How the volatile sit­u­a­tion in Kash­mir is turn­ing even young girls into un­likely par­tic­i­pants of stone-pelt­ing protests

India Today - - COVER STORY -

She’d never hurt so much as a fly in her life. But on April 24, Jammu & Kash­mir’s most promis­ing woman soc­cer player, Af­shan Ashiq, joined the grow­ing crowd of an­gry stonethrow­ers in the Val­ley.

Eye­wit­nesses at Sri­na­gar’s Lal Chowk, where scores of stu­dents clashed with po­lice and para­mil­i­tary per­son­nel to protest against the po­lice ac­tion that left over 50 stu­dents at Pul­wama’s Gov­ern­ment De­gree Col­lege in­jured on April 13, re­call Ashiq un­leash­ing a vol­ley of stones at the se­cu­rity forces.

Af­shan, who’s been de­voted to foot­ball and was re­cently hired as J&K’s first ever woman soc­cer coach, says she was es­cort­ing a group of 16 stu­dents from the Kothi Bagh Girls School for prac­tice at the far end of Res­i­dency Road. “We were stopped by some po­lice­men. They started abus­ing me mis­tak­ing us for be­ing a part of the protest,” she says, re­call­ing how things rapidly de­te­ri­o­rated when “one of the cops slapped a young school­girl who ob­jected to his use of ex­ple­tives”.

In­fu­ri­ated at the po­lice­man’s be­hav­iour, Af­shan says she felt she had to do some­thing. “I don’t re­mem­ber re­ally think­ing about the con­se­quences,” she says. Af­ter get­ting the school­girls to a safer dis­tance, she al­most au­to­mat­i­cally picked up a stone and hurled it at the po­lice­men, not aim­ing for any­one in par­tic­u­lar.

Images of the lanky, 5 feet 8 inches tall foot­baller, un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally draped in a du­patta, and pelt­ing stones, went vi­ral on the ves­tiges of so­cial me­dia still func­tion­ing in Kash­mir fol­low­ing the state gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion, on April 26, to block so­cial me­dia fo­rums such as What­sApp, Face­book and YouTube.

Iron­i­cally, Af­shan is not your reg­u­lar stone-pel­ter. She had ear­lier spent hours coun­selling young male friends on the per­ils of break­ing the law. “I tell them to take up a sport and study hard be­cause that is the only ticket to free­dom and the world out­side,” she says.

But what hap­pened to her and dozens of other young col­lege and school­girls on the day of the protests at Lal Chowk and sev­eral sim­i­lar skir­mishes across the Val­ley’s towns, points to a blur­ring of lines amongst the gen­er­a­tion of 12-24 year olds.

A se­nior state po­lice of­fi­cer says that al­though sig­nif­i­cantly re­duced com­pared to the un­rest last year, the con­tin­u­ing vi­o­lent protests across Kash­mir, in the ab­sence of any at­tempt to po­lit­i­cally or so­cially en­gage with young peo­ple, even­tu­ally smudge dis­tinc­tions between rad­i­calised youth demon­strat­ing on the streets and un­likely new par­tic­i­pants like Af­shan.

Girls in head­scarves and school uni­forms are be­com­ing the dis­turb­ing, al­ter­na­tive im­age of the Kash­miri stone-thrower. Like 18-year-old Nisha Za­hoor, a Class 12 stu­dent from a gov­ern­ment school in Navakadal, Down­town Sri­na­gar.

On April 20, Za­hoor and her class­mates fought pitched bat­tles with CRPF per­son­nel over ru­mours that Iqra Sadiq, a stu­dent at the neigh­bour­ing Gov­ern­ment Girls Col­lege, had died from a griev­ous skull in­jury sus­tained in stone-pelt­ing a day ear­lier.

Many of them have suf­fered

J&K has got less than a fourth of the PM’s Rs 80,000 crore spe­cial pack­age for it

per­sonal losses in the on­go­ing vi­o­lence. Za­hoor’s un­cle was re­port­edly killed dur­ing the 2016 un­rest, and Ishrat Bashir, an­other twelfth-grader at the Navakadal school lost a 16-year-old brother.

At the Kothi Bagh po­lice sta­tion, Af­shan’s name fig­ures on an FIR that also de­scribes griev­ous in­juries sus­tained by po­lice­men, in­clud­ing a young IPS of­fi­cer with a cracked skull and a clot in his brain. Po­lice of­fi­cers con­tend that “girl stu­dents who un­til now were only in­volved in bring­ing stones to youth at­tack­ing se­cu­rity per­son­nel are now ac­tively par­tic­i­pat­ing them­selves”.

At a meet­ing of PDP func­tionar­ies on April 24, Tas­saduq Mufti, chief min­is­ter Me­hbooba Mufti’s brother and party can­di­date for the can­celled Anant­nag Lok Sabha by-election, is said to have an­grily told the se­nior lead­ers present: “We talk of di­a­logue with all stake­hold­ers and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with Pak­istan, yet were are not even able to go out and talk to our own young peo­ple who are out on the streets!” spent the next six years re­lent­lessly tak­ing on the NCCongress al­liance. The die had been cast by early 2014 when PDP swept all the three Lok Sabha seats in the Val­ley. Seven months later, with 28 seats, the party re­sumed of­fice in al­liance with the BJP.

When she took over as CM on April 4, 2016, Me­hbooba faced a daunt­ing set of chal­lenges. Be­sides bal­anc­ing acts between Sri­na­gar and Delhi, Kash­mir and Jammu and her pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lim PDP and the Hindu na­tion­al­ist BJP, she was also con­fronted with de­liv­er­ing gov­er­nance—some­thing she had ab­so­lutely no ex­pe­ri­ence of. This showed al­most im­me­di­ately in the vac­il­la­tion she dis­played on vir­tu­ally ev­ery­thing, from the ini­tial ad­min­is­tra­tive over­haul in early 2016 to more mun­dane is­sues like the re­open­ing of schools af­ter Burhan Wani’s killing.

Me­hbooba, some say, is sti­fled by her own over­re­liance on a co­terie of ad­vi­sors—key bu­reau­crats and politi­cians, in­clud­ing Sar­taj Madani, her ma­ter­nal un­cle and PDP gen­eral sec­re­tary, pub­lic works min­is­ter Naeem Akhtar, for­mer MLA Peerzada Man­soor Hus­sain, her re­cently ap­pointed chief sec­re­tary Bharat Bhushan Vyas and Amitabh Mat­too, a re­puted aca­demi­cian and long-time con­fi­dant of Mufti Say­eed.

PDP cadres are ques­tion­ing the wis­dom of al­ly­ing with the BJP more than ever to­day. Mufti Say­eed’s dream of bridg­ing the yawn­ing po­lit­i­cal and re­li­gious rift between Sri­na­gar and Jammu has clearly been a non-starter. The two re­gions and the peo­ple have grown even more dis­tant.

Bar­ring the brief win­dow of op­por­tu­nity back in 2016, when some mem­bers of the all-party del­e­ga­tion, led by home min­is­ter Ra­j­nath Singh, un­suc­cess­fully at­tempted to en­gage with the Hur­riyat sep­a­ratists, the promised “sus­tained and mean­ing­ful di­a­logue with all in­ter­nal stake­hold­ers”—the main­stay of the mu­tu­ally agreed Agenda of the Al­liance between the PDP and BJP—is clearly no longer on the ta­ble.

Re­spond­ing to a pe­ti­tion by the J&K High Court Bar As­so­ci­a­tion on April 28, at­tor­ney gen­eral of In­dia Mukul Ro­hatgi made Delhi’s po­si­tion on di­a­logue with the sep­a­ratists am­ply clear. The Cen­tre, he told the court, has “no plan to hold any talks with the sep­a­ratists and those who are not loyal to In­dia”. And if there was any doubt about what Delhi was now say­ing, the BJP’s Ram Mad­hav, who drafted the gov­er­nance agenda with the PDP, lauded the move. The for­mer RSS man, who is now

a gen­eral sec­re­tary in the BJP, spelled out Delhi’s new mantra for Sri­na­gar: “Tackle mil­i­tants and their spon­sors with ut­most tough­ness. Han­dle mis­guided youths com­ing onto the streets with stones in hand with deft­ness so that vi­o­lence is firmly put down, but care is taken to pre­vent loss of life.”

In­ter­est­ingly, de­spite the changed stance in re­sum­ing talks with Kash­miri sep­a­ratists and the con­se­quent alarm this has pro­voked amid the PDP’s rank and file, both Mad­hav and the BJP’s J&K in-charge Av­inash Rai Khanna have stated that the al­liance was in no dan­ger of fall­ing apart. Me­hbooba, how­ever, chose to be more cau­tious: “The al­liance is as firm as the Agenda of Al­liance,” she told in­dia to­day.

Me­hbooba, who met Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi in Delhi on April 24 to press him to ini­ti­ate the di­a­logue process, is not giv­ing up so eas­ily. Ad­mit­ting that there needs to be a sem­blance of nor­malcy be­fore any man­ner of talks can move for­ward, the chief min­is­ter told party lead­ers in Sri­na­gar that “di­a­logue was the only way for­ward and out of the abyss Kash­mir cur­rently finds it­self in”. She sug­gested pick­ing up from the ear­lier in­ter­locu­tors’ re­port and the five work­ing group re­ports and the Agenda of Al­liance, in­sist­ing it should not be im­pos­si­ble to find “ten things that can be done… with­out com­pro­mis­ing na­tional in­ter­ests”.

But be­fore Me­hbooba can pos­si­bly ca­jole Delhi into re­con­sid­er­ing a di­a­logue on Kash­mir, she faces the chal­lenges of ef­fec­tively tack­ling the new home­grown mil­i­tancy, reen­gag­ing with de­jected youth, and amid all this, restart­ing the stalled gov­er­nance and de­vel­op­men­tal ini­tia­tives.

OVER THE EDGE (Left) Foot­baller Af­shan Ashiq; school­girls throw stones at se­cu­rity forces in Sri­na­gar

HARD TIMES BJP pres­i­dent Amit Shah at a party func­tion in Jammu on April 30

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