Kashmir’s Kan-i-jung: Cry for Freedom

In the strife-torn valley of India-controlled Kashmir, the decades-long conflict continues to take its toll, especially on its young. Dilnaz Boga has met some of them.

A young stone-thrower outside Jama Masjid in Srinagar, demonstrating against Government apathy in handling the Shopian rape and murder cases.

Photo by: Dilnaz Boga

Every Friday, after the prayers, the slogans begin. A violent dance of marking territories unfolds on the streets of Srinagar, the summer capital of India’s northern state of Jammu and Kashmir. Shops draw their shutters, the streets empty and residents avoid peeking out of their windows for fear of tear-gas shells. ‘Yesterday, the CRPF broke all the windows,’ says Mumtaz Begum from Nowhatta. ‘We’ve stopped replacing the glass.’ Suddenly, the troops position themselves to push the protesters back. Trouble begins.

When people don’t get justice, they have no choice but to take to the streets

Flying stones bounce off the shutters of closed shops. Protesters charge at the band of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) men. The uniformed men take cover behind an armoured vehicle and ‘the match’ begins. Both sides pelt each other with stones. When the battle seems to get out of hand, tear gas is fired. But the young boys remain undeterred. They change tactics by trying to use the by-lanes in an attempt to surround the forces. They begin the charge. Too close for comfort, the forces resort to discharging shells at close range. Unfazed, the attackers abuse them and continue to engage them.

A masked teenager rushes at a battered armoured vehicle nicknamed the Taj Mahal, and kicks it, knowing well that two gun barrels are sticking out of its rear door. ‘This vehicle has been stoned so many times, it is ruined. That’s why we call it the Taj,’ laughs a protester. Fleeing the shots fired by security personnel, the protesters and I take shelter in somebody’s house. A wedding is in progress. Ten minutes later, when the firing stops, we step out to find the forces gone. ‘They’ll be back. They’ve gone for reinforcements. It’s about to turn ugly,’ a local photojournalist says ominously. He adds: ‘In the Hindu-dominated Jammu region, they use water cannons to deal with protesters. In Muslim-dominated Kashmir, they use bullets. That’s life.’ Alienation from mainstream India and victimization are the dominant sentiments here.

Unarmed youth assert their dissent against Indian soldiers – whom they view as an occupational force – by throwing stones at them, chasing them down streets and driving them out as they chant slogans of freedom. Sometimes they end up being arrested, shot or maimed by the AK-47 toting security personnel. ‘For him, his stone is equal to the soldier’s bullet,’ psychiatrist Mudasir Firdosi says, trying to explain why young stone-throwers fearlessly battle armed Indian security forces on the streets. The Government alleges involvement of local political leaders, saying it is they, controlled by Pakistan, who are behind this mayhem.

Locals shout pro-freedom slogans at the funeral of a young boy who had died while assembling a bomb in his house in Srinagar.

Photo by: Dilnaz Boga

Kan-i-jung or stone pelting as ‘an expression of anger’

The Kashmir dispute is the oldest unresolved international conflict in the world today and its most militarized zone. There are approximately 600,000 Indian military forces –including regular army, paramilitary troops, border security force and police – currently deployed in the Valley. This is in addition to thousands of renegades or counter-militants –ex-militants hired by the Indian forces to crush the uprising. The Ministry of Defence figures suggest, however, that only 600 militants operate in the Valley, of which 40 per cent are foreigners.

Salman Wani* has grown up witnessing state violence in Srinagar. This soft-spoken young man in his mid-twenties lacks the makings of an aggressive stone-thrower; he works with an aid agency. ‘I used to throw stones when I was younger, not anymore. I had seen my close friend being beaten up by the CRPF just outside our home and I felt helpless as I couldn’t do anything to save him. Often the security forces abuse us. On every street we are asked for our identification cards. I was younger then and that was the only way I could show my anger, my rebellion,’ he recalls poignantly. ‘We want them out of here,’ he adds, firmly.

Children and unemployed youth are used as pawns, and the sentiment of freedom is being manipulated to fill the coffers of local leaders who are hungry to stay in power

Salman admits that he has refrained from violence for fear of losing his job. But the brutal response by the forces continues. ‘Last year, during the two-month Amarnath land row, they shot and killed 70 protesters. Hundreds were injured besides, but no one was brought to book. I remember, boys would attend their friends’ funerals and go back to throwing stones, to seek revenge. When people don’t get justice, they have no choice but to take to the streets.’

Protesters getting ready for a demonstration against the police in Barzulla, Srinagar. A young boy was shot and killed there the previous day.

Photo by: Dilnaz Boga

In the last week of June 2009, five protesters were shot dead in Baramulla, the largest district in Northern Kashmir, for agitating against police mishandling of a woman. The state government then moved the CRPF battalion out of the district, only to be replaced by the Jammu and Kashmir police. Inspector General (Criminal Investigation Department) A G Mir claims there is a co-relation between addiction and stone throwing, arguing that those addicted to prescription drugs, cannabis or opium find stone pelting a lucrative way to support their habit. ‘They show bravado under the influence of drugs, they feel they are invincible. That’s why they indulge in risk taking behaviour. We have found that there are people who organize these events and mobilize people for political gains. They distribute Rs 100 to 300 [about $2 to $6] to each protester. The nominated leaders are known for their “heroic acts” in each locality – typical teenage mentality which boosts their ego. The rest who join the group don’t get paid.’

The conflict environment is conducive to addiction, with non-stop tension and uncertainty and soaring unemployment rates. This generation seeks escapism, Mir reasons, and wants to prove its worth through heroic deeds on the street. But drug taking is only a small part of the problem, as not all stone-throwers are addicts, explains a local journalist who wishes to remain anonymous. He further states that unless the basic problem of colonization is resolved, more and more people will continue to pour on the streets to show their frustration. Dr Firdosi feels that the addicts who protest are a minority: ‘Some of them do come to us for treatment, but the numbers are negligible.’

‘We don't have guns or bombs’

In the Valley, where thousands have been killed and thousands more remain unaccounted for, life holds little value. Some victims of violence are willing to attain what they view as martyrdom for freedom. Some protesters say life, for them, begins after death. Decades of violence has left the population in India’s only state with a Muslim majority desensitized. Says Dr Riyaz Ahmed from the de-addiction centre in Baramulla District Hospital: ‘Before the violence started, people used to see a victim of a road accident and feel queasy. Now even if kids see a decapitated body, they don't feel anything.’

Protester Ali Sheikh* may be 24 years old, but he has amassed over 15 years of experience in stone-throwing. This lanky unassuming youth claims he has his mother’s and sister’s support for taking to the streets. ‘I have sacrificed too,’ he yells, pointing to his legs and back, showing where he has suffered ‘teargas blasts thrice’. Youngsters like Ali feel they don’t have much to lose and are willing to sacrifice anything for freedom. ‘My brother is a mujahid, the other one is jailed under Public Safety Act (PSA).’ But Ali is bitter about the fact that he doesn’t get social support. ‘It’s a pity. Here, locals don’t appreciate our behaviour. In Palestine, people pray in mosques for stone-throwers. Here, they abuse us.

Protesters show the bullets that police fired upon them at a demonstration against the police in Barzulla, Srinagar. A young boy was shot and killed there the previous day.

Photo by: Dilnaz Boga

‘I get angry at what is being done to our people. We don’t have guns and bombs or we’d use them to attain freedom,’ he shouts at the family of a 14 year old who got injured in a protest the day before. The family accuses Ali of using minors for stone throwing.

United by a cause

The rape and murder of two women by policemen in a village in Shopian on 29 May 2009 led to numerous demonstrations across Kashmir. Women joined the protests. ‘What is more important to a woman than her dignity?’ asks 23-year-old Arzoo Khan from Kashmir University’s history department. Arzoo cites religion as a reason to protest: ‘It is a sin in our religion to keep quiet when someone is being wronged. If we don’t stand up for them, then nobody will for us, when it is our turn.’ This articulate young woman feels that the violence won’t end until Kashmir gets independence.

Mourners at the funeral of a young boy who had died while assembling a bomb in his house in Srinagar.

Photo by: Dilnaz Boga

We demonstrate on the streets to voice our objection and they put us in jail for that. Some of us contain our discontent because of repercussions

Fourteen-year-old Taha Hussain*, a stone pelter, injured his leg when the police fired a tear gas shell at him in Srinagar. Now recuperating at home, he is petrified that the police, who often film protests, might trace him and book him under the stringent Public Safety Act, even at his age. There are no special provisions for juveniles in Kashmir.

When asked why he was protesting, Taha replies, ‘for my community’. Timidly, he adds that he is not afraid of police brutality or of being jailed. Taha is an orphan who lives with his cousins, including Inara* who is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree. Trying to hold back tears, he admits that the family has tried to stop him before and failed. Inara cries: ‘Every time we catch him, he promises us he won’t do it again. This time he has been hurt badly. For every drop of blood he loses, we shed 10 tears. Now that he is hurt, no one has come forward to take responsibility for him.’ She refuses to believe that Taha, who happens to be a good student and a skilled athlete, is fearless. ‘When we rushed him to the hospital, he was afraid of entering the lift. Are you telling me he is not afraid when shots are fired on the street? We even tried to give him sleeping pills to make him stop, but it didn’t work. He doesn’t realize he’s being used. We don’t want him to die.’

Psychological explanations

Most of the protesters were just young children or babies in the bloody Nineties. They have not experienced the bloodshed, but have only heard about it, says Saked Dar *, a professor at the Kashmir University. Weekly protests which are not triggered by any specific event or injustice are usually politically motivated: ‘Children and unemployed youth are used as pawns, and the sentiment of freedom is being manipulated to fill the coffers of local leaders who are hungry to stay in power.’

Dr Firdosi from the Psychiatric Diseases Hospital in Rainawari explains that the ongoing conflict has left scars on the minds of the people. The stress and trauma have manifested themselves in various forms. He reiterates that only a few of the protesters suffer from disorders. Sharing a recent case study, he says: ‘I have a nine-year-old patient who fractured his leg in last year’s protest. This year he had a serious eye injury. Despite that he continues with the violence. His mother cannot handle him. His family is fed up – he lies, steals, burns pets, and bothers the neighbours. He spent three days in a police station. The child feels no pain, no remorse. We’ve diagnosed him with Conduct Disorder, with features of Hyperactive Disorder.’

Protesters shouting pro-freedom slogans on a Friday afternoon outside Jama Masjid (mosque) in Srinagar.

Photo by: Dilnaz Boga

A Kashmiri psychiatrist offers a different perspective, on what he terms as politicization of mental illnesses: the attempt to delegitimize the right to self-determination by discrediting the protesters’ demand for independence from India. ‘The stone-throwers include people who come to the streets to express their anger. If a normal person suffers injustice and has the right to protest, why not a psychiatric patient? Why do we have to invoke his diagnosis as the reason for the protests?’ He claims that someday the Government will use their psychiatrists to prove that all stone-throwers have some psychiatric illness. ‘They can bring the necessary changes in the diagnostic criteria of the psychiatric illnesses or invent new illnesses to include every protester in its fold. History bears witness to such politicization of mental illnesses. This has been the reason for most of the anti-psychiatry movements and has contributed largely to the stigma against mental illnesses.’

No looking back

Cases like that of the nine-year-old need to be directed to juvenile homes instead of jails in Kashmir, but there is no such provision by the state. ‘We can help him at this age, but once he grows up, he is likely to develop an Antisocial Personality Disorder and a substance abuse problem,’ says Dr Firdosi. Psychiatrist Dr Zaid Wani feels that once the minor is booked under PSA, he will not be able to have a normal life and his future will be ruined. ‘Once the kids mingle with hardcore criminals and there’s a social stigma attached to being jailed, there’s no looking back.’

Fourteen-year-old Rafiq War* looks like any other kid. He has big dreams. Studying in the eighth grade, this teenager has had a change of heart. ‘I gave up. I used to pelt stones but I stopped after the cops came home and humiliated my parents. We used to get money for the protests but I never used to take it.’ His parents tried to get him to stop many times, they even beat him up, but it didn’t work. ‘After the cops came, we had to pay them off or they would’ve booked me under PSA. Eventually, I stopped as nothing good ever comes out of this.’ Rafiq feels he has a bright future ahead of him in these tough times. He dreams of being a businessman someday, he says, smiling.

‘If people don’t react in these circumstances they cease to be human,’ says human rights lawyer Fasiha Qadri, who deals with victims of human rights violations day in and day out. She feels it is her right to participate in demonstrations. ‘We demonstrate on the streets to voice our objection and they put us in jail for that. Some of us contain our discontent because of repercussions.’ She adds that people get on the street and protest, risking life and limb because they have been denied justice. The Shopian rape tragedy is just one example of many. Here, authorities have to be forced to take legal course. ‘I feel violent means are justified as we have been left with no option,’ she says.

Fasiha laments the state of affairs and her role as a human rights lawyer. ‘If I take up a case, it will take ages for justice to be served – we have to deal with technicalities of evidence, and of the fear of victims that if they testify they will be eliminated. How do we operate in this framework?’ As a student, Fasiha participated in demonstrations in her college. She has also participated in a Bar Association demonstration, at the United Nations office in Srinagar. She recalls how authorities used force against the group, and senior lawyers were taken into custody. ‘We are the conscious class of society, aware of the repercussions of resorting to violence. If such treatment is meted out to us, you can imagine what happens to the common people.’

Protesters being tear-gassed by security agencies on a Friday afternoon outside Jama Masjid (mosque) in Srinagar.

Photo by: Dilnaz Boga

The motivation of individuals who participate in a protest vary, but what drives the protest is obvious – the Indian occupation. Demilitarization and repealing draconian laws (like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the Disturbed Areas Act) that protect the armed forces is only the first step in a lengthy reconciliation process that the Indian Government has been urged to take by the separatist leaders, time and again. So far, the Government has not relented and it has been advised by the army not to reduce the number of soldiers in this highly volatile region that shares a border with Pakistan and China. In this scenario, a plebiscite or calls for self-determination are a far cry. Unless those who have suffered human rights violations receive justice, peace will always be a distant dream.

*names have been changed