This is a question that plagues most minds in India when the issue of the deaths of unarmed protesters arises. To answer their misplaced curiosity, I meet Danish Bashir, a shy 10 year-old and one of Central Kashmir’s Most Wanted Persons.
In Kashmir, 10 year-olds go underground to evade arrest. Then family members are harassed by the security agencies and sometimes even charged and tortured. But Danish Bashir has managed to dodge the police for months.
I track him down. When I find him, Danish pulls up his shirt to cover his angelic face. He knows the implications a camera pointed at him can have on his life. Surrounded by well-wishers and friends, he sits cross-legged on the floor. ‘Why do they [the security forces] commit atrocities on us? Why do they hit us and misbehave with the womenfolk?’ Danish asks in a high-pitched voice. I have no answer.
Some senior members of the police recently conducted a study on those who have been killed on the streets in the last five months. The report revealed that ‘60 per cent of those killed were children and youth and 68 per cent of the 120 killed had fathers who were illiterate. This also means they hail from a lower socio-eco status. What is interesting to observe is why this particular group is being targeted. Are they being swayed by what they are being told? It is worth investigation.’
Life in a conflict zone is always hardest on its most vulnerable population – the children. But 4 August was a different kind of hard for Danish.
Danish’s friend Yakoob Bhat, aged 21, was shot while they were sitting and chatting in Nund Reshi Colony around 7 pm. ‘He used to take me for rides on his scooter and we used to play cricket together,’ Danish mumbles, staring at the floor. ‘We were just sitting and chatting, when Yakoob was fired upon.’
Pointing to the left side of his abdomen, Danish showed us where Yakoob was hit that day. When asked what he did after his friend was shot, Danish replies: ‘I removed my shirt to cover his wound, as he was losing a lot of blood.’ Little did Danish know that he would lose his friend en route to the hospital. ‘Until then, I used to watch protests. After that day, I started stone throwing.’
A couple of boys from the locality stopped a vehicle carrying chickens to rush Yakoob to the hospital. ‘I was there with him. But he had lost a lot of blood by the time we reached JVC Hospital. Doctors said he had died on the way.’
Since then, Danish has had a hard time eating or sleeping. ‘I’d see his face every time I fell asleep,’ he says in a meek voice, teary-eyed. Psychiatrists say that 60 per cent of the area’s population suffers from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Weeks later, Danish still holds on to the bullet cartridge that killed Yakoob. He doesn’t need it to help him remember – I’m afraid it won’t let him forget. He will be reminded every time he steps out of his home and comes across a man in a uniform. They won’t let him forget.
Now, the police want Danish. They want him so much that many police and paramilitary personnel cordoned off his locality to hunt for him. In a crackdown, the security forces surrounded his house and dragged his 50 year-old father and 70 year-old grandfather out of their homes and detained them in a lock-up after assaulting them. Danish’s grandfather was let off in the evening on the same day, and his father was set free after a week.
The forces think Danish is much older than he is. His family says, ‘They don’t believe he’s a child. We’ve told them time and again but they don’t believe us. Look at him, he weighs as much as a big stone. How much damage can he do to armed security personnel who are protected by body armour?’
Danish’s friend laughs as he tells us about the day there was a crackdown in their locality, ‘because they weren’t believing us that Danish is very young, during the crackdown, he was right there under the their noses. He just rode a bicycle past.’
When asked if fear stalks him while he throws stones at the security forces, Danish says: ‘I don’t get scared.’ His parents have tried everything to wean him away. ‘We hit him but he doesn’t listen. We don’t want him to be killed on the road.’
But innocence still lives in Danish’s heart. He says he misses school and his friends because of the strife that has descended in the last six or seven months.
What do you want to be when you grow up? I ask him. He replies with a smile: ‘I’m going to be a big sangbaz (stone thrower) when I grow up.’