Down a sullen alley in South Kashmir’s Anantnag town, a tyre was in flames. A flimsy metal frame and a row of rocks stretched across the road behind it, doing duty as barricade. A few lanky youth stood guard, while older men sat on nearby pends (shop fronts). One of them was on the phone, chatting about laptops.

This was a protest.

In the capital of Srinagar, there are cars on the street, there are shops that have remained open and people going about their daily business. Clashes may break out in some areas but there is something resembling calm in the surrounding neighbourhoods. Drive south through Pulwama district into Anantnag, and you enter a country of unrest.

The cars start thinning out first. By the time you reach Bijbehara, 48 kilometres from Srinagar, they have almost disappeared from the highway. Alternating regimes preside over the desolation. By night, it is said, groups of boys keep a vigil on the highway, enforcing the shutdown call issued by the separatist Hurriyat Conference. In the morning, army convoys snake down the roads, returning to the camps.

Travellers to Anantnag town must reach early, before the protest pickets come up again. On the main roads, there is an uneasy truce that could snap any moment. Central Reserve Police Forces are deployed along the footpaths. Protestors man the crossings that lead out of the town and into the surrounding countryside.

Here, sealed off from outsiders and largely closed to the media, some of the most intense clashes have taken place. Of the 84 people killed in two months of unrest, Anantnag district alone accounted for 24. The protests have spilled out of their traditional urban centres into the villages. Even the hilly areas that remained aloof in earlier seasons of unrest have been swept up in it. Protest comes in many forms in Anantnag district, changing shape from town chowk to bylane to village field.

Picture credit: Muneeb Ul Islam

Pro-freedom rallies

Tumhaarii maang ke madadgaar America nahi hai, China nahi hai, India nahi hai [The supporter of your demand is not America, not China, not India],” said the man at the microphone. “How will these killers help you? Your only help is Islam. Muslims of Kashmir, if you want freedom, sometimes you will have to take bullets, sometimes you will have to take pellets, sometimes you will have to go to jail.”

Furrah village, about five kilometres from Anantnag town, was hosting a pro-freedom rally. A marquee had been set up in a school field and men wove through the crowd seated on the ground, offering glasses of water. Earlier that morning, security forces had reportedly entered the premises, seizing the generator set as well as several quintals of rice and drinking water. As the organisers resisted, things turned ugly and pellets were used on the gathering, according to local people. About 20 people had been injured and two had to be referred to the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital in Srinagar, they said.

The proceedings had resumed anyway and by afternoon the rally was in full swing. It had been called by the Ittehad-e-Millat, a new coalition of socio-religious organisations that has been forged in these last two months of unrest. It includes a wide spectrum of Muslim denominations, as Deobandi and Barelvi groups join forces with the Jamaat-e-Islami and Ahle-e-Hadith.

As the Valley went under curfew for weeks and the government seemed to go missing, these groups had reportedly helped reach vital supplies to the local population. “They distribute rice and sabzi among the poor, not just during strikes but also in ordinary times,” said Sheikh Sartaj, 30, who runs a gas business in Anantnag town and has been a regular at the protests. “They are like NGOs.”

The coalition of religious trusts also works in tandem with the Hurriyat, raises money and organises rallies such as the one being held at Furra. Now maulvis and leaders from the different groups sat on the dais, taking turns to address the crowd. Someone recited a poem about freedom and the familiar slogans broke out from the crowd: ”Hum kya chaahte? Azadi.”

Then the speeches turned to the subject of shahadat, or martyrdom. The shahadat of Burhan Wani, the Hizbul Mujahideen commander whose death in July set off the new cycle of unrest, and of the protestors who had been killed by security forces. The road to paradise and to freedom lay through martyrdom, they said, and their struggle would establish “Allah’s law” in “the land that is Allah’s”.

Outside the school enclosure, a group of women sat under a chinar tree. “Burhan tere khoon se, inquilab aayega [Burhan, from your blood, revolution will flow],” they chanted. This was the first time that the women of Furra village had come out in protest, they said.

The protest here ran on more earthly lines, as the women seethed about that morning’s pellet firing and night raids by security forces where they allegedly barged into homes and roughed up residents. “We were fine sitting at home but they came in and injured our children. Do you think India has sovereignty here?” challenged Khuzum Jan.

They spoke, too, of fundamental rights and free speech under the Indian Constitution, which gave them the right to demand “azadi”. “If India got freedom from the British, why is it retreating now?” demanded Ruphi Majeed.

Ittehad-e-Millat conference at Furra village near Anantnag. Picture credit: Muneeb Ul Islam

Prayer and protest

In Anantnag district, especially in the rural areas, protest is woven around mosques and the rhythms of prayer. Mosques built along leafy village lanes play taraanaas [songs] about azadi. Local imams speak of azadi and of brutality by security forces in their sermons. Demonstrations after Friday prayers were always a habit in downtown Srinagar. Now they have spread across the Valley.

One Friday afternoon in early September, men piled out of the local mosque in Krungsoo village on the outskirts of Anantnag town. They were joined by boys and children waiting in the bylanes and soon the gathering turned into a procession with Pakistani flags, led by Mir Hafiz Ullah, Anantnag district president of the Hurriyat (Geelani faction). Women watched from a distance as the rally wound its way down the narrow village lane.

In the chanting that slowly grew louder, the contours of the protest were laid out. There was the cry for azadi. There was also anger about the government clampdown and night raids: “Yeh curfew-shurfew, naa bhai naa. Yeh ladke lena, naa bhai naa. Yeh goli sholi, naa bhai naa. [No to curfews. No to the taking away of boys. No to bullets.]. ”

There were pledges of allegiance to Burhan Wani and the Hizbul Mujahideen: “Tera bhai, mera bhai, Burhan bhai, Burhan bhai. [Your brother, my brother, Burhan bhai, Burhan bhai]” Followed by “Hum hai mujahideen, Hizbul Mujahideen. [We are mujahideen, Hizbul Mujahideen]”

There were pledges of friendship with Pakistan, bound to them by religion: “Pakistan se rishta kya? La ilaha illallah. [What is our relationship with Pakistan? There is no deity worthy of worship but Allah].”

Finally, the articulation of what azadi was to bring: “Yahaan kyaa chalegaa? Nizam e Mustafa [What do we want here? Muhammad’s law].”

Then the march came to a halt near a shuttered shop. The ubiquitous pend, sometimes a meeting point, sometimes a watchpost, now became a makeshift stage. Hafiz Ullah mounted the pend to address the crowd. He spoke of self-determination, but was careful to add that they were not against Indians, just the Indian government. “India and Pakistan can progress better if they solve the Kashmir issue,” he said.

That evening in Anantnag town, prayer itself was protest. Rugs had been spread out on the road by the mosque in Dangerpora, a locality in the central market area. Ever since the unrest started, prayers have been read outside as a mark of protest against the civilian killings. After prayers, the men formed a circle around the prayer rugs and slogans demanding azadi were chanted.

On the sidelines, a few men talked quietly about the protest. “This was the idea of the separatist leadership, we are following them,” said 35-year-old Sameer Ahmed, a businessman in Anantnag. “We have no permission to go out all day, but security forces are not here at the moment so three or four mohallas have got together to hold this prayer. This is a peaceful protest.”

After a brief conversation, this reporter left the town chowk. A few minutes later, a pungent smell wafted down the alleys. Security forces had interrupted the protest in Dangerpora with tear gas and, reportedly, even pellets.

"What kind of sloganeering was it? Were they complaining about everyday issues like electricity or water? If you are shouting slogans against the nation and against the Constitution, we have to intervene," said Zubair Ahmad Khan, senior superintendent of police, Anantnag. People were usually warned on loudspeakers first, he said. If that did not work then tear gas is the most painless way of dispersing a crowd, he claimed.

Women protest at Furrah. Picture credit: Muneeb Ul Islam

‘Sangbaaz hain hum’

“Protests start peacefully,” said Sheikh Sartaj. “The police begin shelling, then we have to use stones. Without talking to us first or warning us, they begin shelling. At first, they used to start with tear gas. Now they start with pellets.”

Protestors in and around Anantnag town told a similar story – it never started with stone pelting. In towns, they said, people would pour out of their homes when they heard there had been a fresh casualty or that the police were conducting a night raid, and start shouting slogans. At other times, they would gather at a place and time decided by the elders to hold a demonstration. In quiet villages up in the hills, a gaggle of boys would be lounging around on the roadside, perhaps manning one of the many barricades.

When the police or CRPF arrived on the scene, it would turn violent and stone pelting would become a form of self-defence. Ask where all the stones came from and they wave a casual arm at the rocks and pebbles lying on the road.

Both police and CRPF claim that protesting crowds were warned on loudspeakers first and then the standard crowd control measures were followed: first lathi charge, then tear gas, then other "non-lethal" weapons.

"Unless and until any of the groups is anti-national or goes against the laws of the land, our forces do not go in," said Khan. He added that the police "usually" waited until the crowd turned violent to use tear gas.

Rajesh Yadav, commandant, 161 Battalion, CRPF suggested the same. "Our troops do not react even when they shout slogans or wave Pakistan flags, only when they pelt stones," he said. "Lathi charge cannot be used when there is a distance of 80 to 100 yards, so tear gas is used. When they come closer, we use plastic pellets, rubber bullets or chilli grenades."

The 12-bore guns that spray out metal pellets, Yadav said, were used only as a last resort.

But everywhere in Anantnag, the Jat agitation in Haryana this February was invoked. Then, several people had been killed and buildings torched in violent clashes between Jats and non-Jats. No one opened fire on protestors there, said many in Anantnag. Certainly, no pellet guns were used. “Why are new weapons tried out on Kashmiris first?” asked Sajjad Ahmad, a protestor from the hilly Brar village in Anantnag district.

But stone pelting is also a loaded gesture in the Valley, an act of agency in the face of the government clamp down, endowing hundreds of youth with a new identity. “Sangbaaz hain, sangbaaz hain hum [Stone pelters, stone pelters we are],” shouted the boys at Krungsoo as they marched down the street after Friday afternoon prayers.

Sangbaazi is a symbol of resistance, the stone is a symbol of resistance, and we believe resistance is existence,” said Danish Butt, a 22-year-old engineering graduate in Anantnag town.

Evening prayers at Dangerpora. Picture credit: Muneeb Ul Islam

Schooled in protest

Many in this generation of stone pelters are not new to protest. The teenagers who took to the streets in 2008 and 2010 have now grown up, hardened by their experiences and unafraid of police action. Many say they have lost their fear of tear gas, which was enough to disperse a crowd in earlier times.

Sheikh Sartaj, for instance, says he grew up dimly aware of the “occupation”. Then the Anantnag land controversy hit Kashmir in 2008. “When the land agitation happened, I learnt about Article 370,” he said. “I felt this was not right, they cannot buy our land. I started reading books and newspapers, following others who were protesting.”

After that, he took part in the protests of 2009, which started after the armed forces were accused of rape and murder of two girls in Shopian. In 2010, he would have first-hand experience of violence.

“On June 29, 2010, there were peaceful protests in Anantnag,” he said. “Then the police started shelling so we started pelting stones. But they managed to chase us away. The governor and divisional commissioner were coming to do a round of the town so everyone went inside. Then the police came from another direction and entered more than a kilometre inside an alley. They killed three boys who were standing at the gateway to their house.”

Sheikh Sartaj had known all three, Shujat ul Islam, Ishtiaq Ahmed Khanday, Imtiaz Ahmed Ittoo. One of the boys, he said, was the son of a man who had been killed by the Ikhwan, the militia raised by the Indian security forces in the 1990s, made up mostly of former militants who had switched sides.

In the village of Salia Brar, 37-year-old Zahid Ahmed, who runs a business in tours and travels, says he has been protesting since 1996, after the Ikhwan first appeared in Anantnag. Now he pours money from his business into the protests, printing posters, buying flags and treating the wounded.

His neighbour, Sajjad Ahmad, says his father was killed by “government agencies” in 1996. When the protests of 2009 and 2010 broke out, he was a third year student at Anantnag degree college. He joined in them and ended up getting arrested. Now he is part of a committee that keeps vigil at night, to guard against raids by security forces.

In many families, the memories of protest and violence go back generations. Sheikh Sartaj recounts how his grandfather started protesting in 1931, during the Quit Kashmir movement, which aimed to overthrow Dogra rule. Then an army officer "slit his throat" sometime around 1947. It did not end there. The night before this interview, Sheikh Sartaj's father had been arrested in a night raid.

Protests after Friday afternoon prayers in Krungsoo. Picture credit: Muneeb Ul Islam

The azadi children

“These protests are spontaneous,” said Mir Hafiz Ullah. “But the Hurriyat leadership is giving it a logical direction. Every programme, every call is followed. There is a passion in people’s hearts. You can see it for the first time.”

In the Hurriyat’s mythology of the protest, it is a kind of universal awakening about azadi, engulfing everyone “from three-year-old children to women to 80-year-old men”. Children fired up with the idea of azadi, they say, will not listen to their parents as they run out into the streets. Indeed, children have become visible in the protests.

At one of the main roads leading out of Anantnag town, masked children, not more than 10 or 12 years old, guard the barricades, armed with sticks and ordering people to turn back. At the Krungsoo rally, a small boy was hoisted up on someone’s shoulders to lead the slogans. The crowd of men looked up at him, some in amusement and others in awe, as they repeated the slogans he knew by heart. Hafiz Ullah also described the time he had walked into a mountain village during a Hurriyat shutdown. A small boy, he said, threw a pebble at his back. He was only making sure the strike was observed, Hafiz Ullah explained approvingly.

Yet some see this crowd of zealous children who enforce the Hurriyat’s writ on the Hurriyat itself as a sign that the protests are spinning out of the separatist leadership’s control. According to a government official and a member of the People’s Democratic Party in Srinagar, the protest had become atomised, led by local imams and maulvis rather than the joint leadership of the Hurriyat. “It is safe if the protests are in the Hurriyat’s hands,” he said. “We have to talk to someone.”

For now, the Hurriyat is sticking to its story. That of a peaceful mass uprising that has unified all sections of society, and the political leadership of the “tehreek [movement]” working together with the religious heads of the Ittehad-e-Millat. The tehreek, they claim, has brought together not only various Islamic denominations but also all religions.

Hurriyat leaders at both the district and the tehsil levels are anxious to assert that Kashmiri Pandits are welcome to return, that pilgrims on the Amarnath yatra had been helped by Kashmiri Muslims, that Sikhs had joined the protests in many places. “Azadi bara-e Islam [freedom through Islam]”, they say, does not exclude other communities.

“Hindustan wanted to give it a communal colour,” said Hafiz Ullah. “They have failed.”