Stone Wars

I wasn’t one of them. Or I wasn’t, perhaps, any more. 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 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.

________

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 rape and murder, a week before, of two women by Indian soldiers in an adjoining town 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 incredulously 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 occupation.

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 caught a hold of. 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 grey feel that had descended on the town after the violent quelling of the previous evening’s protests.

Little boys and girls played hopscotch in the alleys. Men-folk, 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 fly a barrage of insults 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 boxes.

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 all 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 in. 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.

________

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 as part of India 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 its symbols in Kashmir.

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 till 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 they 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 17 years. But two pickets were still there, one inside a bank building and another next to a girls’ senior secondary school.

Several streets converged further 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 heavy in the pockets of their pants and some in their hands. My friend asked me to withdraw some distance 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 protestors 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 of them 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 protestors 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 protestors, 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 “pandah sheth te bateh” 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 is clear, and its symbolism manifest: pelting a stone is purely a political act.

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 they join town boys, after filling themselves up with kababs, for a few rounds of stone throwing till 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 travelled 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.

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 kebabs. 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 to simply 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 and hit people. 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 a time 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 for the day. Fathers and mothers found their sons and took them home. Another group of boys collected stones and tossed them into the auto rickshaws, which apparently drove them 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 about not so much the Fourth World War that my friend was thinking, 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?”

First published in Guernica, August 1, 2013.

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