What kind of a heart one needs to have to confront bullets with stones? This question baffles everyone. Suhail A Shah looks behind balaclavas to understand the pain, suffering, anger and struggle of these youngsters in their quest to find a voice
Ahrar is three and he has somehow come to terms with his father’s frequent, long absences. He does not make a fuss about this and he very rarely asks his mother questions about the whereabouts of his father, 28 year old Atif Hassan.
Hassan is not a workaholic business man or an over burdened doctor. He is just a small time business man with more than 40 cases of stone throwing and other related activities registered against him.
During the life time of his 3-year-old son, Hassan’s long and brief detentions amount to more than a year.
Hassan is among more than 5000 Kashmiri youth who have cases filed against them for instigating violence in the conflict ridden Kashmir.
Starting 2008, with the infamous ‘Land Row’ agitation, when youth in Kashmir hit the streets and clashed with the armed forces, the number of youth booked under cases, ranging from the Public Safety Act (PSA) to Sedition and attempt to murder, has kept swelling.
The subsequent governments, separatists, human rights groups and civil societies have often been vocal towards the plight of these youth booked under different laws.
Some of them get exploited at the hands of politicians, some don’t. Some want their cases to be revoked some do not. Some of them take help from separatists and some prefer to fight the battle on their own, despite meagre resources at their disposal. Some want to leave everything behind and think of the stone pelting as a mistake on their part, some say they will continue to fight against the state with the only means they have – stones.
Despite all the differences in their backgrounds and their lives, the agonies they go through are common. The sufferings of constant court appearances, detentions by police and in some cases, the societal stigma; is one thread connecting them all.
However, along the way, years of appearances at courts and more often at the local police stations, these youth have been reduced to just numbers.
Hassan is in a heated debate with a couple of friends at a small tea shop in South Kashmir’s Islamabad town. The discussion is about Kashmir’s political scenario and the steps necessary to take vis-à-vis the struggle of Kashmiri people against the oppression.
The discussion heats up and that’s when Hassan and his friend Amir start boasting about the cases against them.
“I have 41 cases registered against me,” boasts Hassan to which he gets a curt question from Amir, “How many of them are attempt to murder?” to which everybody laughs and the heated atmosphere takes a lighter turn.
Hassan and Amir are among the lot of stone throwing youth who take pride in their participation in anti-India protests and at the same time accept the hardships that follow with open arms.
Hassan’s father has been a part of the Kashmir’s first pro-independence armed group Al-Fateh, and despite his initial resistance to his father’s involvement Hassan came to terms with his father’s ideology and followed his footsteps.
“Following his footsteps was the most natural thing for me to do, despite my initial differences with my him,” Hassan says, in his heavy voice, adding that his first participation in protests was way back in 2006, when 16 students died after navy boats carrying them capsized in the Wular lake in North Kashmir, often referred to as the ‘Wular Lake Tragedy’.
Hassan, a college student then, was detained with 24 other students who were all part of the protests. All of them were released accept Hassan who spent 22 days then in detention.
“Something changed and I started reading about the Kashmir freedom struggle,” Hassan says, “and there was no looking back ever since.”
Hassan keeps on getting arrested every now and then and even when he tries to go into hiding his father gets picked up by the police until Hassan does not turn himself in. He was picked up by police on the fourth day of his marriage and the detention lasted more than a week.
Hassan’s longest detention was from 23rd June 2010 up to 11th of January 2011, while his wife was pregnant with their first child.
“The trauma she went through during her pregnancy killed my first child, a baby girl. She died 23 days old,” says Hassan, praising his wife for the steadfastness she has shown through the tough times they have been facing ever since their marriage.
Thirty-year-old Amir, an Information Technology (IT) graduate from a university in Delhi, has more than 17 cases registered against him and each one of them has the Section 307 (attempt to murder) included.
He insists that he has inherited the awareness towards the plight of Kashmiri people, “Under Indian occupation,” from his father’s side of the family.
“My maternal uncle was killed in police firing in 1989, while he was on his way back from school where he taught,” Amir says, “I was quite young but the killing of my innocent uncle left a lasting impression on me.”
Moreover, Amir says, his paternal uncle was associated with the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF).
“During 90s, our house was raided time and again and despite being an 8-year-old kid, I was often ruthlessly beaten,” says Amir.
His faith in the Indian democracy was reinstated, owing to the three years he spent in Delhi, however, once he came back to the Valley, “The situation here, Afzal Guru’s death sentence and consequently the 2008 agitation taught me Indian democracy ends somewhere along the Highway.”
Amir, after coming back from Delhi, worked briefly at the ‘back end’ of an Insurance company. He was fired from the company soon after cases were lodged against him.
He now helps his father at their shop in Islamabad town. “The only regret I have is that I wasted my father’s hard earned money in Delhi. I cannot seek a job now given the nature of cases against me.”
One thing the two of them have been spared of is the stigma stone throwers go through within the families. “Our families have been supportive to say the least.”
Both Amir and Hassan have repeatedly been approached by unionist political parties to join in and have their cases revoked but they have been adamant.
“We do not want to side with the Indian state. To get exploited or not is a secondary question,” they say.
Despite fate bringing them together, the youth with cases against them, contrary to what one might perceive are not a homogenous group. Everybody among these youth does not have the same ideological tilt, however. Some of them do regret what they have done with their lives and some of them even have rallied with the mainstream politicians with a hope that they will sometimes be spared the agony and lead a normal life, hence forth.
But things are not that simple or easy for them. The youth, however, are living in agony, irrespective of the social strata they belong to and their family backgrounds. More importantly, their families have to bear the brunt, financially, emotionally and physically. Many of them were dismissed from their services at the place of their employment, businesses of many have been ruined, education curtailed, and their family lives left in tatters.
Moreover, making matters worse, the constant harassment and detention by police particularly ahead of protests and strike calls is leaving them reeling in a nightmarish scenario.
Twenty-five-year old Sadiq had to drop out of college after he sustained bullet injuries during a protest march on January 30, 2010 in Srinagar.
Coming from a lower-middle-class family Sadiq’s treatment proved to be a very costly affair.
Feeling responsibility of his family’s deteriorating financial condition and constant police harassment they had to face, Saqib started working as a salesman at a hardware shop.
“I have to appear before a court thrice a month and there were times when I did not have even the money to pay the fare to and fro court,” Sadiq says, “That’s why I started to work as a salesman.”
But his meagre salary as a salesman also gets cut down, more often than naught.
“Ahead of any strike call or a protest, I am detained at the local police station,” says Sadiq, adding that his employer cuts down his salary for such days.
Sadiq wants to lead a normal life now but the cases and constant detentions by police are proving a barrier.
“Moreover, the stigma in the family and the neighbourhood is painful beyond comprehension. 2008-10 were mass movements and I was not the only one booked back then,” Sadiq says adding, “People look at you as if you are untouchables.”
“They are just people from different social, economic and educational backgrounds who are battling together. All of them have different aspirations and goals in life,” feels a Srinagar based senior journalist.
Thirty-two-year old Jahangir from Pulwama town in South Kashmir has more than 5 cases against him and with the hope that his cases will be revoked he joined the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) campaign in the recently held Assembly elections.
“A local PDP leader promised me that my cases will be dropped soon as his party forms the government,” Jahangir says, adding that the PDP leader does not even receive my calls now!
Jahangir feels cheated alleging that the PDP leader used him to garner votes and he has been left out in the cold, exactly where he had been.
“I now feel ashamed for switching sides. My situation can be summed up in the couplet, Na Khuda He Mila Na Wisaal-e-Sanam…” (Neither I found God nor the embrace of my beloved).
Observers feel that the Unionist politicians want to score brownie points while talking about these kids, often trying to exploit their plight. Many of them have worked, at the behest of political parties, as polling agents and campaigners in the recently concluded Assembly elections with the hope and promise that cases against them will be dropped.
The parties in power have so far failed to deliver any sort of amnesty to these kids.
Omar Abdullah led coalition government announced amnesty for all the people booked under different cases but facing stiff resistance from some quarters, including the police the plan was not taken to its logical conclusion.
The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) while in opposition and during the build up to elections had been castigating Omar Abdullah, terming the booked youth as, “Unfortunate victims of the Omar Abdullah regime.”
The PDP leaders kept promising amnesty to all the booked youth during their election campaign, however, their manifesto is in stark contrast with their verbal promises.
Their manifesto reads, “The cases will be reviewed, instead of the verbally used revoked.”
Even now with about two months in a power sharing arrangement with BJP, the PDP is yet to take any substantial step in fulfilling their promises.
There are many more like Jahangir who await their promises to be fulfilled by different Unionist parties.
On the other side, separatists have often been caught in a dilemma whether they should own the stone pelting youth or not. Hurriyat (G) Chairman, Syed Ali Geelani, in 2011 termed stone throwing a “failed defensive measure” and urged youth to desist from throwing stones.
Other separatist organisations have also been more or less mutely watching the un-folding of events, without owning or disowning these youth.
More so, there has been little help to the affected youth from any of the separatist camp, barring some legal help through lawyers close to Hurriyat (G) at certain places and to some people, only.
Arshad Wani is in his mid-twenties and lives in the vicinity of Hurriyat (G) Chairman’s house at Hyderpora.
Wani says that he received every kind of legal help from lawyers close to Hurriyat (G). “I have not spent any penny from my own pocket and I did not have to ask them (Hurriyat) for it,” he says.
Others are not lucky enough like Wani. While in most of the places, barring Srinagar, there is little legal help from the separatist camp to these kids many of them deliberately turn down any offers of help.
“Hurriyat people visited my house and offered monetary and legal help but my father turned it down. He thought that it might get me in further trouble and make me a serious offender in the eyes of the police officials,” says 22-year-old Jasim from Natipora area of Srinagar.
But Arshad Wani thinks that there is lack of awareness among the youth facing charges against them. “The Hurriyat needs to work harder and reach out to these people,” he asserts.
The separatists, despite helping some of them in their legal battle, have often refrained from openly endorsing the booked youth. And the human rights groups do the best they can – issue statements.
Meanwhile, police and the government both deny unnecessary targeting of these youth.
Inspector General of Police (IGP) Kashmir range, Javaid Gilani, while speaking to Kashmir Life about the issue acknowledged that some serious ‘trouble makers’ have to be taken in to preventive custody if law and order is threatened at any level.
“We are well within the law if we take some people in preventive custody,” Geelani said adding, “However, to say all 5000 of these youth are being harassed and targeted will be wrong to say the least.”
PDP youth leader Waheed-Ur-Rehman Parra when asked about his party exploiting these youth in the elections dodged the question.
“Anybody worked for the party or not, is not the question. The thing is that we want to make the future of these kids better on humanitarian grounds regardless of their affiliations,” he replied.
He said that his party was committed to the better future of these youth.
“There are strict directives to the police not to take anybody in preventive custody and you can see the directives being implemented in letter and spirit,” Parra claimed.
On amnesty to the booked youth Parra said that the Chief Minister on the floor of the Assembly said that around 1500 youth have already been granted amnesty.
“There are some with criminal cases and revoking those cases is beyond the government’s domain. There is a due judicial process to be followed,” Parra asserted.