Dr Mohammad Tahir Ganie[This piece is abridged from a journal article originally published by the author in Social Movement Studies, entitled “‘All I got is stones in my hand’: youth-led stone pelting protests in Indian-administered Kashmir”]
Kashmir is a site of protracted armed conflict. In the late 1980s, Kashmiri dissidents launched an anti-India armed movement with the aid of Pakistan. Before that, for 20 years (1955-1975), under the banner of the Plebiscite Front, they ran a non-violent mass movement seeking Kashmiri right to self-determination as provided under the UNSC Resolutions (47, 51, 80, 91) that call for “free and impartial plebiscite” in Kashmir. During this time (1955-1975), Kashmir witnessed frequent street protests and sporadic incidents of stone-pelting by youth. Political opportunities for street protests, however, shrank considerably during the period of the armed movement, as India launched a wide-scale military crackdown against militant groups and dissident organisations, leading to severe human rights violations. Approximately 50,000 people were killed in the armed conflict.
In the early 2000s, India and Pakistan initiated the composite dialogue process after becoming nuclear powers and fighting a war in 1999 in Jammu & Kashmir’s Kargil region. Bilateral relations started to improve and violence by state and non-state actors also declined. Annual fatalities decreased from 3000 in 2002 to nearly 500 in 2008. Space for dissident politics also opened gradually.
In 2008, dissident organisations led by the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) managed to mobilise massive public marches through the second week of August. To stem the rising tide of pro-independence mobilisations, India violently crushed the APHC’s 24 August rally by imposing stringent curfew and killing and maiming many protestors. Any protest program announced by the APHC was subsequently crushed by India.
The demonstrators started throwing stones after police and paramilitary forces deployed excessive force during the 2009 street protests against the rape and murder of two women in the Shopian district. Gradually, future protests started turning violent. Stone-throwing evolved into a regular feature of anti-India demonstrations, becoming a popular mode of resistance among Kashmiri youth during the 2010 street protests. Stone-throwing played a major role in the resurgence of Kashmiri self-determination movement, which, in the post-2008 period, predominantly became a fight between Kashmiri youth and the Indian security forces.
Between 2009–2019, more than 13,000 stone-throwing incidents were reported from Kashmir. Around 2800 such incidents occurred during the 2016 anti-India uprising. In the first half of 2019, stone-throwing incidents dropped significantly to around 40 incidents, but following the revocation of Kashmir’s autonomous status on August 5, 2019 incidents of stone-throwing surged, even while New Delhi had imposed an unprecedented military siege in the region and snapped all modes of communication.
To control stone-throwing protests, India introduced pump-action guns (called pellet guns) in Kashmir in 2010. Indiscriminate use of pellet guns in 2016 caused serious eye-injuries to around 1500 people and blinded 139 others between 2016-2019.
Srinagar district’s Downtown and Maisuma area and pockets of the Baramulla district have been old theatres of stone-pelting protests. From there, this protest-tactic spread to other parts of Kashmir, especially during the 2010 mass street protests. The 2010 street protests, widely covered by the press, brought the image of young rebellious Kashmiri stone-throwing protestor to public view.
For India, stone-throwing by Kashmiri youth emerged as a major security and diplomatic challenge. Since 2015, Kashmiri civilians several times disrupted gunfights between armed rebels and the government forces by throwing stones. In 2018, nearly 60 civilians were killed near gunfight-sites while trying to save trapped militants by throwing stones at the Indian armed forces. But, presenting stone-throwing protest as ‘terrorism’ was untenable to counter international scrutiny, even though Government of India has attempted to club stone-throwers with insurgents, as manifest in the press statement of India’s Ministry of Home Affairs on 26 June 2019: ‘Pursuant to the Government policy of zero tolerance towards terrorism, the State Government has taken stringent action to deal with stone-pelting, including identification and arrest of stone pelters and instigators of such acts under relevant laws’.
Mainstream Indian media frame Kashmiri stone-throwers as misguided youth, drug addicts, anti-nationals or paid agents of the APHC and Pakistan. Kashmir public, by and large, perceives the stone-throwing as a reaction to state repression and choking of political spaces. Many young people see stone-throwing (called kanni-jang in local parlance) as a way of resistance against zulm (oppression) or an expression of dissent, anger, and frustration. For the dissident organisations, stone-throwing has an impact value since such protests invite media attention.
Stone-pelting is a gendered protest form, mostly used by young men. In April 2017, when Kashmiri students started wide-scale anti-India protests, female students also threw stones at Indian police and paramilitary at different locations across Kashmir.
Since 2010, thousands of Kashmiri youth have been detained for their participation in street protests. Approximately, 11,000 protestors were arrested during the 2016 (and 2017) uprisings. Some youths were detained under the Public Safety Act (PSA), which allows the state to detain a person for up to two years without trial. Some of the detained youths later became militants, after facing harassment and torture in jails.
Comprising over 30% of Kashmir’s total population of 6.9 million, the generation of Kashmiri youth has developed insurgent consciousness in the context of deepening militarization and violence of the last thirty years of armed conflict that has considerably transformed their basic attitudes. The 2008 mass uprising generated the insurrectionary force and initiated them into a pro-independence political movement. As a politically mobilised generation, Kashmir youth use varied forms and modes of protest, including art, narratives, and stone-throwing, to express their political subjectivity.
Many young men readily join street protests because they are not constrained by adult responsibilities; what McAdam (1986) calls ‘biographical availability’. But, what induces a lot of young persons to take part in high-risk stone-throwing protests is ‘moral shock’, which Jasper (1997, p. 106) describes as ‘an unexpected event’ which ‘raises such a sense of outrage in a person that she becomes inclined toward political action’.
Although social media, by popularising the image of stone-throwing (warrior) youth, have created inducements and there is also some evidence of the Palestine case influencing Kashmiri youth into embracing stone-throwing, appropriation of—and socialisation into—protest tactics is a complex process (Della and Diani, 2006, p. 184). In many instances, cyclical dynamics operate. For example, in 2010, civilian killing by soldiers led to demonstrations and repression of demonstrations led to stone-throwing and further civilian killings and injuries. This cycle continued. In a space like Kashmir which is marked by dense militarisation, stone-throwing is also sometimes an attempt to claim the public sphere which is dominated by the military. Overall, the incidents of stone-throwing protests in Kashmir manifest the lack of democratic space for peaceful dissident politics in the post-2008 period.
Dr Mohammad Tahir Ganie is Assistant Professor of Political Science. He completed his PhD from DCU’s School of Law and Government. His research interests include conflict resolution, social movements; youth politics; Kashmir.