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Kashmir:  The Stone Throwers

By Mohamad Junaid

Source: Guernica

I wasn’t one of them. Or I wasn’t, perhaps, anymore. When people spoke to me,
people whom I had known since my childhood, they addressed me differently; ahan’u,
for instance, had become ahan’haz. Both mean “yes,” the affirmative, but the
respectful formality of the latter word had replaced the affectionate familiarity of the
former. In any case, there I stood at a distance watching, moving forward only when
the boys charged, returning to my place when they were chased back. I did not shout
any slogans nor throw any stones. I may have handed a couple of small pebbles lying
next to me to a teenager—a stone warrior—who was running short. During the “stone
battles” of Anantnag, however, everyone shed painful tears, the throwers and the
bystanders. There was no escape from the tear gas. That is why my eyes grew red.

It was dangerous to stand where I was, but I had an emergency exit plan in place.
Quite close by is the shrine of Resh-Moal—the Sufi Father—my old refuge.
Throughout my childhood and teenage life I walked through the shrine almost every
single day. I knew it, and the surrounding labyrinthine alleys and snaky streets, like
the back of my hand. In the early 1990s, when the insurgency in Kashmir was at its
peak, my schoolmates and I often waited out the gun battles and military sieges of the
town inside the shrine until it was safe to go home. The elderly shrine keepers kept us
well fed; they would dig out the best date palms for us from their deep pheran
pockets—the long woolen gowns with flannel lining that kept them warm. While
devotees brought the choicest flaky bagirkhanis from nearby bakeries in large wicker
baskets, the shrine keepers kept samovars of almond kahwa going round the clock.
This hot saffron-tinged tea, which we drank in carefully measured sips so as not to
run out of the bread before the tea was finished, made us quite receptive to the
spiritual verses the devotees hummed together—or so we told the shrine keepers.

The local government argued that the women had drowned in water. The bodies had
been found on the banks of a gently flowing stream no more than knee deep, in close
proximity to three large Indian security camps.

It was a June afternoon of a sleepy hartal day in 2009. Kashmir was hotter than any
summer in previous memory. On a hartal day, everything would be shut down in
protest, and the streets would simmer with anger. Protests against the rape and
murder of two women, attacked by Indian soldiers in an adjoining town the week
before, had reached the boiling point as the India-loyalist local government refused to
admit that the crime had taken place. To remain in the Indian army’s good books, the
local government argued that the women had drowned in water. The bodies had been
found on the banks of a gently flowing stream no more than knee deep, in close
proximity to three large Indian security camps. Why the bodies had struggle wounds,
why at least one was found stark naked—for these questions, the government had no
answer. Clampdowns and extended curfews, the government’s old strategies, followed
its failure to answer or investigate impartially—a chronic problem under the military

As the deadlock continued, everyday life halted. An old friend, a reformed hustler,
cajoled me out of my home for an idle talk over tea. I wasn’t interested in tea, or talk,
but I had heard that every afternoon young folks assembled in the alleys surrounding
the main market square and fought stone battles with the Central Reserve Police
Force (CRPF), India’s main paramilitary force in Kashmir. I was interested in watching
these battles. My friend said there was a chance I might be able to see one. We
agreed to meet at a small café that we knew kept business running on hartal days
behind its downed shutters.

I walked my way down the sun-beaten, potholed streets of Anantnag, keeping away
from the main roads where CRPF soldiers, I had been told, pummeled anyone they
could catch. Shops were closed and no buses or cars were running, but the
cacophony of small vendors selling roasted peas and ice-kulfis in the narrow lanes
and auto-rickshaws ferrying patients and old people offset the gray feeling that had
descended upon the town after the violent quelling of the previous evening’s protests.

Little boys and girls played hopscotch in the alleys. Menfolk, out of work, sat on stools
at shop fronts poring over newspapers, or engaged in small talk. Occasionally, a
woman would come out of her house and let a barrage of insults fly at a useless or
inconsiderate husband and drag him inside while people giggled. No one had swept
the streets since the shutdown, and they were filthy with newspapers and cardboard

My friend was waiting for me outside the café. He knocked a few times on the shutter.
A few moments later the shutter flew halfway open and we bent ourselves in. The
place was full of smoke and raucous talk. While we stood waiting for a table, my friend
pointed toward a bunch of spirited teenagers speaking loudly over the other voices,
perhaps about cricket, or the rape and murder case, or both. One of them waved at
my friend, and my friend waved back. I paid no further attention. I went to the counter
and ordered some coffee. Sometime later I looked back toward the table my friend
had waved at and saw the boys furtively talking over their phones. They got up and
left. My friend asked me if I wanted to see where they were going. I was curious and
followed him out.

Once outside, the boys covered their faces with scarves and hoods. An auto-rickshaw
stopped by and they got together to unload stones from it. Another rickshaw followed,
and then another. My friend told me the stones were brought from a roadside pile a
few blocks away, where they had been lying for a number of years and were originally
supposed to fill potholes in the roads. Soon a number of other teenagers came out of
other alleys and joined them. They spread out and started piling the stones in
different places, which my friend said were strategically located. But as I was to notice
later, in the heat of the battle no strategies were followed, no commands were given
or taken, and yet not many fell short of stones; as soon as stones were hurled, new
ones would almost magically materialize.

They put down their rifles, picked up stones, and began a charge spewing
I liked the contest with no rifles or any other modern technology involved because it
was fair.

Stone wars test human endurance, and their long history in Kashmir also says
something about the collective endurance of Kashmiris. No one remembers anymore
when the stone wars began in Kashmir. There is a legend that it was a practice
invented in the older neighborhoods of Kashmir’s capital city, Srinagar, more than a
century back, and deployed first against oppressive moneylenders and then against
the region’s autocratic rulers. Older Kashmiris remember throwing stones at the
cavalcade of Indian Prime Minister Nehru on one of his visits to Kashmir. They hold
him responsible for occupying Kashmir against the wishes of Kashmir’s inhabitants. As
India became the hungriest and poorest nuclear weapons state in the world,
Kashmiris persisted with throwing stones at symbols of its presence in their country.

The bronze tip of Resh-Moal’s shrine glimmered in the setting sun. We followed the
boys past the shrine to a place where one had a clear view of the main market. The
market had been under strict curfew for the preceding week. There used to be four
CRPF pickets there until only a few weeks before, but two of them were abandoned
after protesters threw stones at them. The stone throwers persisted even when the
CRPF shot directly into their crowds, injuring many. After the pickets were abandoned,
young men from the town pulled down the ugly sandbag bunkers, freeing up space on
the choked road that the CRPF had occupied for seventeen years. But two pickets
were still there, one inside a bank building and another next to a girls’ senior
secondary school.

Several streets converged farther down from where I was standing and more people
came from there to join the little crowd that was rapidly building ahead of me. Soon a
few hundred people started chanting rhythmic slogans, many with stones hanging
heavily in the pockets of their pants and some with stones in their hands. My friend
asked me to withdraw to a place from where I still had a clear view. Hum kya chahte?
Azadi!—What do we want? Freedom! Ae zaalim-o ae jaabir-o, Kashmir hamara
chhodh do!—O tyrants, o oppressors, quit our Kashmir!

The first tear gas shells started landing on the protesters a few minutes after the
slogans began. A few enterprising young boys had brought big, wet jute bags with
them, and instantly placed them over the shells spurting noxious gas. One boy even
managed to catch a couple straight into his bag. Everyone clapped and whistled. This
was an old game. Both sides were good at it. In the distance, a couple of armored
cars appeared on the scene and started driving quickly toward the crowd, which just
as quickly splintered into the alleys. As the lead car reached where the protesters had
been, a spatter of stones greeted it. The car stood there as if stupefied, unable to
move, unsure of its purpose. No one came out of it. The intensity of stones increased.
The car retreated. The stone warriors returned in triumphant joy. They had won the
first round. The slogans grew shriller. Bharat ko ragda, ye ragda!—We clobbered
India, here we did! See-Aar-Pee (CRP) ko ragda, ye ragda!–We clobbered the CRP,
yes here we did!

The Special Operations Group (SOG) of the local police, better known among
Kashmiris as the “Task Force,” soon joined the CRPF soldiers. SOG specializes in
torture and killing, and is loathed by one and all. They show a level of brutality
disproportionate to their puny salaries—it is believed that they are paid 1500 rupees
a month, or around 30 dollars, along with food and lodging for their services—and
have become the butt of dark humor over the years for this reason. When they
confront the protesters, people shout “pandah sheth te bateh”—“1500 and a rice
plate”—an insult that riles up SOG men, turning them ever more fiendish. It was no
different this time around. In uproarious glee, people shouted at the approaching
SOG men, who went wild with rage. They put down their rifles, and picked up stones,
and began a charge spewing obscenities. It was horrifying to watch, but one couldn’t
miss the ironic lightness of this moment.

I liked the contest with no rifles or any other modern technology involved because it
was fair. Only rocks and expletives allowed. The unsettling and eerily boisterous
nature of the “stone battle”—the kanni-jung—that I saw, made me think of it as a form
of sport. Yet, its politics are clear, and its symbolism manifest: pelting a stone is purely
a political act.

“Stone throwing is an art,” a young man explained… If the streets are canvasses
where stone pelters perfect their techniques, soldiers are just olive-colored blotches
symbolizing Indian domination of the region. “They have turned themselves into
objects of our anger, the young man said.”

Mostly, the stones hit no one. They don’t hurt the soldiers, who are always in full body
armor, nor are they intended to injure. Stones are thrown from a distance where the
stone throwers can outpace soldiers if chased, but this necessary distance also
ensures that the stones don’t reach the soldiers. They are hurled, as a young man
told me, at the “idea of domination.” They are defiance flying out of hands. Each
stone follows its own line of flight out of the hegemonic code.

It wasn’t long before the SOG men realized that they were getting beaten back. As
they retreated, they picked up their rifles and began shooting straight at the crowd.
No one was hit, but it was a tense moment. “Stone throwing is an art,” a young man
explained. The soldiers are not artists, but part of the creation itself. If the streets are
canvasses where stone pelters perfect their techniques, soldiers are just olive-colored
blotches symbolizing Indian domination of the region. “They have turned themselves
into objects of our anger,” the young man said.

Summer evenings in Kashmir are long. The evening has to pass through all its hues
before it lets the night take over. Evening is a time when working-class men come
down to street corners to grab a grilled kabab or a rista, and smoke a smoke. On
hartal days, after filling themselves up with kababs, they join the town boys for a few
rounds of stone throwing until it gets dark. I noticed some older men flinging stones
high into the air from the back of the crowd, drawing surprisingly long distances from
their weak-looking arms. As each stone traveled the distance, the younger boys
applauded, and when the soldiers chased them the older men ran clumsily. The
tempting aroma of kababs filled the air.

A young man apparently hit in his face by a shell was lying unconscious on the road.
A small pool of blood formed around his head. The soldiers fired shots at anyone
trying to pull the man to safety. Desperation grew. The man was going to die in front
of us.

The boys stockpiled stones from the streets. The soldiers were still shooting
sporadically, and from time to time tear gas shells continued to explode in the vicinity
of the crowd. The gas mixed with the aroma of grilled kababs. The smell was
perplexing, filled with foreboding and melancholia, yet enticing, drawing one nearer to
danger. A few moments later a boy came running down the street announcing that the
CRPF was firing expired tear gas shells. Expired shells emit no smoke; they are used
as metal projectiles, intended simply to injure. They are more dangerous than tear
gas shells, which explode into smoke as soon as they hit a surface, because one may
not see them ricochet off the road or buildings. Everyone ran for cover. My friend and
I ran toward the shrine; the metal shells were hitting the streets with frightening clanks.
We were only a few meters in when we heard people crying out on the street. “Morukh
ho!”—Murder! We returned to the scene.

A young man apparently hit in his face by a shell was lying unconscious on the road.
A small pool of blood formed around his head. The soldiers fired shots at anyone
trying to pull the man to safety. Desperation grew. The man was going to die in front
of us. Someone went into a nearby mosque and called for help over the loudspeaker.
He asked the people inside their homes to come out to help retrieve the man, and
soon after men and women came out into the streets. Cries of anguish rent the air.
Young boys assembled themselves and led a charge. The CRPF retreated for long
enough to allow the young man to be lifted out. He was piled onto a motorcycle and
taken to the hospital.

The stone battle continued for another hour, but it was dark by then. People looked
tired. Fathers and mothers found their sons and took them home. Another group of
boys collected stones and tossed them into the auto-rickshaws, which were
apparently driven back to the same stone piles from which they had been taken.
People soon disappeared from the streets. My friend and I went into the shrine to
have a kahwa. Outside, CRPF armored cars were moving about, looking to pick
someone up to take revenge. In the night, my friend told me, the CRPF goes into the
alleys hurling abuses and beating against the doors of people’s homes. Occasionally
they break into the houses and beat up men, molest women, and loot valuables.

Before leaving that night, my friend asked me if I knew what Einstein had once said: “I
do not know how the Third World War will be fought, but I can tell you what they will
use in the Fourth—rocks!” Perhaps, it was not so much about the Fourth World War,
but war in the Fourth World, the one that lies buried under the first three. The Third
World has forgotten that it was once colonized, controlled, enslaved. It celebrates its
freedom, but under its feet it tramples those for whom dates like 1947 don’t resonate
freedom, but rather its opposite. This Fourth World lies strewn across the world in
patches, disconnected, dismembered, and beleaguered. Or, perhaps, the Fourth
World War is on after all. It started before the Third, and is being fought with stones.

I reached home with eyes red and itchy. Nobody believed that I had only watched. My
hands were inspected carefully. “How did you manage to run in your sandals? You
should have worn proper shoes!” I should have. My mother was right. She told me
about young boys who had died over the years throwing stones.

“How is this going to help?” she pleaded. “No one in the world gives a care.”

Those who threw stones knew that the world didn’t care. Perhaps, they also didn’t
care for such a world. I told my mother what I had heard all along: “Then what else
can Kashmiris do?”

Mohamad Junaid grew up in Kashmir. He has contributed essays in recently published
volumes, Everyday Occupations: Experiencing Militarism in South Asia and the Middle
East(Pennsylvania Studies in Human Rights) ; Of Occupation and Resistance: Writing
From Kashmir; and Until My Freedom Has Come: The New Intifada in Kashmir. He is a
doctoral student in anthropology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.