A simple mistake in the ninth grade saw India's Riaz Ahmad join a group of protesters hurling stones at police in Srinagar
, the summer capital of the violence-marred state of Jammu and Kashmir
. A decade later, at the age of 23, he is still paying the price for joining the protesters who were opposing police repression in their Muslim-dominated region, where security forces have been deployed to choke an insurgent movement aimed at freeing the area from Indian rule. By a surprising turn of events, Ahmad was named among "the most wanted" members of the gang. He was dubbed a Sangbaaz, a local term given to thousands of Kashmiri youth
who attack armed forces and police with stones. Police arrested Ahmed soon after he first became involved with the gang.
After security footage surfaced clearly showing him throwing rocks at an officer he was grilled for three days and instructed to name the other boys in his crew and provide their home addresses. He was promised that in return for such cooperation, and as soon as it had been verified, he would be granted his freedom. "I gave the names of two boys I knew as well as their addresses. Finally they let me go without charge," Ahmed recalled. He was released but his anger continued to well up at what he saw as an unjust state of affairs. He also deeply regretted blowing the whistle on his friends under police duress, he said. "The following Friday, when people took to the streets again to protest, I was right there with them, throwing stones for the cause," he said. He was subsequently arrested and jailed. The police allegedly refused to accept that he was a juvenile, claiming his birth certificate had been forged. Ahmed was released in 2012. He went to his uncle's place to escape the influence of his peers, buckled down with his studies and passed his finals. But he felt deeply uncomfortable at abandoning his brothers, he told ucanews.com, and soon found himself back in the thick of the anti-state demonstrations. As of this year he has now been arrested four times and spent over three years in jail. The police are now trying a new tack: Counseling people like Ahmed to convince them they have a bright future ahead, rather than letting themselves get trapped in a vicious cycle of violence that could jeopardize their careers and even their lives. India's official stance is that Kashmiri youth are being instigated and funded by Muslim-majority Pakistan,
India's arch rival and neighbor, to destabilize the disputed region in a bid to make it a part of Pakistan. Meanwhile, Pakistan dismisses the Indian viewpoint as rhetoric aimed at covering up Indian forces' violations of people's rights in the restive region. Security personal maintain that rock throwing, known locally as "fighting with stones," remains a serious obstacle to its counter insurgency operations as security forces have to protect themselves from being struck while treading carefully to ensure innocent civilians are not caught in the fray. They say militants often escape when security forces' attention is diverted to engage with rock throwing mob. Young people involved in these kinds of protests say they will not rest until police and security forces fully withdraw from the area, arguing their presence achieves little except to inflame tensions and provoke violence. This has been the case for the last 30 years, they claim. According to government data, 4,799 rock-throwing incidents have been reported in Kashmir over the last three years. The majority of incidents (2,808) occurred in 2016, compared to just 1,261 in 2017, statistics show. Now psychiatrists and psychologists are being brought on board to counsel young people as part of a new policy adopted by Kashmiri police on April 10 to win over Kashmiri youth. According to a police spokesman, who following custom in this region decline to give their name, the counseling sessions conducted at various centers across the state engage with parents of students and young men who have engaged in slinging rocks at security personnel. Their goal is to create a more conducive atmosphere for dialogue and show they empathize with the concerns of students and other young people, the spokesman said. A Kashmiri Muslim protester throws a piece of rock towards Indian policemen during a strike in Srinagar in this file photo. (Photo by Tauseef Mustafa/AFP) The lure of terrorist ideology
A police official told ucanews.com on request of anonymity that the counseling sessions were aimed at stopping young people from being radicalized and lured into militant organizations. "The internet has become a very helpful tool for global terrorist organizations to attract young people. But we want them to live a dignified life and understand the importance of a peaceful society," the officer said. The state government in February this year approved the withdrawal of over 9,000 cases registered against those who slung rocks at the police. They included any cases involving first time offenders from 2008 to 2017. Ahmad's father, Ghulam Nabi, believes measures like this can make a difference. "I want to take [my son] to one of the counseling sessions so he can understand what it means to live a better life," he said. "I've already submitted a request to the government to withdraw the cases against him so he can hopefully start over. I hope my plea will be approved soon," he added. "He gets very angry whenever he sees someone getting killed during the protests. He doesn't have any patience left. We're worried what life has in store for our son," said Nabi. Ahmed said conciliatory measures are worthless as long as the core conflict remains unresolved. "Even if myself and thousands of other youths shun the protests, would that bring peace? I doubt it," he said. People like Ahmed say their land has become a battleground in the border despite between India and Pakistan, which originated when British India was divided in 1947 along religious lines. Both countries claim Kashmir in full and have fought at least three wars and countless skirmishes over it. The governments should find a lasting solution to their territorial conflict, as "all other measures are just temporary actions," Ahmed said. Owais Ahmad, another activist who admits to pelting police with rocks, participated in a counseling session at Srinagar's Batamaloo area on April 13. He told ucanews.com he was told that stoning people was preventing him from "leading a dignified and normal life." "I was told to study and not to protest," he said. Abdul Rashid Khan, whose son was apprehended also for lobbing rocks, participated in another of the sessions. He told ucanews.com this is a "a gradual process" as it will take time to make these angry young men and women understand the true meaning of a peaceful society. Zahid Mushtaq, a political commentator and author, believes that this year will be crucial for Kashmir's security grid in terms of controlling rock-throwing incidents. The government has realized that arresting and jailing wrongdoers will only increase their numbers as more youth get radicalized. Now authorities are pinning their hopes on counseling. "They believe reconciliation can help pacify things, at least gradually if not suddenly," Mushtaq said. Sociologist Aabid Simnani is also a big fan of this approach. "If young people understand their concerns are being addressed, it would certainly provoke change on the ground," he said. "The problem is that if you arrest one stone thrower, three more are ready and waiting to fill his shoes."
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