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Stony resistance

By Peerzada Arshad Hamid

A strange debate is going on in Kashmir these days. Newspapers and scholars are debating the legitimacy or otherwise of stone-pelting as a form of civil society resistance. Is it Islamic or un-Islamic? A seminar was also organised on the subject

Stone-pelting has been a common form of protest in Kashmir for decades. Even before armed insurgency made inroads into Kashmir, this form of protest was manifested against price hikes and power failures.

Over the last two decades more than 47,000 people have been killed in this Himalayan state. Though the last few years have seen a sharp decline in violence and number of militants, last year’s disagreement over transfer of land in the Kashmir valley to a Hindu shrine lit the fuse again.

The issue saw Kashmiris rallying and marching on the roads demanding a plebiscite. State action against these protests brought the old resistance methodology back to Kashmir’s streets and stone-throwing on police and paramilitary forces began again. Last year alone more than 65 people were killed in police firings during such protests across the Kashmir valley, says Khuram Parvez, a rights activist in Srinagar. Parvez is the coordinator of Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Societies in J&K. The group has chronicled all the cases.

The street protests and stone-pelting are particularly intense on Fridays after the culmination of mid-day prayers in Srinagar’s Jamia (Grand) Mosque. Police and paramilitary forces have a tough time containing such protests. Seeing no let-up in the stone-pelting episodes, Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) in Srinagar, Afad-ul-Mujtaba during a press briefing termed stone-pelting ‘un-Islamic'.  Mujtaba quoted a Hadith (oral traditions of the Islamic prophet) in support of his pronouncement.

“Stone-pelting is not only illegal and immoral but against the teachings of Islam as well. The Prophet has prohibited the throwing of stones,” said Mujtaba citing extracts from an Islamic scripture (Book 21, Hadith number 4808).

The police statement opened up a new discussion and put the legitimacy of stone-pelting in question. All of a sudden a new debate has emerged in the public space of Kashmir -- Is stone-pelting as a form of resistance Islamic?

The debate saw diverse opinions ranging within separatist circles and Islamic scholars on the subject and divided the leadership for and against this long-practised method.

Stone-pelting is a popular form of protest across South Asia and the Middle East.

In Srinagar, defiant youth wear masks to avoid the CCTVs installed in the city to keep an eye on militant activities. No sooner does the police resort to teargas or baton-charging the processions when the youth take positions in the narrow alleys of different localities and fight pitched battles for hours together, hurling stones and rocks on the men in uniform.

Often, severe stone pelting proves fatal, for police and paramilitary men retaliate with bullets.

President of Jamiat-i-Ahli-Hadith Moulana Showkat Ahmad Shah subscribed to the police chief’s view and came out with a fatwa that pelting stones on the armed security personnel was un-Islamic. 

Quoting the same Hadith, Showkat Shah says that the Prophet has said don’t hurl pebbles because by hurling pebbles you can neither kill the game nor hurt your enemy. 

Shah's criticism has earned him the anger of other Kashmiri separatists and clerics who see stone-pelting by youth on the police as a genuine form of resistance to Indian rule.

However, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the Hurriyat hardliner and icon of Kashmir separatism sees stone-pelting as a genuine form of resistance. He not only supports it but advocates it wholeheartedly. Interestingly,Geelani is an Islamic scholar too.  

“If peaceful protests are allowed, the youth will not resort to stone-pelting. People have every right to hurl Kangris (traditional pots) and stones in self-defence in case peaceful protests are thwarted,” said Geelani while addressing the people in Srinagar recently.

Showkat Shah was not the first to condemn stone-pelting. Another highly influential separatist, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the chief priest at Jamia Masjid, asked people to refrain from stone-pelting, saying it gave police and paramilitary personnel an excuse to react with gunfire.

From here the debate went on and became the subject of discussion in newspaper columns as well. A seminar was organised on the issue!

Shakeel Bakshi, another separatist leader, accuses the police chief and supportive clerics of quoting the scriptures out of context.

If the police have gained some unexpected supporters, there is a lot of criticism too from civil society.

“This is the biggest irony, that our society is discussing stone-pelting. In the last two decades thousands of people have been killed here. We don’t see any debate seeking to end it. In March this year four innocent people were killed at the hands of the Indian army, and paramilitary forces. We have not heard anyone raising their voice that killing of innocents is un-Islamic,” says Hamidullah Dar, a Srinagar-based analyst.

Dar sums up by quoting leftist intellectual Tariq Ali who said, "When oppression is brutal don’t expect resistance to be beautiful."

“The police has totally failed in containing stone-pelting,” says Sheeraz Ahmad (name changed), a resident of downtown Srinagar. “How can they justify the use of force while dealing with peaceful protests? Let them announce that the police won’t restrict peaceful protests, and nobody will hurl stones at them.”

Ahmad, a college student, is a stone-pelter who boasts about his skills in giving tough time to the policemen. 

More recently, Kashmir’s indigenous militant group Hizbul Mujahideen has joined the row. The Hizb supports stone-pelting as a means of defence, provided the act is not carried out against non-combatants and the innocent says its spokesman Ehsan Illhai in a statement to the Kashmir press.

“Every religious ordinance has a background. It is true that pelting stones is a sin, but only when used against non-combatants and the innocent,” he said.

(Peerzada Arshad Hamid is a journalist based in Srinagar)

InfoChange News & Features, April 2009