What's Behind The Recent Protests in Kashmir?

Sporadic demonstrations last week and earlier this year reflect the simmering tensions in the UT.

6 min read
What's Behind The Recent Protests in Kashmir?

Stone-throwing protests, which had once become relics of the past, took the centre stage in Kashmir last week again as the Valley witnessed sporadic demonstrations, though the police were successfully able to squash them.

In the wake of the demise of Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the Jammu & Kashmir administration clamped down on what it believed could potentially become the progenitors of “trouble.”

The Internet was shut down and phone networks taken out. There were several arrests, too. One family from the south Kashmir town of Pulwama said the police whisked away their father, a senior member of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, the night that Geelani breathed his last. He was released four days later, said his son, who pleaded anonymity. There were several other “transient” arrests as well, reports confirmed.


Strong Imagery

But what caught the Valley residents by surprise were the small bursts of stone-pelting demonstrations in downtown Srinagar. One particular protest that found itself amplified across media reports took place near the Zaldagar area, where scores of balaclava-clad youth converged and hurled stones at the police and Central Reserve Police Force personnel. The imagery that these protests evoke has become the emblem of the Kashmir conflict internationally.

Officials at two other key police stations, Maharaj Gunj and Shaheed Gunj, which administer jurisdiction over many unrest-prone downtown areas, denied that any stone-pelting took place under their areas.

On Tuesday, towns and cities across Kashmir reflected what appeared to be a patina of normalcy, with businesses opening partially. Some stores were still shuttered. Police said they are easing the restrictions further.

Internet services have also been restored. They were resumed across the entire Kashmir the previous night, barring the districts of Srinagar and Budgam. But on Tuesday evening, the mobile data services were back in both these districts as well.

A Principal Recourse For Angry Kashmiris

For decades, stone-pelting and mass demonstrations have been a principal recourse of angry protesters in Kashmir.

Mass protests have a history in Kashmir and they have since become periodic rituals, re-enacted each time people want to give vent to the pent-up anger.

There were mass protests in 1953 following the deposition of former Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah; in 1963 over the theft of holy relic – a strand of hair believed to be of Islam’s Prophet Mohammad encased in a glass vial; throughout the 1970s in response to Sheikh Abdullah’s policies, such as the Land Grants Ordinance, which allowed non-Kashmiris to buy estates on lease and undermined the now-extinguished provisions of Article 370 of the Constitution.

There have also been violent protests over the hanging of former Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1979. The violence was allegedly committed by the supporters of the National Conference against cadres of Jamaat-e-Islami. The contempt for Jamaat was also propelled by the belief that Zia-ul-Haq, the Pakistani general who deposed Bhutto paving the way for his hanging, was the patron of Jamaat in Pakistan.

The protesters are said to have barged inside the houses of Jamaat members and seized copies of Tafheemul Quran, the interpretation of the Muslim holy book by Syed Abul Ala Maududi, and replaced them with Karl Marx’s Das Kapital.


What Happened to the Youth?

During the 1980s, violent protests once again became the hallmark of Kashmiri political mobilisation as the decade was punctuated by many big political developments, such as the hanging of Maqbool Bhat, an influential pro-Independence leader; the dismissal of Farooq Abdullah as Chief Minister; a bout of the longest and unrelenting curfew during the reign of Ghulam Muhammad Shah, Abdullah’s successor, that earned him the moniker ‘Gul-Curfew’; the 1987 rigged elections; and finally the eruption of militancy’s first phase, which was also marked by unarmed street demonstrations that often turned violent in response to heavy-handed measures.

As the insurgency ebbed, civil uprisings marked by unarmed mass demonstrations once again resumed their course.

In 2008, following the controversial allotment of land to Shri Amarnath Shrine Board, massive civil unrest erupted, which literally bequeathed the conflict to a new generation of Kashmiris who had no or faint memories of the violence of the 1990s.

The 2008 uprising helped reify a fresh sense of political maturity in Kashmir, to the detriment of the Indian government. The killings of unarmed protesters bred anger, which led to two more seasons of mass protests in 2009 and 2010.

The youth who were at the receiving end of the crackdown during these months later slipped out of their homes discreetly and disappeared. They would re-emerge as gun-toting recruits swearing affiliations to various militant groups in Kashmir. One such militant was Burhan Wani, who galvanised incredible support for and boosted the ‘new-age militancy’ in Kashmir. Wani went on to become a commander, before being killed in 2016, sparking yet another civil uprising.

A ‘Normal’ Occurrence In the Past

This way, mass protests have become a deeply entrenched form of political expression in Kashmir, which has history on its side. However, after the abrogation of Article 370 and the ensuing crackdown, the protests had all but dissipated.

Figures show there's been a drastic decline in stone-pelting incidents since 2019. Recently, the Ministry of Home Affairs released data showing that 618 stone-pelting incidents were recorded in the Valley from January to July in 2019. The figure for the corresponding time in 2020 is 222, and just 76 in 2021.

In 2021, protests have attempted to resurface despite the strict crackdown already in place. Parts of the old city witnessed several stone-pelting incidents in February this year on the anniversary of the hanging of Maqbool Bhat.

In March, fierce clashes took place in the compound of Jamia Masjid, a 619-year-old mosque in the Srinagar city. It has been a political citadel of Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, who was expected to be released from his 19-month long house detention on March 5 before authorities decided against the move, prompting an outcry from his supporters.

In response, police booked at least 15 protesters under the stringent Public Safety Act (PSA), underscoring the toughness with which police treated these demonstrations that were previously a “normal” occurrence every Friday.

In the same month, music celebrations in Srinagar’s famed ‘Badamwari’ garden morphed into violent protests. In a viral video of the incident, protesters expressed resentment over the government’s decision to “disallow large congregational gatherings on the occasion of Shaab-e-Baraat, especially at the historic Jamia Masjid, due to the COVID-19 pandemic in the Valley, but allowing the music concerts”. The event was perceived to be yet another attempt to showcase normalcy in the region in the midst of a harsh crackdown.


The ‘Epidemic of Dead Eyes’

During the last week of March, at least two colleges erupted into protests because students were demanding the release of colleagues detained for either protests or links to militants.

In April, a gunfight in Pulwama also elicited violent protests from the locals that the police tried to douse by firing buckshot weapons. This author visited Srinagar’s Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital and interviewed scores of youth who had suffered serious pellet injuries in their eyes. One of the victims, swathed under several layers of bandages, was Majid Mir, 22, a farmer from Muchpuna, Pulwama. Both his eyes were seriously injured and his relative said that according to doctors, Mir had few chances of seeing again. The ‘epidemic of dead eyes’, it seemed, had returned to Kashmir.

Less than 2% of all individuals arrested in militancy-related cases have actually faced conviction in Jammu & Kashmir, even as jails across the Union territory are overflowing with prisoners, with undertrials accounting for 90% of inmates. This somewhat confirms that mass detentions have become one of the indispensable tools in the arsenal of Jammu & Kashmir police, who are strongly apprehensive of and indeed anticipate mass protests.

It is clear that in spite of the use of pellet guns, draconian laws and the broad-based crackdown, the threat of stone-pelting and mass protests continues to linger. It is not yet clear if the Modi government has actually succeeded in pulling a plug on this trend, notwithstanding the claims that it has. Only time will tell.

(Shakir Mir is a freelance journalist who has reported for the Times Of India and The Wire, among other publications. He tweets at @shakirmir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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