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