SRINAGAR: As the zuhr (midday) namaaz comes to an end in the 15th century Aali Masjid overlooking the Eidgah ground in downtown Srinagar, a huge boulder lands on the windscreen of the mobile bunker of the security forces. The bullet-proof windscreen is smashed. The stones keep coming thereafter, thuds merging into one continuous roar. The troopers fire a few tear smoke shells and the mob in the distance scatters and retreats into the Eidgah ground and from there taunts the troopers.
This is downtown Srinagar, the most violent area in the Kashmir valley. And it is Friday, when the sermons have a sting of venom. But here now at the Aali mosque, the gathering is large, mostly old timers and five-time namaazis, and the hectoring from the loudspeakers is not pro-azaadi but religious. It feels different today, but a trooper in the bunker says, "The stones will come."
As the departing elder namazis disappear into the lanes and bylanes of downtown, the slogans start up: "Hum Pakistani hain. Go back India, go back." And the hail of stones begins punctuated with Molotov cocktails. The CRPF personnel lob two tear gas shells, but both are picked up and thrown back.
A day in downtown Srinagar is an unsettling experience. A Friday can be unnerving.
For the forces, driving in their close convoys, it can be a near-death experience. "Nobody except the security forces go to downtown now. On Friday, Kashmiris in other parts of the valley might forget Burhan Wani, but people in downtown do not," was how Inayatullah, my cab driver, said. He had been reluctant to drive me, and only agreed when promised good money and adequate compensation should his Tavera be damaged.
We drive up the bridge and reach Safa Kadal and the tension cannot but be felt. The shops are shut, and security forces in every nook and corner, A CRPF mobile bunker is parked outside a shop, shutters down with graffiti painted: India Go back.
From inside the mosque, the scene is surreal. A post manned by CRPF’s 161 Battalion stands bang opposite, the jawans with AK 47s and Insas rifles at the ready. There’s barbed wire all around, mobile bunkers, Vajra vans, and fully meshed bullet-proof vehicles.
The road outside leads to the famous SKIMS, Soura hospital. And you see ambulances by the dozen screaming past, taking injured youngsters to hospital. There have been minor skirmishes all over downtown today and the traffic is thin.
"Even if other parts of the valley return to normalcy, downtown continues with its stone pelting. Not a single day has passed since without stone pelting here since Burhan Wani's killing," says Muhammed Arif, a CRPF constable.
"These fellows are dangeous. They come close, throw a stone with such force that you can fall dead. Sometimes they hurl a grenade. You never know."
It’s late in the afternoon now and approaching 5 pm. The 'azaan' starts up from the mosque and the troopers begin to tense up. Twilight is a torrid time. This is the time when more personnel are posted on the ground to ensure that the situation does not spiral out of control. But it does almost every day.
The stones rain down again as it gets dark and the vehicles of the security forces form a single convoy, led by a road opening party. The missiles come from all directions, and work up a din like a hailstorm.
It’s dark now, and back in the command centre, reports of stone pelting come in from different downtown areas on the wireless: Qamarwari, Safa Kadal, Jamia Masjid, Mirjanpur.
"Alpha mike, situation?"
"Patthar baras rahen hai sir."
"Move Delta company."
"Downtown has been like this always," says Rajesh Yadav, the CRPF commandant.