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The stones of Srinagar

On the streets of this political hotspot, chucking rocks at the police is the most cherished form of free speech.

Kashmiri protesters shout "We want freedom" during an anti-India protest organised by the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) in Srinagar on July 3, 2009. Anti-India protests have raged across the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley since bodies of two women, aged 17 and 22, who locals say were abducted, raped and killed by security forces, were found on May 29. (Fayaz Kabli/Reuters)

SRINAGAR, India — In Srinagar's Lal Chowk, or “red corner,” a hotbed of social unrest in a city that many residents believe to be occupied by a hostile Indian military, 26-year-old “Mohammad” is primed for the next call to action.

A handsome, muscular youth with a beard that would pass muster in Kabul and incongruously gelled hair, he has been a stone pelter — what locals here call the young men who engage in rock-chunking skirmishes with the police and security forces nearly every Friday — since he was 15 years old.

“I saw so many young boys had been killed by the security forces, so I said, 'Let me join this protest also,'” Mohammad says.

The protests that Mohammad — who did not want to reveal his real name for fear of retribution — is talking about have become part of daily life in Srinagar, the center of political life in the Indian part of Kashmir. Marches and the inevitable skirmishes that follow them are so common that the shopkeepers in Lal Chowk have grown accustomed to a three- or four-day work week. And stone pelting has become so inseparable from political demonstrations that the police themselves carry slingshots for firing back. The government even employs a special brigade of street cleaners to make sure that the pavement is cleared of ammunition.

To be sure, Kashmir is a state still reeling under insurgency, where militants strike at the government and melt back into the forest, and these angry, habitual protesters tell only their side of the story. But a talk with the proverbial man on the street shows that there's more to Srinagar's stone battles than simple hooliganism.

Despite India's claims to have won the hearts and minds of Kashmiris since the armed rebellion by militant separatists that raged from 1989 to 2003 declined to a simmer, the anger over what locals term the Indian occupation — and hatred for the police and the army — still run hot and deep.