There is definitely a method in this madness. On a cold January afternoon, when a furious Assistant Sub Inspector of Police, whose name was never made public, fired a tear smoke shell at 13-year schoolboy Wamiq Farooq, it was given to understand that the killing was not the intent but an accident. But coincidences do not occur always. Exactly 130 days later, on the same spot—Ghani Memorial Stadium—policemen fire another smoke oozing projectile with a precision to hit a hard skull of 17-year-old Tufail Ahmad Mattoo. His cranium fractures and brain rips apart. The unbuttoned shirt over a fashionable jersey, the boy donned on the ill-fated Friday, soaks in blood. The doctors at SMHS Hospital declare Mattoo ‘brought dead’. Worse, the police try to hide the intent, initially. Two young men, who carry the blood drenched body to hospital, were declared “murderers”. A lookout was announced to give the entire affair a deliberate twist. Was it a subtle message to bystanders who volunteer in such situations to help a dying person?
If Wamiq’s killing was an avoidable mistake why was it repeated at the same spot and in similar circumstances? And, just four days after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh repeated his zero-tolerance sermon from yet another Kashmir pulpit. Have the police and the security forces translated the zero tolerance mantra in their own way?
There are countless incidents in Kashmir, which tell upon the working of trigger-happy sleuths of police and security forces. Tufail Matoo’s death coincided with the anniversary of peace-time June 1988 killing of protestors in Srinagar during Dr. Farooq Abdullah’s regime. That time the protests were not for azaadi but against power tariff hike. Twenty-two years down the line, boys and men in streets continue to get killed, in the same style.
The killings of youngsters in street protests became a routine affair in Kashmir especially since 2008 when there was massive uprising against the transfer of state land to Amaranth shrine board. Tens of thousands of people came out on streets against the land transfer that was seen here as akin to Israel’s long-term policy of changing the demography of a militarized region. Youngsters, in the age group of 15 to 35 years spearheaded the agitation, which culminated into fall of Ghulam Nabi Azad led coalition government and imposition of Governor’s rule in the state. The land transfer was stopped but not before 60 people were ruthlessly killed in the Valley, mostly in Srinagar city.
“That (massive killing) was a well thought over plan by the government to crush the uprising brutally and ruthlessly,” explains GN Shaheen, General Secretary of Kashmir High Court Bar Association. “Earlier the government had an excuse to kill Kashmiris in retaliation to what they called militants’ actions. But when lakhs of unarmed civilians were on streets, protesting against the occupation, the killings were done to break the nerve of the defiant people. There was a method in the madness,” he said.
Some observers believe that the 2008 Amarnath uprising caught the government off-guard. Most of the policy makers and intelligence officers had given to understand that the two decades of turmoil in Kashmir had fatigued the people and they were more interested in their own economy than the politics of the region.
“For New Delhi, the sudden outburst of people warranted even a sustained and hardnosed response. That is why police and paramilitaries were offered a license to kill and maim,” says a senior political commentator.
Some injured boys died silently, months after the uprising was over, during a period when in the subsequent turn of events 61 per cent people cast votes for unionist parties in assembly elections. An estimated 1000 people were injured in the anti-rebellion action, some of them with permanent disabilities. Though the casualties were unjustified, the establishment spelled out reasons for the harshest actions. One of the biggest reasons was the stone pelting. From first victim of police bullets in Amarnath agitation to Tufail Mattoo, the standard reason given by police to open the barrel of gun was to “retaliate the angry, stone-pelting youngsters”. Each time a youngster was killed in police firing, top police officers issued appeals to the parents of the youngsters to “restrain and rein in their children lest they are hit by the bullets”.
During the Amaranth agitation, police officer Afhad-ul-Mujtaba, who headed operations in Srinagar as senior superintendent of police for more than 3 years, triggered a debate on stone-pelting. He quoted a tradition (Hadith) of Prophet Muhammad declaring the practice of stone-pelting as un-Islamic and sought the support of religious leaders to put an end to the “regular feature in Srinagar”. The SSP’s observation instigated the separatist camp who regard stone-pelting as a means of “popular civilian resistance against the oppression”. Nevertheless, the religious propriety of the practice became a topic of debate. Kashmir’s Grand Mufti, Mufti Bashiruddin shared the view and issued a fatwa (decree) against stone-throwing, saying: “It is against the spirit of the teachings of our Prophet. He has prohibited the practice.” The debate intensified when Jamiat-e-Ahle Hadees chief Molvi Showkat Ahmad supported the fatwa, only to attract brickbats from separatist camp, he himself boasts allegiance of. “It is an un-Islamic practice and no individual or group should indulge in it,” Showkat declared.
Though the favourable statements from the religious scholars encouraged the government, the debate lost punch when separatists joined hands in defending the practice. A seminar on the issue organized by Islamic Students League (ISL) brought together writers, scholars and separatist politicians to justify stone-pelting. Those opposed to stone-pelting, say the practice fuels a cycle of violence. They even pointed out that some of the pleaders ask the neighbourhood boys to indulge in the practice but send their own children for higher studies. Nevertheless, there have been occasions when Mirwaiz Omar Farooq and Syed Ali Geelani also asked the youngsters to avoid stone-pelting. The practice has not stopped though.
The leaders of ruling National Conference were not altogether interested in the debate on stone-pelting when they were not in power. However, after they got the reins of government, the perpetual practice became a headache. The nucleus of the exercise remains the Srinagar city where the NC claims to hold the sway. If elections in Kashmir are any indicator of public support, the ruling party swept all the eight seats in the city, which arguably catapulted it to the power. Therefore, the continuation of stone-pelting remains a challenge for the ruling party. Is there any politics involved in the stone-pelting, which is not separatist in nature? Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, earlier this year, subtly blamed archrival People’s Democratic Party (PDP) for fuelling unrest in Srinagar for its vested interests. “We have conversations between police officers and a person no less than the PDP President, wherein she is telling the police officers to release those who have been arrested for stone pelting…We have SMS traffic of some separatist leaders telling the protestors to move on,” Omar Abdullah told in a TV debate. Law Minister Ali Muhammad Sagar described stone-pelting as a conspiracy against Srinagar city to slither the population into abject poverty. He pointed out that the stone throwers generally show up when the tourism activity tends to go up and people begin to address their businesses. The main target, however, are the separatists for condoning and encouraging stone-pelting. “This (stone pelting) has become an industry. They (separatists) are running business over it. They least care for the welfare of people,” Sagar said. Chief Minister devotes portions of his speech to condemn those who “encourage violence and ask the youngsters to keep the pot boiling”.
But more than the words, the government indulged in deeds. When Governor NN Vohra handed over mace of power to Omar Abdullah on January 5, 2009, many barracks in infamous state jails were empty. The alleged rape and murder of two women in Shopian in May 2009 triggered first major string of violence during Omar Abdullah regime. The Valley remained shut for nine days while the Shopian town observed shutdown continuously for 47 days. Notwithstanding the botch up that followed Chief Minister’s infamous slip-of-tongue that the Shopian girls might have been drowned in (shallow) stream, which was later “scientifically proven” by CBI, the incident and issues related to it embarrassed the government and triggered a massive hate wave in the Valley against the rulers. As a consequence, the incidents of stone-pelting increased.
The situation took worst turn in the beginning of 2010. Four days after a fidayeen attack in Lal Chowk, a 16-year-old boy Inayatullah Khan was killed by CRPF without provocation. On January 31, Wamiq Farooq was killed with a teargas shell. The protests against his killings had not died down when BSF shot dead another teenager Zahid Farooq at Nishat on February 4. The killings triggered massive resentment and a new cycle of violence emanated. Consequently, hundreds of angry youth engaged in pitched battles with police and paramilitaries in lanes and bylanes of Srinagar, Islamabad, Baramulla, Sopore and other towns, pushing the life in Valley to a grinding halt.
The establishment came down heavily on stone pelters. Advisors reportedly asked the chief minister to put his foot down and start a massive crackdown on the stone pelters. Eventually, the police stations were directed to “compile lists of trouble-mongers”. Police rounded up hundreds of youngsters for their alleged involvement in stone-throwing. The youngsters were allegedly subjected to third degree torture in police lock-ups. At one police station, arrested boys alleged that they were forced to sodomise one another in Gauntanamo Bay style while some sadist cops watched on. At many police stations, parents and relatives of the identified boys were summoned to get bouts of reprimand. Though most of the boys were let go from the police stations, around a dozen of them were booked under infamous Public Safety Act. The police claims they possess undeniable evidence against these youngsters for creating and fomenting trouble through indulging in stone-pelting and funding others to participate in the practice. “This is painful decision (to book under PSA). We know what detention is because we have ourselves served jail terms. But, it is under compulsion that we have taken such a decision. The stone pelters cannot be allowed to take the entire population to ransom,” Ali Muhammad Sagar argues. “We are focusing on paid stone pelters. There are some youth who are being paid by various agencies to foment trouble. We don’t have problems with the youth in general,” IGP Kashmir Farooq Ahmad was quoted as saying.
The perpetual trouble in urban areas particularly in Srinagar was reportedly taken seriously by the PMO. That is the reason why Prime Minister on June 7 made pointed reference to Srinagar youth in his address at SKICC and described the problems as a consequence of lack of employment avenues. The state government is also projecting the problem as economical rather than political. Therefore, the policy makers have decided to address the stone-pelting “epidemic”.
In this backdrop Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh announced to start National Youth Corps, which would organize trips for the youngsters susceptible to stone-pelting to various destinations in India. Nehru Yuva Kendra Sangathan, an organisation working under patronage of the Government of India has collaborated with Ministry of Youth Services and Sports to organize a free-trip for 8000 youth of the state. On July 8, first batch of youngsters would be flagged off for the trip. To top it all, not only the youngsters would embark on a free trip, they would be paid an honorarium. Minister for Youth Services and Sports R S Chib said 20,000 youth including girls will be selected for the tour across India.
“Travel is the best form of education. It doesn’t only refresh the minds but also helps a person to expose his/her hidden talent,” the minister explained.
This is in addition to the initiatives from the police and the state government. The police say that it doesn’t only book the trouble mongers but also counsels the youngsters to shun violence. “We have counselled hundreds of young men in Srinagar, Sopore and Baramulla. Most of them have agreed to cooperate and give up the path of violence,” a top police officer said. “We have succeeded to dissuade many youth from stone pelting. The counseling efforts are bearing fruits,” he said.
In Baramulla, police devised a plan to rehabilitate stone throwers. Initially, some of them were asked to erect makeshift stalls (kiosks), with a promise that permanent shops would be allotted in future. The police are contemplating to replicate the process in Srinagar. The government has, at least, successfully practiced the method in Baramulla to divide the stone pelters. Some of the stone-pelters have now been branded as “government sponsored”.
Quid pro quo
One of the measures adopted by the police and paramilitaries to combat stone throwing was to throw stones in retaliation. The cops with large arms and muscle power were employed to be on the forefront. This practice injured several stone-throwers. The CRPF went a step further. It equipped cops with catapults so that they target the stone throwers with precision.
Experts say that the way the police kills protestors with tear smoke shells explains that there is lack of training and dearth of wherewithal to tackle the stone throwers. Informed sources say that during 2008 uprising, the police and paramilitary were not well-equipped to face the challenge. So when tens of thousands of protestors were on streets, the cops had only AK rifles, INSASes and SLRs to face them. There were few shields, leg guards, batons and barricades. Eventually, police had to airlift the gear required for riot control from a north eastern state to manage the situation.
Some experts say that police and paramilitaries training needs to be updated. “There are methods to tackle mobs. The police should desist from target killing and this needs to be inculcated in the police force,” a retired police officer said.
Stone pelters or killers
A senior mainstream politician said that stone pelting menace can be combated only through a social campaign. “When the common people would decide to do away with the practice, it would evaporate like a volatile liquid,” he said. Perhaps this is the reason that the official media highlighted two deaths which occurred as a consequence of stone pelting. First death occurred on February 22, when 11-day-old Irfan died when he fell from the lap of his mother at Janbazpora Baramulla. The vehicle in which the infant was being escorted to hospital was waylaid by stone-throwers who were imposing a shutdown. The passengers were asked to disembark and in the melee, the infant fell from the lap of his mother, blood oozed from his nose and he died before reaching the hospital. The incident shook the people. Police later arrested the stone-throwers.
In second such incident, a government employee from Natipora was killed by a stone that hit a passenger bus he was traveling in at Batmaloo. The incident occured on a day when Syed Ali Shah Geelani had called for a “peaceful protest”. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah directly blamed Geelani for the murder while as Geelani said that he was killed by government agents. Geelani had announced to conduct a probe in this death, which was never carried out. The separatist leaders have announced to probe several mysterious incidents in the past, but they have failed to come out with convincing evidences so far.
The police and intelligence officers who have studied the stone-throwing practice, apart from its political connotations, argue that the high population density is one of the reasons for stone-throwing. They argue that the stone throwing is mostly an urban phenomenon and varies in intensity from highly to sparsely populated areas. In this backdrop, the NC leadership has suggested to decongest some of the most troubled areas like Maisuma, Nowhatta, Batamaloo and Rajouri Kadal in Srinagar city. The advocates of this argument say that in some houses at old city, more than six families live in a single house. This restricts the youngsters to live their life entertainingly, which brings many of them to streets to vent their feelings, negatively.