As Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the Valley’s head cleric and senior separatist leader, delivered his sermon from the pulpit inside the Jamia Masjid on Friday, there was activity outside.
Different activity, in stark contrast with the peace with which the worshippers in the mosque sat, waiting for the namaz.
In the labyrinth of by-lanes surrounding the grand mosque in downtown Srinagar, teenage boys, dressed in pherans (long woollen cloaks) and track pants, were busy getting ready, just like the CRPF jawans and policemen that had already arrived.
It seemed as if both groups were waiting for the Mirwaiz to end, with patience that comes only with experience.
And at 2 pm, when the Mirwaiz ended his religious sermon laced with the ills of the dreaded AFSPA, a law that gives the army power to catch and kill with impunity, the activity outside turned into commotion and the first blast was heard.
The teenagers, shouting anti-India slogans, were now throwing stones and broken glass at the forces, who were responding also by throwing stones and firing tear gas, and even warning to fire their guns.
This was the first time I had been a witness to the pitched battle we see only on TV outside, but here, all this is routine. “Ye Kashmir mein hota rehta hai, nothing new (all this keeps happening here in Kashmir),” said a jawan, who, like his colleagues, had come prepared, wearing helmets and leg pads, and carrying tear smoke canisters and pellet guns.
It was just another day at work, he said.
‘Not driven by Islamists’
As photographers, themselves covered in gas masks and helmets, took pictures the young boys with their faces completely covered, a man – in his early twenties – was stopped by the police. He screamed his lungs out, trying to tell them that he had not thrown any stones. His pleas fell on deaf ears, as he was dragged into the waiting police van.
Young men like him are not let off that easily, and are sometimes charged with the Public Safety Act. In case of minors, most are let off after getting assurance from families. But what caught my eye were the masks some of the stone-pelters wore. The masks had ISIS, the West-Asian jihadist group, scribbled in bold letters.
But residents and observers say most of the youths involved in such protests are not moved by an Islamist agenda, rather by a feeling to show their anger against the armed forces.
“I’m not even sure if most of them even offer the namaz every Friday,” said an auto-rickshaw driver from the area.
Even a journalist working with a local newspaper I spoke to wondered who the youths would throw stones at if the armed forces did not turn up on Fridays. In fact, would there be a protest at all, he asked.
‘Intimidation by forces’
But the Mirwaiz was sure whom to blame for the “Friday” stone pelting. Speaking to the HT, he said it was the “intimidating” presence of the armed forces in and around the grand mosque.
“Their presence acts as a provocation for the young men who retaliate, and that’s why you have the routine stone-pelting,” the Mirwaiz said. “Take any of the major mosques here, do you see such large presence of security forces on Fridays? No, it’s only here at the Jamia Masjid and we have raised our voice against this so many times.”
The Mirwaiz added that with diminishing political space for dissent in Kashmir, young men saw pelting of stones at the personnel as the only means of registering their protest.
“If they throw one stone, the security forces retaliate with tear gas. Residents and shop-owners of the locality have complained that this regular use of tear gas is leading to many respiratory problems.”
He seemed to be right. Forty-five minutes later, as the stone pelting subsided and the security forces started to back out, the crowd of protesters on the other side erupted in cheer, although the tear gas in the air still made breathing difficult.