CHINKIPORA, INDIA // Covering their faces with green scarves, a dozen protesters blocked an arterial road leading up to this village in north Kashmir with large boulders. Policemen in riot gear assembled on the other side. Amid slogans of "Azaadi, Azaadi", or freedom, the crowd soon began aiming rocks at the policemen, who hit back with tear gas shells. After a lull, the rattle of gunfire rang in the air.
Scenes like this one in March are now increasingly common in Kashmir. Until some years ago, stray incidents of stone pelting were limited to Srinagar's Jamia mosque, usually occurring for brief spells after Friday prayers. But in recent months, kann'e jang - stone pelting - has emerged as a potent form of resistance, especially among Kashmiri youth, spreading to the restive valley's towns and villages.
Last month, the killing of Tufail Ahmad Matoo, 17, a student from Srinagar, in a stone pelting protest triggered violent clashes - the worst in two years - in parts of north and south Kashmir, claiming 10 lives. Kashmiri human rights groups are questioning the harsh techniques employed by the Indian government to quash stone pelting. Stone pelting here - unlike anywhere else in India - is often met with live bullets. Kashmir's police are also blamed for firing tear gas shells straight at the chests of protesters, often with lethal results, instead of firing at a parabolic trajectory, which is the norm.
Such violations, observers say, are rousing bigger and angrier crowds to take up stone pelting. "Stone pelting is an expression of rage by a subjugated people whose political means of expression and demands are systematically limited," the International People's Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice, a Srinagar-based rights group, said in a statement. In 2008, mass protests and demonstrations erupted in Kashmir, sparked by the state government's promise to lease forest land to a board that runs a Hindu shrine. The deal would have promised guestrooms for nearly half a million Hindu pilgrims who make the trek to the holy Amarnath caves each year. The protests, largely peaceful, were met with a heavy military response. Security personnel opened fire at protesting crowds, killing 60 Kashmiris.
"Stone throwing is the outcome of the government's systematic denial to allow Kashmiris the legitimate right to protest - even peacefully," a Srinigar-based commentator who requested anonymity, said. "Why is there no space for political dissent in Kashmir?" Omar Abdullah, the state's chief minister, admits that security personnel are ill-trained to handle the surge in this new form of protest without inflicting casualties. He says his government has approached the UK police to train a Kashmir police contingent in crowd-control techniques.
Altaf Khan, the superintendent of police of the southern town of Sopore, said stone pelting is a "wicked" ploy by militants, aimed at maximising violence in Kashmir. During several such stone pelting protests, he said, militants had emerged from the crowds to open fire at soldiers and then melted back into the crowds. Some of the ring leaders who mobilise the crowds are on the payroll of Kashmir's separatist leaders, he claimed. Syed Ali Geelani, the leader of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a conglomeration of Kashmiri separatist political groups, vehemently denies the charge.
"Peaceful solutions or talks have little relevance in Kashmir today," he said, insisting that stone protests are the product of genuine grievances of Kashmiris. "Stone protesters are not impoverished, jobless men," said a 28-year-old stone pelter, a research graduate from Kashmir university. "We are not hoodlums greedy for money and neither are we anti-social elements." The young protester did not wish to be named, fearing he could be booked under the Public Safety Act, under which citizens can be detained for up to two years without charges.
He is not fearful of protesting, he explained, despite the risks. Some of the protesters are as young as 6. Over the past year, he has learned to deal with threats like teargas shells - he burns tyres whenever a shell drops as its fumes neutralise the effect of tear gas. "Our land is under occupation," he said. "If we don't throw stones to protest, should we pick up guns?" firstname.lastname@example.org