The making of Srinagar's teenage martyrs

Young men throw stones at police during a funeral procession in Srinagar. The rioters are children of a once-powerful social class that has been in decline for decades. Photo: AP

Young men throw stones at police during a funeral procession in Srinagar. The rioters are children of a once-powerful social class that has been in decline for decades. Photo: AP  

Four weeks ago, a tear-gas shell arced over a crowded street in Srinagar's Rajouri Kadal area. It landed, with surreal precision, on Tufail Mattoo, ripping apart the 17-year-old's skull.

Mattoo wasn't seeking martyrdom; he was just trying to make his way home from school. Ever since, though, Kashmir's cities have seen a wave of murderous clashes between the police and the protesters — fuelled by a radical Islamism that has acquired ideological influence among the young. For the young men who have been battling police, Mattoo was a martyr. His loved ones don't seem to see it quite the same way.

Muhammad Husain Mattoo, the accidental martyr's father, gently argued with the protesters who wanted to march with his son's body to Srinagar's Mazhar-e-Shauhda, a graveyard where hundreds of those killed in the anti-India movement are buried. Later, he gave in — but on national television, he made clear that he disapproved of the rioting that broke out after his son's death.

The parents of at least some of the men who have died since seem to feel the same way. Muhammad Rafiq Bangroo, shot dead by police on June 12, was buried at the Dana Mazhar in Safakadal, as his family's tradition mandates. Even though Muzaffar Ahmad Bhat's parents were furious at the police who chased their son into the stream where he drowned on July 5, they rejected pleas from secessionist leader Shakeel Bakshi to have their child buried at the Mazhar-e-Shauhda. So did the family of Fayyaz Ahmad Wani, who was killed a few hours later.

In these stories lie important clues about the violence that has torn Kashmir apart this summer.

Mapping the violence

Mapping the violence in Kashmir helps us understand who the protesters are, as well as the reach of the urban Islamism that has manifested itself in repeated clashes since 2006.

Parts of Srinagar, data gathered from police stations by The Hindu make clear, have accounted for a disproportionate share of the violence. More than half of the 21 civilians killed in police action between January 1 and July 7, 2010 were Srinagar residents. Thirty-two of the 72 civilians injured in the clashes also belonged to the city. Police say 141 officers and 62 CRPF personnel were injured in the clashes — a third of the 623 injured across Kashmir.

Between these dates, police recorded 269 clashes involving violent mobs across Kashmir. Just under 45 per cent of the clashes took place in Srinagar, and most were concentrated in the limits of five police stations — Rainawari, Nowhatta, Maharajgunj, Khanyar and Safakadal.

Low-turnout urban pockets in northern Kashmir have accounted for the bulk of violence outside of Srinagar. The north Kashmir trading town of Baramulla, like Srinagar's shahr-e-khaas a major trading centre before Independence, accounted for 46 clashes. Nearby Sopore, a major apple-trading centre which has been a stronghold of the Jamaat-e-Islami, saw 21. Put together, the three towns accounted for 69.5 per cent of all violent protests in Kashmir this summer.

Last year, too, the pattern was similar. Jammu and Kashmir saw 290 incidents involving clashes between protesters and police; only 64 took place outside of Srinagar, Baramulla and Sopore, and most of these were concentrated around Shopian, where the alleged rape-murder of two women caused widespread rage.

Islamists and urban despair

The violence seems driven by despair, not coherent political design. Much of the rioting has taken place in Srinagar's shahr-e-khaas, neighbourhoods which made up the city's traditional trading and artisanal hubs. The protesters consist in the main of what might be described as a lumpen bourgeoisie. The rioters are children of a once-powerful social class that has been in decline for decades.

In the years after Independence, the shahr-e-khaas saw intense contestation between the traditionalist cleric, Mirwaiz Mohammad Farooq, and the National Conference. The struggle represented the conflict between the old bourgeoisie and an emerging new élite of contractors and businessmen. In 1986, though, the two parties allied. Mirwaiz Farooq refused to support secessionism after jihadist violence broke out three years later, and was assassinated in May, 1990. Both Mirwaiz Farooq and his assassin, Abdullah Bangroo, were, ironically enough, buried in the Mazhar-e-Shauhda.

His son and successor, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, reversed course — and emerged as the principal leader of the secessionist All Parties Hurriyat Conference. The younger Mirwaiz's decision to boycott successive elections created a peculiar political situation in the shahr-e-khaas. Mirwaiz Farooq, focussed on securing a dialogue with India he hoped would lead to power, made little effort to address the concerns of his constituency. For their part, National Conference legislators elected from Srinagar won in low-turnout elections that gave them little legitimacy.

Frustrated by the failure of traditional politicians to deliver, young people began lashing out at a political order that had no space for their concerns. Their anger expressed itself in hostility to India and, increasingly, in slogans supportive of the Islamist movement and jihadist organisations like the Lashkar. Kashmir has a long Islamist politician tradition, and the Jamaat-e-Islami was adroit in leveraging ethnic and religious anxieties to secure electoral power. The sustained street clashes that began in 2006, though, were characterised not just by their remarkable intensity but their complete dissociation from organised political life. Put simply, the rioting marked the death-throes of an old political order.

Kashmir's Islamist patriarch, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, stepped in to fill the gap. There is evidence that leaders of Mr. Geelani's Tehreek-i-Hurriyat have paid local activists to initiate clashes with police. The Tehreek-i-Hurriyat, though, simply doesn't have the political networks needed to sustain a large-scale, coordinated movement. Instead, young Islamists appear to have acted locally in response to its calls, using everything from mosque public address systems to mobile phone text messaging to prepare for marches through their neighbourhoods.

Last year, religious traditionalists began to understand the threat these mobilisations posed to their own influence. Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith president Shaukat Ahmad Shah declared that Prophet Mohammad himself had held stone-throwing to be un-Islamic. Mirwaiz Farooq backed Shah. So, too, did Kashmir's Grand Mufti, Mufti Mohammad Bashiruddin.

But Islamist leaders hit back. Mr. Geelani said it was “natural for youth to show anger by pelting stones.” Islamic Students League leader Shakeel Bakshi, in turn, described the protests as “a Kashmiri version of the Palestinian intifada.” In an effort to legitimise his position, Bakshi held a seminar where he displayed images purporting to show the eminent Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said throwing stones at Israeli soldiers in the occupied territories.

Older people — schooled, unlike their children, in a system of institutional politics — have been deeply uncomfortable with the violent clashes. Politicians elected with substantial mandates have, moreover, succeeded in resisting Islamist radicalisation across large swathes of Kashmir. Langate, perched between volatile Srinagar and Baramulla, has seen no violence. Neither has Kupwara. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah's home district, Ganderbal, saw just six clashes in which only one civilian was injured. In Kulgam, the Jamaat-e-Islami has, despite the backing of elements of the People's Democratic Party, failed to spark off significant unrest.

But on Srinagar's streets, there's little doubt that the hurled stone — and the bullet fired back in anger — are likely to form part of the vocabulary of political life for some time to come. Kashmir's politicians are struggling to find a language with which to address the problem. “These young people,” said the State's former Deputy Chief Minister, Muzaffar Husain Beigh, last week, “they listen to no-one.” Large-scale urban reconstruction efforts, more effective methods of non-lethal crowd control and, perhaps most important of all, more local democracy are all needed — but no one in power seems clear just how the first step forward might be taken.

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Printable version | Apr 3, 2020 11:03:15 AM |

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