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The stone wars of Srinagar

On the streets of Kashmir’s capital, a dark version of 20-20 has two teams: Students and police. There are no winners, Peerzada Ashiq reports.

india Updated: Jun 22, 2009 00:30 IST
Peerzada Ashiq
Peerzada Ashiq
Hindustan Times

A masked boy with half a brick in hand aims at a police Gypsy. A bleeding policeman is evacuated. Masked youth hurl smoking tear-gas shells back at paramilitary soldiers.

Only, the violence that has come to define Kashmir’s capital isn’t quite as random as the images on your television screen and newspapers suggest. The daily barrage of stones by Srinagar’s angry young men has evolved its own grammar, a dress code, a coded language and a new name. “They call it the 20-20,” said a police source wryly, referring to the shortest, slam-bang version of cricket.

More than 2,000 youth have been injured in Srinagar’s stone wars since the summer of 2008. More than 10 have died, but each time they battle security forces to a frustrating standstill. The message: You cannot have the peace you seek.

Observers and police officers told HT that stone throwing, used in Kashmir since the 1930s, is changing from a random act after Friday prayers to an organised tool of resistance that uses a daily flurry of stones.

“Earlier it used to be the weapon of the have-nots, who would fight pitched battles with the police,” said G.M. Zahid, author of My Tale Your Story, a book on downtown Srinagar. “Now it is spreading to other areas of Srinagar with more and more educated youth joining the mobs.”

It all begins in downtown Srinagar, a maze of narrrow lanes and backstreets where paramilitary soldiers and even local police find a crackdown difficult. “Downtown is the heart of Kashmir’s movement. We want to keep it beating,” said Ahmad (not his real name). He’s in his early 20s, and one of those who organises youth from across the downtown areas into stone-throwing brigades.

The cycle starts every Friday, when the streets leading from Jama Masjid — downtown Srinagar’s grand mosque in its 3-sq-km old city — to its uptown areas and suburbs fill with devotees immediately after prayers. Once the main section of devotees melt away in the lanes and by-lanes, a well-organised group of young men stays back to provoke and engage the security forces.

Ahmad, who lost his uncle in the 1990s in a gunbattle with security forces, is not ready to reveal where he stays, not even his age. All that he will say is that he is a graduate.

Ahmad is a ghost, one of thousands, who exists only in television and photographic images. He’s suspicious of anyone who wants to meet him.

“Police allow their own men in our mobs,” he said. “They too wear masks. So we have created a task force to keep a check.” This “task-force” stays back while the main body of rioters attacks the police and paramilitary, mainly the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). They check identity cards of suspects.

"If they carry police’s I-card we beat them up,” said Ahmad, who constantly changes SIM cards on the three cell phones he carries. To avoid any confusion, stone-pelters have masks that identify them.

The kafiyeh helps cover faces of course, but it’s also useful as a bandage. Sometimes, it’s used as a slingshot to hurl live teargas shells back at advancing security forces.

On the streets, the elaborate language of the stone wars plays out (see graphic), explained to HT by Ahmed and his friend, who warns us from even asking his name.

Stone throwing is now such a concern for the security forces that last year, Afadul Mujtaba, a Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP), pasted bills across downtown quoting the Quran and the Hadith (Prophet Muhammad’s sayings), declaring stone throwing unIslamic.

After sparking a debate in local dailies, the police “fatwa” is losing steam.

“If it’s unIslamic,” argued Ahmed, “Why do Palestinians use it?” Stone throwers said this was their “only weapon”.

Both took this reporter to the centre of the Jama Masjid chowk, to a blue board that said: Shaheed Muntazir Chowk.

Here, a young man called Muntazir was killed by security forces last year, they said.

Now, the stone-throwers are feeling the heat from an innovation privately used by some CRPF soldiers: A slingshot.

“They fire marbles at us with slings,” said Ahmad. “One of our colleagues lost his eye last week when he was hit by a marble.”

The CRPF denied the official use of slingshots. “We don’t get any stocks of slingshots,” said CRPF spokesman Prabhakar Tripathi. “But if two or three constables are doing it, they do it under minimum use of force.”

And so the 20-20 plays out. There are no winners.

First Published: Jun 21, 2009 23:09 IST