At an unknown address in Jammu and Kashmir’s Baramulla district, fugitive stone pelters dropped their face masks for a conversation with India Today’s undercover reporters. With that, they also uncovered devastating truths behind the unrest in the valley that followed Hizbul commander Burhan Wani’s killing.
Zakir Ahmad Bhat, Farooq Ahmad Lone, Wasim Ahmed Khan, Mushtaq Veeri and Ibrahim Khan made startling confessions: from being on the payroll of their underground masters to carrying out deadly attacks on security forces, public servants and property in the troubled region.
“It’s Rs 5,000-Rs 7,000 (a month) and clothes. Sometimes shoes as well,” said Bhat when asked whether he was paid to charge at security forces with stones.
Bhat is also a specialist in Molotov cocktails or petrol bombs. He is wanted for arson attacks during last year’s stone-pelting protests. By his own admission, the young man sounded unapologetic about forging contracts with obscure enemies to strike at troops in the valley.
“We pelt security forces with stones — JK police personnel, army jawans, MLAs and government vehicles.”
But this hired extremist refused to disclose the identity of his financiers. “We will die but won’t reveal their names. It’s the question of our bread and butter,” he said.
He admitted pelting stones in Baramulla, Sopore and Pattan. “Now, we go to the downtown (in Baramulla), where we protest on Fridays.”
FUNDS TO MAKE PETROL BOMBS
He would also supply and use petrol bombs. “We get separate funds for making petrol bombs,” Bhat said. He charges up to Rs 700 for making one Molotov cocktail.
“I must have made 50-60 bombs. We throw them on vehicles and whosoever comes in between,” he said.
From July to October last year, as many as 19,000 people were injured and 92 killed in a series of clashes between rock-throwing protestors and security forces in Kashmir, news reports suggest.
Around 4,000 security personnel were among the wounded. Two jawans were reportedly among the dead. But for pelters like Farooq Ahmad Lone, violent agitations are their livelihood.
“It could be Rs 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 or even Rs 5,000,” said Lone, quoting his daily income from organizing shutdowns and stone-throwing demonstrations.
“We have been pelting stones since 2008.” Wasim Ahmed Khan put his monthly stipend from rock-hurling protests at Rs 5,000-Rs 6,000. For accomplice Veeri, it’s Rs 700 a day on weekdays and up to Rs 1,000 on holy Fridays.
“So, the man who pays you belongs to your village?” asked India Today’s investigative reporter. “He just arrives. He’s known to one of my friends,” replied Veeri, refusing to name his paymaster.
But pelters did disclose how they were assigned their job well in advance. The hidden masterminds would use the Internet technology to organize stone pelting across various locations in Jammu and Kashmir, revealed Ibrahim Khan.
INSTRUCTIONS VIA GROUP-MESSAGING SERVICES
Instructions regarding potential targets, he explained, were circulated on group-messaging services beforehand. “Instructions are issued on WhatsApp groups,” Khan said. “Who are you asked to pelt stones at?” asked the reporter. “At police, army, whoever comes forward.
There are clear directives,” Khan, who makes up to Rs 20,000 a month from the protests, answered. Young children, he claimed, were also recruited as pelters. “How much are children paid?” probed the undercover journalist. “It depends upon who the boy is. If he has a good physique, he will be paid around Rs 7,000-Rs 7,500,” Khan said.
But if the child recruit is weak, he would get around Rs 5,500 to Rs 6,000, Khan added. For children up to 12 years, the minimum payment for stone-pelting is fixed at Rs 4,000, he insisted. Bhat, Veeri and Wasim Ahmad Khan then shared their track-record in executing attacks on security personnel and government property.
“We hurled petrol bombs at a vehicle parked on a bridge. Two people were charred,” said Bhat, referring to a 2014 assault on a pair of policemen. Veeri said he had injured at least 30 to 35 people from various security agencies till now. “I was once charged under the PSA (Public Safety Act). I was behind the bars for six months,” he said.
Wasim Ahmad Khan belonged to the same league. Jailed in 2009 for a year, he revealed he had damaged police, army and government vehicles on numerous occasions.
“We have also pelted stones at the armed forces, MLAs, ministers and their aides,” he said.