Police stations in Kashmir’s southern districts are bustling with activity. Elections to two Lok Sabha seats are scheduled for April 9 and April 12 and the last few weeks have seen large-scale arrests of young men held for hurling stones at the security forces – and the release of many held for the same offence.

The police have launched a drive to detain men described as “chronic stone-pelters” in the four districts of the south – Anantnag, Shopian, Kulgam and Pulwama. They have arrested at least 200 youth following videos recorded during clashes, said a senior police officer from South Kashmir who did not wish to be identified. About 150 arrests were made in Pulwama alone. Police stations in towns across the region are also keeping a close watch on known stone-pelters in their jurisdictions.

Meanwhile, relatives and neighbours of those detained for stone-pelting, both recently and during last year’s unrest, are swarming police stations across the four districts in the hope of negotiating their release. This is election time after all, which means compromises, give and take.

Elections in the Valley reveal the symbiotic relationship between some stone-pelters and the mainstream political parties and leaders who participate in the polls. Many mainstream politicians help secure the release of stone-pelters who are behind bars in exchange for support in election campaigns.

It is a practice that has especially been the hallmark of the ruling People’s Democratic Party, according to police officials and members of civil society.

‘They will vote’

On Saturday, a former MLA from the National Conference entered a spacious police office in South Kashmir with the relatives of a detained youth. “They will vote,” the former legislator told a police official there, requesting him to release the young man.

Just as the politician left, a former sarpanch, also with the Opposition National Conference, entered the office with the same request. The sarpanch was among those who had handed in their resignations during last year’s unrest. These were symbolic resignations, though, since the term of the panchayats had ended before the Valley descended into chaos in the wake of the encounter death of militant commander Burhan Wani in July.

Outside the police office, many more hopeful relatives and neighbours anxiously waited for their turn.

A policy of arrests?

According to the Opposition, arrests are part of government policy. Mohiddin Mir, the former National Conference MLA from Rajpora in Pulwama, said raids and arrests were taking place every day and many youth still had to report at police stations regularly.

“The only thing we can do is that if someone is locked up, [being in] Opposition I can only raise voice,” he said, adding that families were harassed if the youth who had to report to the police were not found at home.

He added: “It’s our job to get them released. We go to police stations, SP [superintendent of police] offices, or to anyone else [with the authority] to get them released. But if the government policy is to arrest, what can we do? We generally help the youth, not for votes.”

Mir also alleged that the arrests in the run-up to the elections were targeting families associated with the National Conference: “If you take a look [at various police stations and lock-ups in South Kashmir] and see their [detainees’] background, maximum are from National Conference.”

He added that while activists of his party had been named in first information reports, those associated with the ruling party were let off easily.

An ecosystem

Shahid Malik, an activist in South Kashmir, described the cycle of arrests and releases “an ecosystem” created by mainstream parties. In the face of anti-India sentiment, it gives them an air of legitimacy, he explained. “These moves create legitimacy of democratic structures and institutions,” he said. “They raise these issues [of detentions] themselves and free people to appear as heroes.”

Yet another activist said the number of arrests was actually much higher than the official figure, as illegal detentions are rampant. And a chunk of these illegal detentions involve minors, he added, as the Valley lacks a proper system of juvenile boards and observation homes to deal with underage offenders. “They are detained until their families crumble under pressure [and approach the mainstream],” he said.

Police officials, however, maintained that minors are let off without cases being registered against them, and that serious and repeat offenders are not released even under pressure from politicians.

The police have launched a drive to detain “chronic stone-pelters” in the run-up to Lok Sabha bypolls in South Kashmir. (Image credit: Reuters)

Votes and stones

In the town of Anantnag, some well-known stone-pelters are preparing to leave their homes to avoid trouble with the police. Bashir (name changed) is in his 30s and was a regular protestor till 2014, when he quit after setting up a small business in the town. Despite this, whenever an event such as an election or a prominent leader’s visit draws near, he and others like him start getting phone calls from the police and are often locked up for a day or two, he said.

He said that during the Assembly bypolls in June, the police had raided his house in a bid to arrest to him, but he had managed to escape. This time around, he expects the same drill and has decided to leave town in the coming days, even though he has no plans to join the stone-pelting crowds. Once out of their localities, Bashir added, the police do not bother looking for them.

Bashir also said he believed that the police knew those who would not give up stone-pelting and those who would. A stone-pelter whose “mind is set” will be “harassed by the police”, he added.

Asked if the youth who had been released on the request of political parties actually end up joining the mainstream, he chuckled and said, “Fifty-fifty.” He added, “[We] have a group of 20-25 [youth in Anantnag town]. Unka dimag nai phir sakta hai [they will not change their minds]. They will give up their lives for azadi.” Most, he said, were “not ready to be sold”.

Zahid (name changed), who was detained a few years ago under the controversial Public Safety Act that allows the police to hold a person without trial for up to two years, said political parties had tried to lure stone-pelters by offering them respite from police cases and money. “They think they can corrupt dozens by corrupting one, but that does not happen,” he said.

He said a stone-pelter who had earlier “fallen for the trap” was back on the streets during the 2016 unrest. None of his cases had been revoked even after he campaigned and voted for a particular party. “They get their work done – sticking posters, [party] flags – but they do not keep their promises,” Zahid said.

In Bijbehara, Javaid (name changed), a former stone-pelter now affiliated with the People’s Democratic Party, is disgruntled. He said that besides respite from legal action, they had been promised jobs. “But none of us were given jobs after the elections,” he said. “Even recently, the lists for bank and tourism jobs have none of the boys who were lured during the election.”

Party workers in the area confessed they used stone-pelters for campaigning, which played a significant part in the comparatively higher voter turnout during the last bypolls, but “severed all ties [with the youth] within two-three days of the polling”.

Being duped in this manner leaves the young men in limbo, according to Bashir and Zahid. “Na idhar ke rehtey hain, na udhar ke [they do not belong to this side or that side],” the two said. Bashir added that these youth return to stone-pelting “after realising their mistake”.

“We do not do it for money, we do it against oppression, immorality,” he said. “We do it for Allah ki raza”, for Allah’s will.

Police complain of interference

“The mainstream’s existence depends on it,” a police officer in South Kashmir admitted, reluctantly. He said families of detained youth approach party workers in their localities when the young men are picked up by the police. This creates an interest group where families of habitual stone-pelters cultivate sources in the parties to secure the release of their relatives and then return the favour during elections. In this way, he added, stone-pelting seems to be encouraged by politicians.

“They [the parties] are fools, they are against their own government,” the officer said of the release-for-votes system. He added that the parties were destroying their own institutions by supporting “the people who are thirsty for their blood and want to cut their throats”.

The officer said such interference in police work was largely responsible for the volatility in the Valley. “Leave the average party worker aside, even ministers at times call us to seek the release of some stone-pelters,” he complained.

Another police officer in South Kashmir pointed out that arrests and detentions were “the only non-lethal weapon” in the police arsenal, but these have now been rendered ineffective.