by Chetan Bhagat

Imagine this news: A bunch of rioters in Gujarat beat up people in a Muslim neighbourhood, causing serious injuries. Or this: A mob went berserk and hurled bricks at Dalits in a UP village, causing several deaths. What would your first reaction be? Would you like the rioters and mob to be treated as criminals and severely punished? Probably yes.

Now read this news: Some men pelted stones at a CRPF jeep in Kashmir, causing the driver to lose control, which resulted in the deaths of two soldiers. Or this: Another group of Kashmiri men threw stones, resulting in the death of a tourist from Chennai. Both these events happened recently. What would you like to do to these stone throwers? Punish them or treat them differently?

Well, different treatment is what seems to be happening anyway. In late 2017, some 9,000 cases against stone pelters were dropped in Kashmir as the PDP-BJP government gave them amnesty. It was argued that dialogue and counselling for the ‘misguided’ youth was the answer, not jail. Sounds benevolent, doesn’t it?

But if so, why don’t we apply the same logic to any other set of rioters in the country? After all, someone hurting Muslims or Dalits is also simply ‘misguided’, isn’t it? As we keep going down the slippery slope of what is a crime and what are just ‘misguided’ actions, why not counsel molesters instead of punishing them?

Well, turns out the amnesty didn’t work after all. Since that pardon stone pelting incidents have continued. Attacks have been mounted on schoolchildren in buses. With tourists being attacked now stone pelting is hurting Kashmir locals too, not just our security forces. Why are we so helpless against this recurring violent practice in the Kashmir Valley?

It is important to understand the origins of stone pelting. It became popular amongst Palestinians as they fought the Israeli occupation with demonstrations known as Intifada (literally meaning ‘to shake off’). Given the massive power difference between the Israeli defence forces (IDF) and the Palestinians, the practice of throwing stones was seen as an act of brave defiance, an almost literal David vs Goliath story being played out in real life.

So far so good. Except that these stone pelting attacks can really hurt. We are not talking about pebbles here. Stone pelters hurl bricks, rocks and whatever they can find into the air. A 2kg stone landing on your head at high velocity will kill you, just as a knife thrown at you would. Would you brand a person who stabbed an innocent person with a knife as a criminal? Then why is it different when someone hurts you with a hard stone?

This romanticism of stone pelting made things worse for stone pelters in Palestine. Unlike peaceful street protests, stone pelting can be lethal and actually cause deaths. IDF was given powers to use arms and shoot at stone pelters if needed. This in turn led to even more violence, with IDF sometimes shooting people just on suspicion. Hence such a hard, disproportionate reaction is not recommended in the Valley, as it can cause havoc.

In response to Israeli violence Palestinians attacked with more stones and deadly Molotov cocktails. More violence and more hate all around. Hardly the way to bring attention or solve your cause, is it?

It is difficult to tackle this problem in Kashmir as well. In many quarters in the Valley, and with certain left-liberal senior journalists, stone pelting is still seen as a romantic, braveheart act, betokening helplessness and deserving sympathy. “It’s just a bunch of upset kids, we should soothe them” is their refrain.

Well, almost all criminals are upset about something. Which ones should we soothe or which ones should we punish? Where do we draw the line? The fact that stone pelters are Muslim makes the politics difficult too.

However, we have to stop looking at this issue through the lens of religion, or liberal benevolence. We have to see it for what it is – a violent attack on innocent civilians and our armed forces (which is the definition of terrorism by the way). Else we will not get anywhere on this problem. We will only have thousands injured, hundreds of lives lost, destruction of Kashmir tourism and fear in the minds of millions.

For now, the recent incidents point to the need for a far stricter policy on stone pelters. One does acknowledge this course of action is also fraught with dangers of abuse – no option is easy here. Sure, we should have sympathy for the misguided youth. We can commiserate on how unfair life has been to them. We can write books, movies, songs and articles about what they have to go through.

However, the moment they pick up a stone and throw it, they have engaged in a criminal act. And as a country with laws, criminal actions must be punished.

Stone pelting, a potentially lethal form of protest that can kill innocent tourists or soldiers and destroy an economy, is a serious crime. While efforts must never stop to listen to the other side, the moment the youth chooses violence all bets are off. You cannot take the law of the country in your hands, be it in the form of a gun, knife or stone.