The new weapon in India’s Kashmir conflict? Teenage girls with stones
The first stone was heavy in her hand before she let it fly. It arched through the smoky air and hit the khaki leg of a soldier. She barely stopped to watch the man grimace before she picked up another.
In India’s restive Kashmir territory, the weapon of choice of separatist youth against Indian security forces is a stone – or a brick if they can get it. Indian soldiers have their own slingshots too, as well as conventional weapons and pellet guns that have killed and maimed scores.
This month a round of fresh violence has broken out in the valley, with a dozen killed in clashes with Indian security forces – sparking days of student protests across Kashmir. Schoolgirls in headscarves and school uniforms have joined forces with male protesters in large numbers for the first time in recent memory.
“A lot of these boys have been killed,” said Nisha Zahoor, 18, a student who took up “stone pelting” during a standoff with paramilitary forces in a market square last week. “Now girls will go out and protest for freedom.”
Officials hoping not to see a repeat of five months of violence that paralyzed the region last year have appealed for calm. The state’s leader, Mehbooba Mufti, flew to New Delhi this week to urge Prime Minister Narendra Modi to hold talks with separatists. A new female police battalion has been established to deal with the schoolgirls and other public safety issues. Mufti’s government also instituted a month-long ban on social networking sites WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and others Wednesday to slow the spread of incendiary viral videos among young people – including one in which the army strapped a man to the hood of a jeep as a human shield.
“I can’t say how difficult it will be but we’re very confident it will be contained,” said S.N. Shrivastava, the special director general of the Jammu and Kashmir Zone of the Central Reserve Police Force.
Yet some see the presence of the young girls in protests as a sign that the security situation in the valley is spiralling out of control.
Former chief minister Omar Abdullah tweeted this week that student protesters are the “new worry” and posted a photo of a girl in her school uniform kicking the side of a police vehicle. She clutched a brick in one hand, with a basketball tucked under her arm.
Omar Abdullah tweeted: “The reality that is Kashmir – she has her basketball & a brick in the same hand while she kicks the truck.”
The Kashmir region that straddles India and Pakistan has been in dispute between the two countries since India’s independence from the British and the creation of Pakistan in 1947. The lush valley that sits below snowcapped Himalayan peaks saw a violent armed insurgency in the 1990s which later gave way to fractured calm. But the Muslim-majority region erupted again in July when a popular militant commander named Burhan Wani was killed, leading to months of protests that left 78 dead.
Then, on April 12, Indian Army soldiers made the mistake of showing up in an armoured vehicle to a routine meeting with teachers at Government Degree College in Pulwama to discuss a painting competition - a show of brute force that angered students. They threw stones and three days later clashed with security forces inside the once-sheltering walls of their school. More than 30 students were beaten with bamboo sticks in the library, according to the school’s acting principal, and dozens were injured.
This incident galvanised protests that continued this week and included girls for the first time, according to Sadaf Bushra, an assistant journalism professor at Central University of Kashmir. Many of the young women probably found their schools safer places to express “outrage” than the confines of their strict Muslim families, she said.
“It’s a new form of protest because you have this other gender being a part of it now,” Bushra said.
Zahoor and her friends, 12th-graders at the Government Girls Higher Secondary Institute Nawakadal in Srinagar, had seen the news reports of the student beatings. They’d seen the viral videos. But they finally spilled out into the streets when they heard – falsely, as it turned out – that a young female student hit by a rock thrown by security personnel had died of her injuries.
School administrators locked the iron gate to keep them in, but when class was over there was nothing more they could do. Hundreds of girls moved through the streets, exhorting businesses to shut down and chanting “We want freedom!” and “Go India, go back!” They reached a line of paramilitary police brandishing riot shields. Police fired tear gas. They responded with rocks. In the end, several girls lay in the street, bleeding or unconscious.
At school this week, the girls sat on simple wooden writing desks in an empty classroom and recalled their initiation into the ranks of lawbreaking stone-pelters. In some ways they were like any teenage girls. Teachers repeatedly shushed them for talking too loud. They like Indian pop star Honey Singh and Justin Bieber. They giggled describing how they skip tutoring for “secret dates” - long scooter rides with the boys of their choice. They teased the student body president, for being a stickler for rules, fining them 10 rupees a day for not wearing the proper all-white uniform.
But they said growing up in one of the more heavily militarised areas in the world had taken its toll. They call security forces “black dogs,” “Indian dogs” and “Biharis” – a contemptuous epithet for denizens of one of India’s poor states.
Only one said she wanted Kashmir to remain part of India. One described police raids on her neighbourhood every night. Another tearfully told how she recently lost her 16-year-old brother to violence. “These things are happening. If we don’t protest, what else will we do?” the student, Ishrat Bashir, 18, said.
Later, at her home not far from school, Zahoor sat cross-legged on tapestry bolsters and took out a mobile phone with a cracked screen to show off photos of her deceased uncle, Riyas Ahmad Shah, a 22-year-old bank security guard who police think was killed by security forces in August. It is his death that drives her, she said. Nisha’s mother, Fareeda Shah, came in to serve mango juice and sat alongside her daughter, saying that she is proud of her for protesting.
“She did a rightful thing,” Shah said. “Her uncle was killed brutally and without reason. It’s the only way to express anger.”
And the stones her daughter threw at the paramilitary personnel?
“Did you?” Shah asked her daughter. She gave her a fierce look – part disapproval, part pride. “It is okay,” Shah said. “He was like a brother to her.”