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I Am A Pacifist. But Here’s Why I Want To Be A Stone-Pelter

By Zahid Rafiq

21 August, 2010

I have always avoided physical fights. In college, even though I was part of some gang, my friends always criticised me for being weak. They said I couldn’t even beat people they had already cornered. I wasn’t weak. It was just that before the crucial moment when one is drawn into a fight, I’d realise the futility of it. I hate the word pacifist, but I am one. There must be better ways than violence — negotiations or debates, perhaps — to resolve conflicts, I thought.

But today, if I weren’t a journalist and if writing was not an act of defiance, I know I’d be throwing stones in the streets of Srinagar, just like my friends.

EVER SINCE I remember, I have been bearing witness to the repression and massacres in Kashmir. Everything has seemed grey forever but in the past two months, Kashmir looks like a black-and-white postcard. The world, it seems, has conspired into silence, almost with a finger on its lips. It is on the altar of that finger and closed lips that pacifism is sacrificed every day. It is from this silence that all violence begins.

With every phone call from home announcing heartbreak, I could feel violence build up inside me, stone by stone. I was in Delhi when my mother called to say the vegetable seller near our house had been shot. When I left home for Delhi, he was the last person from my neighbourhood I’d seen. We had exchanged smiles and shook hands. I felt a murderous rage.

My younger brother told me on the phone the CRPF had gone berserk outside, smashing windows and looking to thrash anyone who could even walk.

A Kashmiri friend working for a Delhi think-tank that focuses on Kashmir — what they like to call a Track-II organisation — called me one evening. Between his sobs, I figured he had seen the picture of nine-year-old Sameer Ahmad, who had been beaten to death by the CRPF in Batamaloo. There were flagellation marks all over his body; his half-chewed toffee still in his mouth. I was supposed to calm my friend down, but we took turns to console each other. He said he was going back to Kashmir the next morning. “Here, they are all lying, and they believe their own lies,” he said.

In India, there is a myth, largely perpetrated by conformist sections of the media, that the army and CRPF protect Kashmiris. No Kashmiri feels protected by the army and CRPF. People in India call them security forces and believe they save Kashmiris from terrorists but it is from them that Kashmiris want to be saved. Kashmiris want these occupying forces off their land. The only feelings Kashmiris have for them are of fear, hatred and revenge.

In the past two months, 55 unarmed civilians have been killed in Kashmir in police and CRPF firing. Most of them have been boys who were either throwing stones or playing in their neighbourhoods. I was in Kashmir when the unrest started to build and every funeral I went to, I saw how angry Kashmiris were. In Gangbugh, I saw thousands defying curfew to attend the funeral of a 17-year-old boy. While his two friends said on camera that they had seen him being picked up by the police, the latter claimed he had drowned. But the dead boy had been a good swimmer and his autopsy showed two blunt injuries on his head.

In an interview on NDTV a day later, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah remarked, “If his life had been so important, why didn’t the other two boys pull him out.” It was a really insensitive thing to say but this is also Omar’s worldview. For him, Kashmiris are just ungrateful agents ready to die for PDP’s money and at ISI’s bidding. Omar got this view from the life he spent in mainland India, which means most of his 40 years. As for the Muftis, who walk a line so thin in Kashmir politics, it is hard to tell when they are separatists and when Indian nationalists. All they want is power. They want the Centre to dethrone Omar and install Mehbooba instead.

An almost opaque membrane divides the Abdullahs and Kashmiris. While the gun barrel stares at Kashmiris at all times, it rests, as Omar put it nicely about himself during the same interview, against the shoulders of the Abdullahs. In Kashmir, people say that the Abdullahs and Muftis will never understand why ‘suicidal’ Kashmiris defy curfew and throw stones because none of their own lie buried under the 70,000 tombstones Kashmir has acquired in the past two decades. I now understand why an old relative of ours, who was a die-hard NC supporter earlier, felt personally betrayed by the Abdullahs. He would keep repeating almost every day that Sher-e- Kashmir (Sheikh Abdullah) had stood up to free Kashmiris from the tyrannical rule of the Dogra Maharajas but created a more bitter legacy in its place.

I saw a picture of an old man clinging to the dead body of his young son near Hazuri Bagh in Srinagar. Half-a-dozen policemen tried to drag him away from the dead body. He didn’t want to let go. His shirt was smeared with blood, his white beard stained a little red. The longer I looked at the picture, the louder it sounded. I couldn’t imagine what it must be for a father who is being forcibly stopped from hugging his dead son and grieving. Can Omar’s appeal stop the old father from defying curfew and joining the ‘mob’? What would Omar have done had he been in the old man’s place — as a father, as a Chief Minister? Would he have torn the city down? I imagined Srinagar burning.

And then I thought of all the fathers, brothers, uncles, friends and neighbours I’d seen in Kashmir trying to wake up their loved dead ones and I felt they were doing too little by throwing stones, burning police stations and Special Operations Group camps.

Kashmir is too long, too tragic and too bloody a story to be called a lawand- order problem. If only the boys orphaned by the armed forces in Kashmir were to pick up stones, you would have 60,000 stone-pelters on the streets. If those widowed by the armed forces joined, there would be 30,000 women stoning every bunker, every camp and every soldier.

When a boy in Kashmir walks towards an armed soldier with a stone in his hand, he is aware of the difference in power. His best shot could give the soldier a bump or a few stitches, if he is able to get past the leg guards, the bulletproof vest and the helmet. But the soldier — and the boy knows this well — with his gun or teargas shell, can leave him dead or seriously wounded.

The very act of choosing a stone as his weapon, the boy believes, puts him on higher moral ground. His aim is not to kill the soldier, but to make a point that something is seriously wrong. This is why not even a single soldier or policeman has been killed in the stone-pelting in the past two years, even though we have seen plenty of images of a lone soldier being captured by five stone-pelters.

Kashmiris have been waiting for India and the world to listen to them for too long but it was as if no one understood their language. It was as if Kashmir realised that it must talk in a primitive language known to all humans. In the past two months, they have been talking in the language of stones.

The mothers, to whom Omar appealed to keep their children indoors, have come out on the streets pelting stones themselves. When I saw the images of stone-pelting on television last month with the captions saying the LeT was inciting trouble through paid agents, I saw some familiar faces in the ‘paid mob’ from my neighbourhood. I saw two sisters pelting stones. I knew them; their brother had been picked up by the BSF in 2005 and one of them had chased the BSF jeep barefoot. Ten days later, the brother was found dumped on a nearby street; his skin burnt, his body crushed by heavy rollers and wires inserted into his penis. He was never the same again. I saw a middle-aged woman whose husband had gone missing in 1995, I saw a mother whose son had been killed by the armed forces. Each one of them had a story to tell from the past 20 years and they were finally saying it through stones. Their stones hardly reach the soldiers but that is not important. It is the act of throwing, not of hitting, which they makes them come out of their homes.

Women have been the silent sufferers in this conflict. Rapes and molestations that are a part of military psychological operations, have been under-reported. But the women know it, and so do the Médecins Sans Frontières counsellors and many psychiatrists. For them, the act of pelting stones is cathartic. With every stone they throw, they lessen the weight of the mountain that their hearts have become.

A few weeks ago, my five-year-old cousin, Athar, ventured out of his gate in Batamaloo and the soldiers ran towards him shouting, ‘Hum mar dalenge’ (We will kill you). He rushed inside, struck dumb. My aunt begged him to talk but only after 10 long minutes was he able to tell her what the soldiers had shouted at him. My aunt, a commerce graduate, wiping her tears in anger, perched him on her shoulders and took him out in a profreedom procession near their house. They both shouted proazadi slogans to let out their fear, and it worked. It was the first time for both of them. My aunt now writes, ‘Go India, Go Back’ on all the rupee notes that she handles and my cousin scribbles it on walls — the only English sentence he can spell. It is because of children like these that Srinagar, a city of rolled down shutters, empty roads, dusty walls and barred doors, is painted with pro-freedom graffiti all over.

THE MOVEMENT in Kashmir has moved away from the shadow of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Kashmir has made a transition from guns to slogans and took to stones only when protests were forcibly stopped by the State. In 2008, there were lakhs who marched on the streets in Kashmir and made human chains so that no one could touch the bunkers and soldiers. This year, the State successfully stopped Kashmiris from marching non-violently and it is clear that the first order handed down to the armed forces has been to shoot to disperse. Under no circumstances, did the armed forces allow people to assemble this year. They even fired on mourners dozens of times making them stone-pelters.

In Kashmir right now, it will be hard for militancy to find hospitable homes and willing hands. Kashmiris want to settle their dispute with India without guns. I feel most frustrated when Kashmiris are dubbed paid agents of Pakistan and PDP workers. It is the NC, and not the PDP, which has won all the seats in Srinagar, which the government says is the hub of stone-pelting. Earlier this year, during an interview, I asked Omar whether he saw himself as a leader of Kashmiris or a politician from Kashmir. He replied in great agitation that he had been elected with 60 percent votes and that says it all. Where does he think those votes are now?

If the stone-pelters and protesters continue to be killed as terrorists, Kashmiris will be pushed to dig up their old guns. And the Indian State, being the largest importer of arms in the world and with its 7,00, 000 soldiers in Kashmir, seems to like the prospect of another armed rebellion that can be called a terrorist movement. But, if this generation of Kashmiris, who approach an AK-47 with a stone in hand, pick up the AK-47 themselves, it will be far worse than the 1990s. Kashmir knows how an armed revolution can eat up its own children but that won’t be enough to stop them. Kashmir will be reduced to stones again but the insulated glass palaces around them won’t be the same either. It will be a war, which the pacifist inside me says, must be avoided.

In Kashmir, Islam came by word and Kashmiris accepted it in their own unique way. My mother goes to shrines, so does my girlfriend, and almost all the women I know. The shrines are always full of people, even crowded than the mosques. Sufi Islam has lived for over hundreds of years here and if radical puritans defeat it one day, it will be because of the State repression and the status quo that India wants to maintain because it makes Sufi Kashmiris look docile and tolerance a weakness.

As for what happened with the Kashmiri Pandits in 1990, I was too young to know about it and since then the story has been twisted in many ways. I belong to the generation of Kashmiri Muslims who have not seen Pandits but have heard varied accounts of what had happened that year. Whenever I try to make sense of it, the picture looks hazy. It is almost like finding my way through teargas in narrow lanes. I have heard about Kashmiri Pandits in the nostalgia of my mother, uncles and discovered them in old photo albums. In my family, it is taboo to say anything against Pandits, even against right-wing Pandit groups that are used to show that the political movement in Kashmir is communal. I hope that the Pandits return to their homeland soon and the new generation, unlike ours, grows up to be friends again and not strangers.

For me, the defining image of Kashmir is a Henri Cartier- Bresson photograph in which two Kashmiri women stand on the hills of Koh-i-Maran with their hands outstretched in prayer. One of them is dressed in an old Kashmiri burqa, the kind that covers the eyes with a mesh and the other is in a phiran (a loose, traditional Kashmiri gown) without any trousers. They both stand side by side, looking towards an open sky and huge mountains, praying to an invisible God, unaware and indifferent to differences between them. This conflict has already pushed those women into obscurity. And if unarmed protesters continue to be killed like this, even the hills where the women could one day have come together again would disappear. Kashmir, as we know of it in our dreams and in our hopes, will be lost forever.

FIVE YEARS ago, I thought the longing for azadi had died but it was just a quiet phase of transition from guns to stones. From the plebiscite front in 1953 to Al Fatah in the early 1970s, from JKLF in 1989 to a nine-year-old stone-pelter today, the sentiment for azadi has somehow always endured in Kashmir.

India, a huge economy and a growing power, has spent thousands of crores to win the hearts and minds of Kashmiris. It seems most of them are not buying and even if they are accepting the money happily, they are not trading the sentiment. Track I has mostly been off-track and Track II has been busy tracking the wrong people in five-star hotels. It just hasn’t worked.

For the Kashmir issue to be solved, India needs to keep its money and gun aside and talk to Kashmiris. There are two ways by which New Delhi can approach Kashmir. To look at it as a dispute and talk like equal partners with an aim to solve it, or to call it a law-andorder problem and continue to treat the symptoms rather than the disease. The autonomy and self-rule documents given by mainstream parties like NC and PDP, who talk within the ambit of the Indian Constitution, have been trashed by the Centre. People’s Conference leader Sajad Lone laboured over ‘Achievable Nationhood’ for two years and it was never discussed. As Hurriyat chief Mirwaiz Umar said, by talking to New Delhi, they risk their reputations and lives. India has to be a little more honest about the talks and think of them as more than photo-ops this time.

As for the Indian soldiers, most of them are poor villagers from the plains who end up living inside the lonely sand bunkers in Kashmir. They face stones and then take the lives of Kashmiri boys. Concertina wires surround their own lives, and it manifests in their high suicide rates and fratricidal killings in Kashmir. If the Indian State treated them not merely as pawns of nationalism but as dignified citizens, it could be freedom for the soldiers too.

India can neither shoot its way out of Kashmir nor can it buy out the sentiment. And as for buying time, it has been 63 years already.