On December 14, a relieved Khursheed Ahmad hurried to the district court in North Kashmir’s Baramulla. He was going to submit an undertaking of good conduct. Ahmad is among the 394 individuals from Baramulla district, and 4,327 across the Kashmir Valley, who qualify for an “amnesty scheme” announced by the Jammu and Kashmir government last month. Under this scheme, stone pelters who are identified as “first-time offenders” will have the first information reports filed against them revoked.

In 2013, Ahmad was informed by the police that he, along with 21 others, had been named in a 2010 FIR on a stone pelting attack on the Baramulla district commissioner. The year 2010 had seen mass protests in the Valley in which at least 110 civilians were killed. Since 2013, Ahmad said, life had to be planned according to court dates and visits to the police station were regular.

Though the police were cooperative, he said, being named in an FIR for “something I did not do” was emotionally draining. “The police had missed out on all the real stone pelters,” he said as he tended to customers at his hardware store two days later. “I am the one guy in my village that everyone knows will not pelt stones. I am a businessman.”

Now in his mid-30s, Ahmad’s spirits have been lifted as the noose around his neck has finally loosened. “I have finally gotten a much awaited raahat – relief,” Ahmad enthused as he thanked the police and the Central government, unwilling to buy the notion that the initiative was taken by the state government.

Olive branch

The amnesty scheme is significant in a restive Valley where alleged harassment by the police and the courts is often cited as a reason behind the youth turning to militancy. The amnesty for stone pelters is also part of a slew of confidence-building measures launched by the government.

It was announced in a series of tweets by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti on November 22, two weeks after Dineshwar Sharma, the Centre’s interlocutor for talks in Kashmir, had left after the first, exploratory round of meetings in Srinagar. The state government has also announced that it will act towards the rehabilitation of those injured by pellets and proposed Rs 5 lakhs as compensation for the families of those killed in last year’s unrest.

The confidence-building measures seem to be serving two purposes: laying the ground for talks with the Centre and helping the People’s Democratic Party regain lost ground in the Valley. Mufti’s government has been on the back foot ever since the unrest of 2016, which broke out after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, and left about 100 civilians dead and thousands injured. The loss of faith in electoral politics was evident during the bye-elections for two Lok Sabha seats in Kashmir this year. While voter turnout hovered around 7%, at least eight civilians were killed after security forces opened fire.

A student throws a stone during a protest in Srinagar in April. (Credit: Danish Ismail / Reuters)

Leaving out 2016

Police officials in the Valley say that the amnesty scheme has two tangible benefits. “It will save them the trouble of prosecution,” said one official. “Second, they will be able to get their passports and jobs easily.”

In Baramulla town, the family of 18-year-old Amir Yousuf Wani is jubilant. Wani lost his father when he was a toddler. In 2013, at the age of 14, he was booked for stone-pelting and lost a year at school. He was a Class 9 student at the Police Public School at the time.

Only a few days ago, Wani left for Jammu to pursue an English speaking course. His policeman uncle, Tauseef Beigh, said that Wani was now preparing for his Class 12 examinations, relieved at not having to visit the court anymore. Besides, holding a passport was no longer only a dream.

“The government’s decision is better late than never,” said Beigh. “That the government has considered the future of kids is a good decision. We can only be thankful to the state government.”

Yet, there is no such relief for a 16-year-old school student from a South Kashmir village. He still has to attend court hearings for his first registered offence, which was in 2016. “We are told that an amnesty will be given but we still have not received any communication about it. We went to court just a week ago,” said his elder brother. “How many more inconsequential court hearings do we have to attend before we are let off?”

Last year, before the unrest, Mufti had ordered amnesty in 104 cases registered in 2008-2009 involving 634 people. A note issued by the state home department on November 29 said amnesty has been approved in 744 cases involving 4,327 people who were booked in the 2010-2014 period. Which leaves out those who were out on the streets after July 2016. According to a senior police official in Srinagar, at least 2,500 FIRs were registered and more than 6,000 people arrested, mainly for stone-pelting, during last year’s unrest.

Shesh Paul Vaid, the director general of police, said the process of giving amnesty to those booked in 2016 was not yet complete. “Cases of 2015-2016-2017 are under process,” he said. “There are meetings to be held, it will take some time.”

Speaking off the record, police officials in the Valley said even the current amnesty plan would take “a while for implementation on the ground”, as it has to cover a large number of police stations across Kashmir. After the current process is completed, those booked in the last three years might have a chance, a police official said.

Government spokesperson Naeem Akhtar said the grant of amnesty “should not be seen in isolation”. He said, “It is the beginning of a process of reconciliation.” The government would assess “the impact, how it is received and how it develops” before taking it further.

State or Centre?

If Mufti intended to project these schemes as an initiative of her government, she might not have succeeded. While some believe the move came from the state government, many believe it is merely following instructions “from above”. It is common perception in the Kashmir Valley that the state government has been reduced to a rubber stamp for decisions taken in Delhi.

One of those given amnesty said, “If it was up to the state government, we would still be rotting chasing court dates.” Whether the move had won the Centre any goodwill, he said, was difficult to say. “But we do believe it is the Centre that has taken this decision,” he said. “It happened after the interlocutor.”

Even before 2016, Mufti’s People’s Democratic Party was battling public anger in Kashmir after it tied up with the Bharatiya Janata Party to form a coalition in the state. Over the last month, the chief minister has tried to praise the Centre and, by extension, the BJP. “This confidence-building measure reaffirms the Central government’s commitment towards changing the narrative in J&K and creating a reconciliatory atmosphere for sustained dialogue,” she said in a tweet soon after announcing the amnesty scheme for stone pelters.

But the chief minister was also careful to point out that the initiative was started by her government in May 2016, though it was stalled by protests triggered by Burhan Wani’s death on July 8 that year.

Akhtar, meanwhile, called the amnesty a “new approach to Kashmir”, where the state and Centre were acting together. The government spokesperson said that earlier, if the state government “took an initiative on Kashmir, there would be reactions” in Delhi. “What this coalition has been able to achieve is a kind of synchronisation and this is the best example of it,” he said. “We are taking a soft attitude and irrespective of parties’ ideological differences, everybody is on board. That is why this is more significant, important and, I am sure, durable.”

The Jammu and Kashmir Police, for their part, had tried to pitch it as a state initiative by putting up banners of the chief minister at general meetings held with the families of first-time offenders. Police officials say the government has hurried with the grant of amnesty. Some suggested the process should have been carried over into next summer. That would have assured the state government got its due credit and given people an incentive to stay away from street violence that picks up during the summer, they argued.

What next?

One senior police official also blamed the government for not thinking the scheme through. Mere withdrawal of cases was not enough. “There has to be counselling for such youth, under the supervision of the police as the law and order problem affects us. Police itself can play a limited role,” he said. The education and social welfare ministries have to play a greater role, he felt.

But amnesty did not mean a softening of the security approach, he warned. “To keep the situation in check, we have to go for regular elimination of militants, detention, arrest and prosecution of key people so as to not allow the level of violence to cross a threshold,” he said.