Talking Down?

  • Abid Bashir
  • Publish Date: Jan 25 2017 8:34PM
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  • Updated Date: Jan 25 2017 8:34PM
Talking Down?

                                 Illustration by Suhail Naqshbandi/KI     

J&K police has started “quality counselling” of young protesters to help curb stone pelting


In Kashmir, stone pelting has been a popular tool of protest and resistance since at least the 1931 revolt against the autocratic Dogra ruler Hari Singh. And over the past decade or so, it has come to define the Azadi movement.

Unsurprisingly, the state has sought ways to tackle stone pelting, which has all but become integral to protests since the Amarnath land agitation in 2008. Over the five months of the latest uprising triggered by the killing of militant leader Burhan Wani last July, more than 100 incidents of stone throwing were reported on an average every day, according to records kept by the Jammu & Kashmir police.

After the third month, though, the frequency and intensity of stone pelting came down significantly. What caused this decline? Not fatigue, the police claims, its “strategy” made the difference. Primarily, this strategy involved mass detention of suspected stone throwers, nearly 12,000 of them by one independent estimate – young, aged and even minors. The police, however, claims to have held no more than 7,000 people, most of whom it says were released after “quality counselling”.

That's the second part of the strategy – counselling. The police claims that this initiative has evoked “total response” from the youth and their parents. So far, about 5,600 people, police records show, have received counselling from police officers and doctors at the Police Hospital in Srinagar. “In some serious cases, we provided counselling through experts to the youth who were habitual stone pelters,” says a police officer posted in old Srinagar. He, however, refuses to divulge whether the experts were from within J&K or outside.

Another officer says counselling is emerging as a crucial tool in the police's “comprehensive policy” to prevent stone pelting. “First, we categorised the stone pelters into groups – A+, A, B, AB, minors and students. We even saw cases where youth have been involved in stone pelting from as far back as 2008 and many are facing more than five FIRs,” the officer, who is involved with the counselling project, says. “We do intense counselling of the youth who are habitual stone pelters.”

This is how it works, according to the officer. The police call the parents of the suspect to the local police station and try to find out why he took to stone pelting. “No doubt there is anger. We tell stone pelters during the first rounds of counselling that they can register their anger or protest through peaceful meas. We assure them that in a democracy there is a scope for peaceful protests, and arson, attacking cops or police stations would invite tough action, which could result in the loss of life,” the officer explains.

The stone pelter is then assigned to a category and counselled accordingly. “For instance, students who are active stone pelters are told that their careers are most important and resorting to violent means of protest can destroy their careers,” the officer says. “Many youth who are in school or college say they are angry and want resolution of the Kashmir issue. Some express anger against the police, accusing cops of committing atrocities. We tell them that they were free to hold peaceful demonstrations, but stone throwing needs to be avoided. Nine out of ten youth agree to avoid stone pelting.”

Minors are counselled in front of their parents. “Some youth have family problems that push them on to the streets. But a large section of the youth that we have counselled so far maintained that civilian killings and arrests should be stopped forthwith and peaceful means of protests be allowed in a true sense,” the officer says. “We made them understand who benefits from the burning of police stations, schools and government buildings.”

There are many stone pelters, suspected and otherwise, who aren't too keen about the police's counselling. “They have multiple FIRs against them. They get bail in one case and we detain them for another. Then they manage bail for that also and we book them in another case. The process is on. It seems stone pelting is their addiction,” they say.

The cases of such people, Director General of Police S P Vaid claims, are under review. “There is a very small number of youth who are lodged in various police stations now. We have released a majority of them,” he says. Crediting the police's “quality counselling” for the decline in stone pelting, he says, “I hope youth who received counselling will not indulge in violent protests again.”

But by putting the focus on the youth, are Vaid and his officers sidestepping the root causes of the violence? As Naveed Hussain, a Kashmir University student from Pulwama in south Kashmir, the epicentre of last year's unrest, points out, the protests were for the most part peaceful when they began. “It was after the police and other government forces prevented people from reaching the venue where rallies were being organised that clashes broke out,” he says.

“You can’t deny that Kashmir is a political problem that needs an immediate solution to prevent further bloodshed,” Naveed adds. “The claims of allowing peaceful protests by the state have turned out hollow so far. It is the sentiment that brings youth to the streets; they are not doing it for fun. There is genuine anger among them as was admitted by various central delegations that visited Kashmir after last year’s uprising.”