rape and murder of a paramedic student on a moving bus. The protesting girls had broken through police barricades and clashed with security forces seeking safety for women and punishment to the accused in the case that had numbed the country.
A police official in Kashmir described the new trend as “teenage aggression”.
“These things happen everywhere. Students come out in all parts of India to protest. Some where they come out for students’ rights and somewhere they come out for ‘azadi’. The aggression is same. And women have been protesting in Kashmir even before,” the official said.
Kashmir witnessed one of the worst summers in 2016 when more than 90 people lost their lives during violent street protests following the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen leader Burhan Wani in July.
Hundreds of people, many of them children, lost their eyesight to pellet guns fired by government forces, attracting international outrage.
On Monday, Jabeen was part of massive student protests and stone-pelting in Lal Chowk, five days after schools and colleges opened following suspension of class work by the government. The colleges were closed after students across the valley took to the streets on April 17 to protest police action, two days earlier, on fellow-students of Pulwama Degree College in south Kashmir.
The girls shouted azadi slogans while the boys from the nearby Shri Pratap College and School targeted government forces with stones and projectiles. Within no time many girls, some in dresses with floral prints, also joined the boys. The two groups mingled and chased the armoured vehicles of police and CRPF. The government forces retaliated with tear gas shelling.
“Nothing will happen if we remain silent. The brutalities of Indian forces are continuing and then the narrative of ‘paid stone-pelter’ by Indian media continues. They are giving us a bad name. Now what will they say when a student in uniform throws stones,” said a social science student of Women’s College, who says she is a supporter of hardline Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Geelani.
“The anger was (always) there but the Pulwama incident fired that even more. We have understood that the power is in youth. It is now our turn. The Kashmir issue needs to be resolved. Majority of us want independence,” she said, seeking anonymity.
Since armed insurgency broke out in 1989, Kashmiri women have always been part of protests and demonstrations. Massive pro-freedom demonstrations in the past have seen thousands of women participants, with many of them singing songs while eulogising militants. But the aggressive posturing by girl students now have left many stunned.
“During the early 1990s, when we used to go to schools, just one bullet would send us shivering. We would run into corners by the sound of a tear gas shell or a grenade. I would not have imagined in my wildest dreams that Kashmiri girls can chase a police vehicle with stones in their hands. The situation in Kashmir is scary and the women doing these things make it scarier,” said a female journalist working in Srinagar.