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In Kashmir, stone throwers face off with Indian security forces

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 17, 2010; A06

SRINAGAR, INDIAN-ADMINISTERED KASHMIR -- One minute, a shaggy-haired 21-year-old is on the Internet, mixing brooding rock music with video footage of young Kashmiris protesting Indian control of this disputed Himalayan region. The next, he's out on the streets wielding a more traditional weapon: the stone.

The latest outbreak of dissent here, dubbed "Kashmir's stone war," marks a shift in the mostly Muslim region's long-running struggle for autonomy. In a post-9/11, globalized world, Pakistan-backed separatists no longer roam the streets of this summer capital with guns. Instead, the heirs to the conflict are styling their discontent after cellphone images of the Palestinian uprising and its stone-throwing youths.

"If we take up arms, the world will call us terrorists. Stone pelting is the only way to fight for our freedom," said Sajid Shah, a.k.a. Lion of Allah, who was editing his videos in hiding Wednesday. "It makes India think. It makes the world think: What's happening in Kashmir? We will get our freedom with the stone."

In the past few weeks, the protests have grown deadly, with at least 15 young people killed when Indian security forces fired into crowds of stone throwers. The new tactic -- which India's Central Reserve Police Force chief, N.K. Tripati, has described as "gunless terrorism" -- is testing India's ability to manage dissent in the region and to protect its image as an aspiring superpower that hopes for a seat on the U.N. Security Council. Many Indians have said that the security forces should find safer methods of controlling teenagers who pelt them with stones.

"Indian forces were caught with their pants down by these stone throwers," said Ajay Sahni, executive director of New Delhi's Institute for Conflict Management. "The killings were pure incompetence. We had all the intelligence that this was being planned. We heard the chatter over the Internet and phones. Despite this, there wasn't an effective response, only a lethal one."

Not all of the victims were demonstrators. Some, like shawl embroiderer Fancy Jan, 25, were caught in crossfire. A stray bullet killed Jan when she was hanging a curtain in her home to block the tear gas. In addition, hundreds of Indian paramilitary troops and Kashmiri police officers have been injured, some with bloody gashes to their foreheads.

Organizing by texts

The cycle of the hurled stone and the bullet fired back grew so deadly that Omar Abdullah, chief minister of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, called last week for the Indian army to be deployed for the first time in more than a decade to assist state police and paramilitary forces. Curfews were imposed. The state even blocked text messages, which were used to organize the stone-throwing.

"For over 20 years, the security forces were conditioned to believe the biggest challenge was militancy," Abdullah said Wednesday. "Now it's youngsters hurling stones that whiz at them at 40 miles an hour. Obviously, the response has to be different."

Many Kashmiris say that Abdullah, India's youngest chief minister, forfeited popular support when he called in the Indian army to quell the protests.

Abdullah said he had no choice. "I sleep well at night," he said. "I would have rather called in the army than lost one more child."

Abdullah said his office is auditing the security forces' equipment and training them to deal with stone-pelting teenagers using more-advanced crowd-control techniques, such as sonic waves or stink bombs. Critics say he made similar promises last year but did not follow through.

"Just having pepper spray or protective gear for forces could have saved lives," said Praveen Swami, an expert on Kashmir who writes a column for the Hindu, a newspaper. "The real issue is the weakness of India's capabilities to handle law-and-order situations."

Kashmir remains at the heart of hostility between the nuclear-armed arch rivals India and Pakistan and was the cause of two of their three wars since India achieved independence from Britain in 1947. Fighting over the region has left tens of thousands of people dead, and many ordinary Kashmiris voice a desire for independence from both countries. Others say they just want Indian security forces to leave.

There is also hope that the United States will keep pressure on Pakistan, which, with nudging from Washington, has worked to shut down the pipeline of militants entering Kashmir. The United States has spent nearly $12 billion in the past eight years to bolster the Pakistani military.

'All I got is stones'

The stone-throwing this summer began June 11, when a 17-year-old student, Tufail Mattoo, was killed by a tear-gas shell that shattered his skull, making him an instant martyr. The tactic has a long history in Kashmir, but many here say that this year, it has taken on a new resonance for Kashmir's youth, who make up 70 percent of the population.

One young Kashmiri with a degree in computer applications edited a powerful video to the lyrics of the Everlast song "Stone in My Hand" and posted it on YouTube, prompting police to launch a manhunt for him. The lyrics -- "I got no pistol, ain't got no sword. I got no army, ain't got no land. All I got is stones in my hand" -- became the anthem of Kashmiri youth and is hummed on the streets here.

The stone throwers have adopted noms de guerre that range from the intimidating -- like the 13-year-old who calls himself "Deadly Accident" -- to the surreal, like the young man who named himself "Uncle Chips" after his favorite snack.

They come from a cross section of Kashmiri society. Some are well-educated members of a Facebook group, the Kashmir Stone Throwers Association. Others are paid by opposition and separatist groups to stir up trouble.

Shah, the 21-year-old who styles himself the Lion of Allah, wears all black, chain-smokes and looks like a Kashmiri James Dean. He has a girlfriend and a $500 cellphone that is also a high-tech video camera and says he has been accepted for a master's program in London. He, too, is being sought by police.

Shah said he admires the Palestinian cause because of its David-vs.-Goliath spirit and thinks of the uprising as a Kashmiri intifada.

"Today, stones are our only message of resistance," he said. "If we don't throw stones, India and the world will think everything is fine in Kashmir. It's not."

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