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Stones are Kashmir's weapon of dissent

In the past three months, young men and boys have led a massive uprising against Indian rule, the largest since the start of a full-blown armed insurgency in 1989.

SRINAGAR, INDIA // One of the youngest Kashmiris wanted by India's security forces is a 10-year-old boy famous in the crowded neighbourhood of Bemina for his powerful arm. Danish Lone is not a gun carrying militant, but about two months ago, the police started asking about the boy, who is known among his friends as Brett Lee for a style akin to the celebrated Australian fast bowler. But this is not a game. Danish gangs up with mobs of young men to yell pro-freedom slogans and to throw stones at Indian security personnel.

Whenever the police raid the restive area, as it often has in the past two months with hundreds of armed officers, he melts away into its narrow alleys. Repeatedly the police ask those picked up in these raids: "Where is Brett Lee?" There are rumours in Bemina the government is willing to pay a reward of 100,000 rupees (Dh12,000) for information on his whereabouts. Danish sounds resolute. "My country is under occupation," the lean, wide-eyed boy, who came out of hiding for an interview, said. "Stones are my weapons of dissent against India."

A few years ago, kann'e jang, or stone-pelting, was limited to Srinagar's Jamia mosque. Back then it usually lasted for only brief spells after Friday prayers as a gesture of anger. But in recent months, it has become a popular form of resistance and spread across a vast swathe of Indian-held Kashmir. Most of Kashmir's stone-pelters are teenagers. Some are as young as Danish. In the past three months, these young men and boys have led a massive uprising against Indian rule, the largest since the start of a full-blown armed insurgency in 1989.

The violence since it flared up in June has claimed 108 lives. In an effort to stem this cycle of violence, Palaniappan Chidambaram, India's home minister, announced an eight-point reconciliation package. He called for the release of the young stone-pelters and all those booked under the Public Safety Act, an emergency law that allows detention without an official warrant, and compensation of 500,000 rupees to the families of killed protesters.

He also offered on Saturday to set up a panel to initiate dialogue with various alienated sections of Kashmiri society including separatists. And he promised to review the strong military presence in the Kashmir valley. There are nearly 700,000 security personnel stationed in Srinagar. "We hope that these steps should address the concerns of different sections of Jammu and Kashmir, including the protesters," Mr Chidambaram said on Saturday.

But Kashmir's separatist leaders are dismissive of New Delhi's overtures. "It is a time-gaining exercise and unrealistic. It is aimed to hoodwink the international community," Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a key separatist leader, told reporters in Srinagar yesterday. "If rulers in New Delhi believe that by releasing a few students and providing ex gratia relief to the families of martyrs they can reduce the alienation of Kashmiris, they are mistaken."

The particularly difficult challenge for New Delhi, observers say, is not to appease the separatists, but to wean Kashmir's young stone-pelters away from violence. By the government's own admission, these young men are largely "leaderless" and are orchestrating this volatile resistance movement beyond the influence of separatists. "These young men were once following leaders. Now leaders are following them," said Yasin Malik, another separatist leader who heads the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front. "They have lost faith in the dialogue process."

The militant movement that began in 1989 has waned in recent years, Mr Malik said. By official estimates, there are less than 500 militants currently active in Kashmir, compared with more than 10,000 at the start of the insurgency. But there has been no forward movement in resolving Kashmir's decades-old territorial dispute. "If you don't give these boys a solution to the territorial dispute, isn't India pushing them to return to an armed militant movement?" Mr Malik, himself a former militant who relinquished arms in 1994, said.

Danish's mother, Shammema Bashir, says she has tried her best to dissuade her son from pelting stones, but he is "out of my control". "Typically, when violence erupts, they [security personnel] are seen firing bullets in one alley and in another alley I find myself running around frantically looking for my son," she said. "But he grew up in a violent world. How can you stop him?"

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

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