I was excited and curious when I landed at the Srinagar airport. I had so many questions bouncing around my head. Interviewing a stone-pelter was one of the most important stories, maybe because of the challenges attached to it. I had no idea how I would get access to them. But on the third day of my stay, I got a lead. My source, who helped me arrange a meeting with two Kashmiri youth who were stone-pelters, warned me not to question them about their identities. While I was waiting in a junkyard in Pampore, as directed by my source, the youths I was after appeared from nowhere with masks covering their faces. My source came and told me I had 10 minutes to finish my interview. These boys didn't have a tinge of hesitation or discomfort while talking to me on camera. In a candid conversation, they talked about their anger, which drives them to clash with the security forces. They also spoke about their dream of 'Azaad Kashmirí'.
Why do you pelt stones? We want freedom from India. The Indian government persecutes us.
How does it persecute Kashmiris? They pick up youth from the streets, throw them in jail, book them under any law. The youth are ruined for life and are not capable of working after that. When we get our freedom, we will be able to do what we want. We neither want to be a part of Pakistan nor stay with India. We want an independent Kashmir.
Where do you throw stones? Wherever I get an opportunity.
Is anyone forcing you to do it? Nobody is forcing me. I'm doing this because my needs are not being met.
What are these needs? There are no jobs. We are poor people who are ignored by the government. When we get independence and have our own government, we will have jobs. When we leave home, we are caught and beaten (by security force personnel). If we go out after 9 pm, army men want to check our identification cards. We want freedom from all this. In Delhi, people can roam around freely at night, but we can't do that. This has been the case for years.
Even so, why pelt stones with such intensity? We only seek independence.
Do you follow the Hurriyat calendar? (Hurriyat releases a calendar every week which lists the activities to be followed by the people of Kashmir.) Yes.
Why? It tells us what to do. Else, people won't hold protests together. If they don't organise us, people will stop agitating.
Do you trust the Hurriyat? Yes. But I trust God first, and then myself.
But the protests are causing tension and inconveniencing women and children. This is not the first time that there have been protests. They happen almost every year.
Who is backing you? Nobody is backing us. We are our own back-up.
We have heard that money is being provided to you. Nobody has given me money. I'm fighting for my rights. If I die, I will die fighting for my rights and become a martyr.
How many people support your cause? The whole of Kashmir supports us. It's not like we love Pakistan. We don't want any outside government here. If Pakistan occupies Kashmir, it will persecute us too. We only want freedom.
To experience the stone-pelting in Kashmir, I embedded myself with the CRPF jawans and visited Nowhatta Chowk in Sringar, where incidents occur everyday. I travelled in a bulletproof CRPF vehicle, to capture the stone-pelting incidents on a 360-degree camera as well as on a regular one. Over 400 CRPF jawans are deployed in and around the chowk daily. Stone-pelting takes place during withdrawal time, when the CRPF troops retreat to their camps.
According to security personnel, after India's surgical strike in PoK, the number of stone-pelters has fallen, but it is expected to rise in the future. This is the same chowk where a militant attack on 15 August killed one deputy commanding officer of the CRPF and left two jawans injured. The city's biggest mosque, the Jamia Masjid, is also located in Nowhatta Chowk. The mosque has been shut for the last few months This is because it can hold as many as 33,333 people - and such a large congregation could result in large-scale violence.
While I was on my way to Nowhatta Chowk in the CRPF jeep, I spoke to a jawan, Basheer Ahmad, who hails from Pampore district in Kashmir. He talked about the harassment his family faces because of his association with the security forces. Ahmad has been with the CRPF for 11 years. His family lives in a village in the state's Budgam district.
"They harass our families. They tell us to leave the CRPF and join them. Sometimes we are forced to think what should we do. They throw stones at our houses. At times, it becomes very difficult for our families to hold back the mob." Basheer Ahmad, CRPF Constable
In a candid chat, he shared the thoughts he is faced with every time he confronts protesters on the streets.
"Whenever I see kids on the streets protesting, I feel they shouldn't be there. Everybody should live in peace and let others do so too." said Basheer Ahmad, CRPF Constable
Basheer, who is posted in Srinagar, routinely goes out with the road-opening party. Almost everyday, he faces protesters on the streets of Kashmir. He spoke to me about one such incident that left a lasting impact on him.
"An incident took place just 3-4 km from my home. Five civilians were killed on the spot. A person was walking up to the stone-pelters to stop them from protesting. He was shot dead on the spot. Another person followed him. He too was gunned down. In this way, five people were killed one after the other."
Like Basheer, there are many Kashmiris in the security forces who have to make tough decisions every time they pick up a weapon to stop protesters. They face a difficult choice: Between their national duty and their loyalty to fellow Kashmiris.
Throughout his 11 years of service, Basheer said his family members have been very supportive. They know that it is his job that supports them. "I give my 100 percent to my job," he says. Worried about the ongoing unrest, Bashir told me he fervently hopes that normalcy and peace return to his state soon.
I visited a CRPF medical clinic in Lethpura in South Kashmir. Here I met P Shivaji, a CRPF jawan who got trapped in a stone-pelting incident. He was injured on 10 July in an attack by the protestors in Bandipora in Kashmir. He was hit in the eyes with stones, due to which he lost his vision. His right eye was operated on in Chennai but the doctors couldn't save it.
Since Burhan Waniís death, the unrest in Kashmir has killed around 90 civilians and injured several more. On the other side, close to 3,000 CRPF jawans were injured in stone-pelting incidents in different parts of Kashmir over the past 3 months. The security forces feel their hands are tied because they have been given strict instructions not to retaliate against protesters.
"The doctor says I need a new retina, else my eye won't work." P Shivaji, CRPF Jawan
"Initially, 2-4 people were throwing stones in Bandipura. When we sent them away 100-200 people came back and started throwing stones at us from 3 sides. I was protected from 2 sides but was hit by a stone from the third." P Shivaji, CRPF Jawan
According to the doctors, they have contacted several eye banks for a donor. Over 2 months have passed, but we haven't found a donor yet.
Unlike Shivaji, Arun Kumar was lucky. He too was hit in the right eye in a stone-pelting attack at the CRPF camp in Lethpura. Around 5,000 protesters pelted stones and threw 15-20 petrol bombs, which set the camp on fire.
What did you do after you were hit with the stones? After getting hurt, I fell down and was lifted onto the bunker. I couldn't see anything because of the blood and got 6 stitches.
Did you get angry after getting hurt by the protesters? We were under orders to use minimum force and were only equipped with lathis and shields. No one had a gun.
Did you retaliate in any way? No. They are our brothers who have gone astray. It is possible that they might embrace the right path in the future.
Around 75,000 CRPF jawans have been deployed in Kashmir since the unrest began. According to sources, the post-harvest season tension in Kashmir will see a surge. Both Shivaji and Kumar are admitted in the hospital and are undergoing treatment. Doctors hope to find an eye donor for Shivaji soon to bring back his vision.
I managed to travel in the CRPF Mine Protected Vehicle, which was used for the first time in Kashmir. We bring you a 360-degree view of the vehicle from the inside as well from the outside. While I was on my way to Awantipora, I managed to talk to some of the jawans. We spoke about the vehicle and about their experience of handling the unrest in Kashmir in the last three months.
"This vehicle can protect us from not just land mines but also hand grenades. Hence, it is considered very safe. We are using it in South Kashmir because it is the worst-hit part of the state." Ishwar Singh, CRPF Jawan
I also spoke to them about their experience of dealing with Kashmir crisis. Several questions have been raised about the handling of the unrest by security forces. I wanted to know what they thought about the protesters and how difficult is it to handle them.
"We do get angry, but we have clear instructions that we are not supposed to fire until someone shoots at us. We are supposed to maintain law and order and also defend ourselves from stone-pelters. After all, these are our countrymen who have been brainwashed." CP Sen, CRPF Jawan.
Since Burhan Wani's death, many Kashmiris have been forced to live hand-to-mouth. We bring you the story of one such family in Dal Lake whose livelihood depends on the shikara business. The family share their hardships in a candid conversation. The family of 8 depends on tourism for income. But this year, violence and unrest in Kashmir shattered the tourism industry.
The Kulu family had been expecting to earn Rs 70,000 - 80,000 a month had tourists visited Dal Lake this year. But now there's a question mark over their very survival. According to the family, Dal Lake has not been much affected by the unrest.
"People of Dal Lake are peace-loving. There aren't any stone-pelters here, nor extra security personnel has been deployed at the lake. But we don't step out in the city fearing police might nab us. I have been told by my friends that innocents are picked up by the police and then bribes are demanded, while the real stone-pelters are left free to roam." Sahil Kulu, Shikara wala in Dal Lake, Kashmir
For the past 3 months, the Kulu family members have not stepped out of Dal Lake. Watching TV soap operas has become their only activity.
The Kashmir Valley has been on the boil since the face of the new militancy Burhan Wani was shot dead. Killed on 8 July 2016, Burhan’s death was followed by a three month-long deadly unrest that took many lives. At least 92 people were killed and over 12,000 injured in clashes between protesters and security forces.
Rafiqa Banoo’s 18-year-old son, Irfan Fayaz Wani, died after security forces fired a tear smoke shell at him, in old Srinagar city. After her husband succumbed to cardiac arrest, she looked to Irfan for financial support. Irfan was also a known stone-pelter. His family believes his killing was targeted.
Twenty-three-year-old Afroz Ahmad Lone was killed when protesters pushed a police vehicle into the Jhelum from Sangam bridge in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district. He was also a talented and well-known cricketer in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district.
In the clashes between protestors and security forces, 18-year-old Shakeel Ahmad Ganai lost his life. He was taken to the district hospital in Pulwama with pellet injuries in his chest, where he was declared 'brought dead' by the doctors. His mother, Shameema Begum, misses him. The studious and hardworking medical student was her only hope to come out of poverty that plagues the family.
Ravi Paul of 10 Dogra Regiment was one of the 18 soldiers who lost their lives in the Uri attack. Paul’s 80-year-old mother continues to grieve his death. He has been survived by a wife and two sons.
Reporter: Poonam Agarwal
Video Editor: Mohd Irshad Alam, Kunal Mehra & Mohd Ibrahim
Copy Editor: Pradumn Joshi & Khemta Jose
Editing & Compositing: Kunal Mehra
Camera Person: Poonam Agarwal
Design: Rahul Gupta
UI/UX: Jaivardhan Singh Channey