Thursday, 10 May 2018 | PNS | New Delhi/Srinagar– In July 2016, when the security forces gunned down Burhan Wani, the poster boy of Hizbul Mujahideen, Kashmir valley erupted and stone pelting became order of the day. Two years down the line, the number of stone-pelting incidents has come down drastically, but their intensity has gone up. Last year saw 50 per cent drop in cases of stone pelting. There were 4,799 stone-pelting incidents in Jammu & Kashmir in the past three year. Of these, 730 incidents were reported in 2015, 2,808 in 2016, and 1,251 cases in 2017. However, the Valley has seen a shift in stone-pelters’ strategy. The stone-pelting is now usually taking place around the encounter sites when protesters try to break cordon to help holed up terrorists to escape. The trend is uniform in south Kashmir’s Shopian, Pulwama, Kulgam and Anantnag districts, Hajin pocket of north Kashmir’s Bandipora and volatile parts of old Srinagar city. Valley watchers have observed that stone-pelting starts shortly after terrorists are encircled in their hideouts by security forces. It all starts after the cornered terrorists inform their relatives through mobile phones about the security forces’ siege. This mobilises protesters, who try to storm the cordoned area. The incidents of stone-pelting have helped terrorists escape at several places. The latest such encounters occurred in Turkwangam village of Shopian on May 2. One teenager was killed in the encounter. In another incident at Seer jagir village of Tral in the last week of April, two terrorists gave slip to the security forces when stone pelters came to their rescue. Surprisingly, Army chief Gen Bipin Rawat’s declaration last year that anyone hampering anti-terrorist operations would be dealt with like terrorists has failed to deter stone pelters in the Valley. Interestingly, the stone-pelters are not only locals. On Sunday, when security forces killed five protesters in Shopian, one of the slain protesters had travelled all the way from Dooru in Anantnag district to the trouble spot, around 45 kilometres from home. His family is clueless as to how he reached the encounter site. The intensity of the stone pelting incidents and targeting of tourists, schoolchildren and civilians has come as big setback in the efforts to mainstream youngsters who have been exploited by the separatist to create unrest in the Valley. Both the Centre and the Mehbooba Mufti Government have been on the same page on releasing the stone pelters and going soft against them. The Mehbooba Government decision to withdraw cases against nearly 10,000 stone pelters followed a recommendation made by Centre’s interlocutor for J&K Dineshwar Sharma. On November 22 last year, Mehbooba announced launch of the Centre’s amnesty for first-time “offenders of stone pelting”. The decision saw police drop charges against an estimated 4,500 people, most of them youngsters. Mehbooba said the Government’s initiative was based on recommendations by Centre’s interlocutor Dineshwar Sharma, a former Intelligence Bureau chief tasked with starting a peace process in Kashmir. While Mehbooba was making a case for amnesty to the stone pelters since 2016, the Centre was not ready to take the risk. In fact, in 2016 when then Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed had announced the release of separatist leader Masrat Alam, the man who had first rallied the youth in 2016 to take up stone pelting , the Modi Government had put tremendous pressure on him to lodge fresh cases against Alam and re-arrest him. However, with Mehbooba insisting that there was a need to reach out to the youth in the wake of major reduction in such incidents, the Centre conceded. On November 13, 2017, J&K Police chief SP Vaid said there has been a 90 per cent dip in incidents of stone-pelting in the Valley that year as compared to 2016. The Centre confirmed that assessment in a written reply to the Rajya Sabha on March 7 this year. It said there were 4,799 stone-pelting incidents and 872 terror incidents in the State in past three year. Union Minister of State for Home Hansraj Gangaram Ahir said 730 incidents of stone pelting were reported in 2015, whereas 2,808 such incidents were reported in 2016, and 1,261 in 2017. In trying to further reach out to the youth on February this year, Mehbooba went step further when the J&K Government approved withdrawal of cases registered against 9,730 stone-pelters, including first-time offenders, between 2008 and 2017. However, the recent incidents of targeting of civilians, tourists and schoolchildren by the stone pelters may force both the Centre and the BJP-PDP Government in the State to redefine its policy. If stone pelters are not reined in, tourism in the State is bound to take a big hit.