The stone warriors

Every morning, residents of villages and mohallas in Kashmir march out of their homes, throw stones and return, happy to make it back safe. It is now almost a way of life. Photo: Reuters  

Har raat khuda se dua mein bas yahi mangtey hain ki sehar na ho; Allah, kisi tarah se aftaab ko apni aagosh me rok lo taki kuch aur masoomon ko zindagi aur mazloomon ko rahat mile. Kashmir ki takdeer mein raat ke andheron mein hi sakoon milta hain,” (Every night we pray that there be no dawn. Lord, keep the sun in your arms so that innocents are given another day of life. It is written in Kashmir’s destiny that peace be found only in darkness) says Shaheen Khan, 19, a high-school drop-out from a village in west Kashmir.

“Every morning, we are required to leave home and join the protests. We are damned if we do and doomed if we don’t. Khan, who speaks fluent English, Urdu and Kashmiri, represents thousands of Kashmiri youth who find themselves torn between their dreams and the realities of a harsh land.

The Valley has been held hostage to sanghmar or stone-pelters who ironically chant ‘azadi’. While young men play to the media gallery, there is a dark side to the streets. As the sun rises, Magam’s residents march out to block roads to the city as part of their daily drill. They march out, pelt stones, and return to their homes, thanking Allah for one more day of life. Rafiq Qureshi, 23, who scored 73 per cent in the Class X examination, has laid his future to rest next to the grave of his elder brother, who was claimed by the ‘muhim’ or movement. “My brother was shot in the crossfire between protesters and armed forces,” says Qureshi. That, however, is the official line. Magam and many villages in the Valley march on the orders of terrorist leaders; they risk their lives at the hands of security forces when they do, and when they don’t, they risk a brutal death at the hands of militants.

Far south of this village lies Anantnag, now rechristened Islamabad, a sleepy town with a rich cultural and religious heritage, which lies on the route of the annual Amarnath Yatra. Anantnag is also the first major town as you enter the valley from Jammu. Today, an eerie silence cloaks the town. “They keep a list of residents and maintain a meticulous record of those who follow orders and, more specifically, of those who don’t,” says Basharat Khan, a resident of Nai Basti. “If we don’t follow orders, they attack our houses. My car was attacked and the glass smashed by a bunch of boys barely out of school.”

Khan talks of an earlier age. “We grew up in an era of brotherhood with Hindus, a minuscule minority, but a community that lived in an aura of religious and social tolerance, which is long gone.”

Irfan Kashmiri, 20, is on the streets almost every day with stones in his hands. “Politicians asked for votes in the name of representing the people involved in muhim, now they are the ones targeting us.” He represents a generation for whom stone-pelting is not only a means of venting anger but a means of survival and sustenance in a tumultuous valley.

Sajad Ghani is a readymade garments trader from Sangam village on the Srinagar National Highway. He says, “Militancy is the biggest trade in the valley. Most trade is controlled by businesses that have muhim leaders as invisible partners.” People like Ghani symbolise the new-age micro-economics that has come up in the Valley where the economic divide is splitting the society into haves and have-nots. On-street militancy has quickly emerged as a career option for a breed of young Kashmiris born in the shadow of guns and terror.

Zaffar Khan, 50, is the son of an eminent academician in Anantnag. He says, “We grew up with Hindus and celebrated Eid with as much fervour as we did Diwali. We played together and ate from the same plate; Kashmir in the pre-90s era was an epitome of brotherhood, tolerance; a truly secular fabric that reflected the ethos of being Indian. But this generation has seen nothing but fanaticism, hatred and curfews.”

There is another shade of grey looming on the valley. The stone mujahids have realised that the closure of the establishment means closure of schools and colleges and hence a good reason for a weak political class to exert pressure on the government to promote students without examinations. Freebies like this are an intoxicating drug for these young minds who have found in stone-pelting a vocation, and escapism, and perhaps a way for the voiceless to exert power in a society ruled by the gun.

“These young boys also harass women who want to study and work towards a progressive life. Women are often threatened and molested in the name of muhim,” says Shabnam Mir, 17, who dropped out of high school in Sopore after she was publicly abused.

Rubina Ali, 43, a social worker from downtown Anantnag, talks of the “business of terror and a generation of young Kashmiris as consumers crushed between the muhim and the state. “Even social media is watched. Anything we say about the current state of Kashmir draws flak, especially if we express dissent against militancy.”

Modern Kashmir is fast forgetting its legends and history. “How many Kashmiris today even know of Tahir Ashai or Ghani Kashmiri, a legendary Persian Kashmiri poet whose work is prescribed study for scholars in Iran but who lies in a forgotten and dilapidated grave in the Rajouri Kadal area of Srinagar,” asks Bilal Rather, a professor at Kashmir University.Do they remember that Charaka, famous for the medical treatise, Charaka Samhita, was from Kashmir?

Even as the mainland rewrites its history, the militants in the valley are writing a new history of Kashmir that sees Islam and terror as the only stakeholders.

(Names and locations have been changed to protect identities.)

Ashish Kaul is a media veteran and currently business head with a transnational group.

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Printable version | Oct 17, 2021 10:20:28 PM |

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