Pelters and ‘pelleters’: What Kashmir can learn from the stoning of the devil at the Haj

When the verbal space is too limited for meaningful dialogue, non-verbal forms of aggression take over.

The Uri attack and the subsequent strike by the Indian army against militant launch pads have decisively returned us to the grand narrative of enmity between Pakistan and India. Not surprisingly, these major jousts have also had collateral effects. For one, they have caused those other little narratives of "hitting back", those echoes of internal dissonance within the valley, to fade. But have they really gone away?

Only last month, we may recall, the annual Haj pilgrimage, which draws about 1.35 lakh Indian citizens to Saudi Arabia each year, began with the journey from the holy shrine at Mecca to the ancient city of Mina, eight kilometres away. Mina is famous in history. It is the site of the centuries-old ritual stoning by Hajjis of the three pillars of the jamarat, each of which represents a devilish temptation.

What is the significance of this symbolic act of stoning that has been preserved unbroken for so long? Does it at all help us understand the current structures of stone-pelting in the Kashmir Valley, or the subsequent response when security personnel used gravely injurious pellet-guns to control stone-pelters?

Stone throwing, especially when it is collective, is no simple act. Whether it is young boys pelting stones, or government forces firing pellets or retaliating by throwing stones back – the action expresses a whole emotional and ethical universe.

The subject of this piece is the complex world of pain, anger, resentment and the ever-present hope for a morally more acceptable future of which the kani jung (stone war) in Kashmir remains a manifestation.

The return of the stone pelters

“These are not stones, these are our feelings,” a young Kashmiri stone pelter responded during our research survey into stone pelting in the Valley.

The point could not be made more eloquently. In the research that we undertook into the phenomenon, this emotional-cum-moral theme emerged repeatedly.

Our research considered the history of stone pelting in the Valley, which dates back at least to July 13, 1931, (a significant day in the history of Kashmir; it is now commemorated as Martyrs Day in the region), but has seen a spurt since 2008. The phenomenon, it appeared, has served as a unique vehicle for Kashmiris to vent their frustration on a range of issues – from the religious and political to the administrative and social. Sometimes a mere rumour from a far corner of the world was enough to trigger an incident of stone pelting – as happened after the publication of a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed in Denmark, which few in Kashmir had actually seen. Sometimes the cause was as proximate as a prolonged power breakdown.

In the course of our research, the conversations with several stone-pelters had a persistent and, sadly, predictable theme: hostility towards the Indian state.

A 23-year-old University student said:

“I am a girl but when I saw those atrocities; I also wanted to pelt stones… we cannot do anything against them but at least we can pelt stones”.

Her professor, 34, upheld this perspective, stressing that stone pelting was a “positive” thing because it would draw international attention to the fraught situation in the Valley.

On July 8 – when the state government blocked mobile phones and internet following widespread protests triggered by the death of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani in an encounter – a young postgraduate Kashmiri male said:

“They don’t listen to us, I don’t throw stones, but I do ‘word-pelting’ on Facebook to express my anger. But when even Facebook is blocked, I have no option to express my anger than to pelt-stones.”

Overall, it also seems clear that those aged 12-38 in the Valley have a far more complicated relationship to violence, emblematised in this case by the act of stone throwing, in comparison to previous generations. Their individual angst-ridden stories form a counterpoint to both the Indian and Pakistani states’ nationalist stances. We must therefore keep our ears to the ground – where there’s still the sound of wailing and unrest to be heard.

Possible way out

So what can be done? Certainly, one avenue is empathetic and detailed research on the psychological correlates of the growing violence and aggression in the Valley as well as elsewhere in India.

Aggression can be both verbal and non-verbal. Our preliminary hypothesis is that when the verbal space is far too limited for meaningful dialogue, the non-verbal forms of aggression take over. Mute violence substitutes the marvels of speech. Such forms of aggression typically include rolling eyes, gritting teeth and breaking things. But these have, in general, been studied with regard to individual acts and less in connection with collective action.

First and foremost then, the available verbal space needs to be radically expanded in the Valley – not just for political factions to engage in but for people-to-people, university-to-university, and business-to-business contacts.

It has to be admitted, of course, that such a solution seems too simplistically "liberal" in a region where militancy is a problematic reality. Yet it is the only – long-term – way.

Sigmund Freud, who lived through World War I, and was driven out of his native Austria by Hitler’s aggression at the start of World War II, appears to support this viewpoint.

According to Freud, hurling insults, no matter how harsh, was not only preferable to hurling stones, such a conversion of aggression from non-verbal to verbal expression was in fact the basis of civil society. Freud’s remark on the subject was so popular that it generated several versions. Here’s one used in Robert Byrne’s 1988 compilation of famous quotes:

“The first human being who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization.”

Democratic persuasion, argument and debate, jamhooriat (democracy) as well as insaniyat (humanity), are only possible in the realm of words.

Symbolic pelting

This brings us back to the ritual stone-pelting during the Haj pilgrimage at Mina.

Most of us are familiar with the charged Biblical and Quranic narrative of the prophet Ibrahim/Abraham and Isaac, where a father bound up his blameless and beloved son and carried him to another province in order to sacrifice him – a psychological as well as physical demonstration of his devotion to the divine.

Each of the three pillars to be stoned at Mina represents the devil who repeatedly tempted Ibrahim to disobey the command he had been given by Allah to sacrifice Isaac.

According to Quranic and Biblical discourse, the devil was the one who succeeded in ensuring that Adam and Eve were thrown out of paradise. This happened after he provoked the couple to touch the forbidden fruit in defiance of God’s orders. Thus, the devil is responsible for the suffering of the human race on earth as humans would still have been in paradise if it hadn’t been for his self-serving deeds. The stoning of the pillars representing the devil in Mina is a symbolic act of anger against the devil.

What Allah asks of Ibrahim is major. As the philosopher Kierkegaard put it, it summons up “fear and trembling” in all of us. That Ibrahim obeyed without question led to a major reward in the end. Allah stayed Ibrahim’s hand just before the child’s sacrifice. Isaac was freed and the family earned Allah’s blessings down the ages. Yet the main aim, according to Islamic narratives, was to ensure that Ibrahim loved Allah more than his child, family, and all he possessed.

In the end, we must ask: how is this emotionally troubling narrative relevant to interpreting the present incidents, now obscured but not gone, of stone pelting and pellet shooting in Kashmir today?

It seems relevant in three main ways.

First, the young stone-pelters of Kashmir are revealed as our children, who cannot be sacrificed for political ends any more than it would have been right for Ibrahim to sacrifice an innocent Isaac. Today, we need to find ways, urgent talk-pathways to ensure that no axe, including the axe of militancy, falls on the necks of these vulnerable children.

Second, just as Isaac was bound up for sacrifice, so the youth of the Valley, rightly or wrongly, feel that their basic freedom of speech and movement have been constricted, leading to slogans for azaadi. We need to understand why they feel this way, and, if they are being misled "from across the border", why they are so easily susceptible. Above all, we need to accept that the concept of azaadi is a work in progress for all. It is not a simple given, which is precisely why it generates crucial debates in every society, especially ones that are as plural as India’s.

Finally, the ritual stoning of the pillars in Mina is as sophisticated a demonstration as any of the insight that while physical action is always an available means of showing aggression, wisdom lies in understanding that it should be confined as far as possible to the realm of the symbolic. It is, in effect, a basic moral principle that stone clashing against stone is infinitely preferable to humans hurting humans.

Rukmini Bhaya Nair is a writer, poet and critic, presently serving as a professor of English and Linguistics at IIT-Delhi. Ashraf Bhat has a PhD from IIT-Kanpur and was a Post-doctoral Scholar at IIT-Delhi. He presently teaches linguistics abroad.

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