Targets for first time in Valley’s unrest, policemen walk faultlines in Kashmir

Militants see them as traitors, protesters as stooges, while many allege they are not nationalist enough. Photographs by Shuaib Masoodi

Updated: September 4, 2016 6:09 am

Outside the police control room in Srinagar, stands a long queue. Over a hundred policemen are waiting to get new “identity cards”.

“What skills do you have?” an official asks a policeman in his late 30s, at the head of the queue. “I know electrical work quite well,” answers the constable.

In 10 minutes, the constable has a new identity — of an ‘electrician’ in the state Electrical Department. Soon, he is joined by other ‘electricians’, as well as ‘plumbers’, ‘motor mechanics’ and ‘health workers’.

“Now we can go home,” says another constable, holding his card certifying him as a ‘mechanic’. “Returning home these days is a greater battle for us than controlling people on the streets. Boys everywhere are on the lookout for policemen to beat up. This card will help.”

 A woman protester takes the lead in downtown Srinagar. A woman protester takes the lead in downtown Srinagar.

A deputy superintendent of police, who has been with the force for eight years, says the public resentment didn’t hurt till something his daughter said the other day. The officer, who has worked in the police’s counter-insurgency force as well, was heading out of home with his three-year-old daughter for a walk early in the morning, before curfew hours began, when she stopped him at the gate.

“There is police outside, papa, they will kill us. We won’t go out today,” he says she told him. “It is painful when even your three-year-old child is on the other side of the fence, when even a police officer’s little daughter doesn’t trust police.”

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Kashmir has seen prolonged unrest before, but for the first time, police are one of the targets of the violence. Since the protests began after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani on July 8, two policemen have been killed and more than a hundred injured. While most of them have been hit by stones, at least a dozen were injured in two grenade blasts and militant firing in south Kashmir.

On July 14, a policeman’s house was set on fire in south Kashmir’s Kulgam, after his family was asked to move out. A day later, a private car driven by a policeman was set ablaze in Srinagar.

For the first time, separatists and people have named individual police officers, accusing them of “excesses”. In Srinagar’s Batamaloo, a poster came up at several places warning a local police officer, Sub-Inspector Tauseef Ahmad Mir, after he was named by Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani for “firing indiscriminate pellets” at people. In Sopore, graffiti was scribbled on roads by protesters similarly warning Superintendent of Police (SP) Harmeet Singh and other officers.

Even before the violence began, police were under pressure in the Valley. In his video messages, which helped make him a popular militant icon, Burhan Wani targeted policemen.

While in one of the videos he called them “our own” and asked them to stay away from anti-militancy operations and “change the direction of (their) guns towards India”, in another, Burhan warned policemen of attacks. Saying that police had continued to “act against us”, the Hizbul commander said there would be no warning henceforth and that his men would “act against every man in uniform who stands for the Indian Constitution”.

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In the two videos it has released since Burhan Wani’s killing, the Hizbul has continued to attack police, warning in both that “if a policeman is out on duty, his fate would be death”.

While curfew has now been eased in most parts of Kashmir, the protests have continued. An 18-year-old youth has died since the curbs were lifted, taking the toll to 71, while as recently as August 31, protesters set fire to a police guardroom.

At the same time, many outside the Valley, including BJP leaders, continue to question the loyalty of Kashmiris in the police force. In February this year, BJP legislator Ravinder Raina said, “There are some elements of Pakistan in the police which take money from the ISI, militants.”

At Safakadal, while most of the injuries to policemen have been caused by stones, over a dozen were hit in a grenade blast. At Safakadal, while most of the injuries to policemen have been caused by stones, over a dozen were hit in a grenade blast.

A few months later, the J&K Police was called an “anti-national force” following lathicharge on outstation students studying at the National Institute of Technology (NIT) in Srinagar. “Many of my colleagues have been asking and many more must be thinking, ‘Whose war are we fighting?’,” a DySP, Firoz Yehya, had posted on Facebook at the time. “All I can tell them is that this is just another phase and will pass.”

But the pressure has been showing. On August 22, a Special Police Officer, Waseem Ahmad Sheikh, announced his resignation from the force at a public rally. Police said he had done so under pressure and had not put in his papers formally.

On August 10, the father and brother of Sub-Inspector Mir, who was named by Geelani for leading a team that “indiscriminately fired pellets on women” in Chee village of Khanabal, went to the Hurriyat leader’s residence to apologise on his behalf.

The latest data released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) shows that in 2015, J&K reported more cases of injuries to policemen than any other state.

Caught between their own people on the streets, sometimes neighbours, friends, even relatives, and a force that requires them to tackle the protesters forcefully, police are being “devoured from inside”, says the DySP. “Every time civilians are killed, I think of resignation.”

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Now he has cut himself off from friends and family. “I know my own people call me a traitor. I have killed their children. I may not have killed them personally but I am not ‘me’ alone, my identity is my profession,” he says. “I can’t meet my friends, my relatives. I know they have questions that I can’t take, that I have no answers to. It is complete isolation.”

A policeman gives the instance of a Kupwara-based colleague’s wife. “A few days after Burhan was killed, she called him up and told him that she had named their newborn son Burhan,” says the officer. “He tried to reason with her, told her that Burhan was their enemy, but his wife didn’t listen. She told him that Burhan was innocent, and cut the call.”

Police first thought of giving its men fake identity cards when moving on the road started becoming a problem, with protesters stopping vehicles and asking for IDs.

The department initially gave them identities certifying them as workers of the Health Department. But that failed. “At many places, protesters asked questions like what were the different kind of blood groups,” says a senior police officer. “Our men couldn’t answer and many of them were beaten up.”

So now policemen are given IDs showing them as skilled in different tasks.

The police force in Kashmir is predominantly Muslim, and politics, both at the state and in the Centre, has also come into play now.

On Srinagar’s Residency Road, a group of policemen, posted as Personal Security Officers (PSOs), are waiting for their officer, a superintendent of police. Cajoled a bit, they start a lengthy discussion, on beef politics, saffronisation and demographics, admitting that they can hardly remain immune to what is happening around them.

Policemen take guard against a stone-pelter in Nowhatta, Srinagar. Policemen take guard against a stone-pelter in Nowhatta, Srinagar.

As a policeman cautiously weighs his words, a constable speaks up. “I will tell you the truth. We live a miserable life, it is a nightmare. In the day, we open fire at crowds and in the evening, some of us get a message about injury to a relative or a friend,” he says. “We have a family and we are here to earn a living. What is happening around us gets on our nerves. It is a daily battle, but more so in situations like these.”

As the policemen talk, a colleague arrives with news of a village in central Kashmir’s Budgam district celebrating Pakistan’s Independence Day. A policeman who is from Budgam finds this difficult to believe.

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The talk turns to beef. A policeman asks, “Why should anybody stop us from eating beef? It is interference in
religion. Nobody can stop us from following our religion. Why should the BJP force things on us?”

Others nod in agreement.

As the SP arrives, the PSOs jump into their vehicles to escort the officer. Driving away, a policeman remarks, “Such things turn policemen into militants.”

In the Valley’s two and a half decades of conflict, there are no more than a dozen examples of this happening, most of them in the last five years, including the case of Naseer Ahmad Pandit, who became one of Burhan Wani’s aides.

Pandit was killed in an encounter in Shopian in April this year, with the security forces calling it a major breakthrough and a “serious dent” for the militants.

Before becoming a militant, Pandit, a resident of Karimabad village in south Kashmir’s Pulwama, was a policeman, deployed to guard the then PWD minister of the People’s Democratic Party, Altaf Bukhari. One day, Pandit quietly left Bukhari’s Srinagar residence with two service rifles, and along with three friends, joined Wani.

In January this year, a policeman posted as a PSO with a DSP in Bijbehara escaped with four service rifles. Shakoor Ahmad, who too joined the Hizbul Mujahideen, was arrested two months later.

When militancy initially started in 1990 in the Valley, police were largely excluded from anti-insurgency operations, which were left to the BSF and Army. One of the reasons was the 1993 revolt by police after the killing of a policeman in Army custody. While the Army claimed that he was killed along with two militants in an operation, his colleagues said he was picked up while on duty and killed. Around a thousand policeman had stormed the police headquarters, seeking action against then SSP, Srinagar, Rajendra Kumar (who is incidentally the J&K DGP now), for failing to “prevent the policeman’s killing”.

The policemen had eventually surrendered, following an operation by the Army backed by artillery guns and armoured carriers, but police had consequently been sidelined in operations against militants. Now though, police, an essentially law and order force, are at the forefront of the counter-insurgency grid in the state.

A critically injured policeman in Maisooma A critically injured policeman in Maisooma.

There is another reason police are a target. In 1994, some police officers had volunteered to lead anti-militancy operations in the Valley and were formed the Special Operations Group (SOG). The special force came to acquire a notorious reputation for extra-judicial killings, extortion and torture, while achieving huge success against militants, and remained on their hit list. Policemen at police stations were usually not targeted by militants at the time.

In 2003, with militancy showing a steep decline, the SOG was disbanded by the government and assimilated into the general police force, making all of them a target.

Yet, the police force remains one of the largest employers in the Valley — though even that may change. While in the past, police didn’t advertise for jobs of special police officers, appointing them as per need without any proper physical tests, last month, police for the first time announced a recruitment drive for SPOs in the Valley. There was no mention of the number of openings, though Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and J&K Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti put the posts available at 10,000.

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Sources say that unlike in the past, where there would be hundreds of contenders for these jobs, the recruitment drive has received a lukewarm response, with the number of applications around the 9,920 mark, short of the numbers needed. Applications have been received from across Kashmir though, including 3,296 from the frontier district of Kupwara, 1,034 from Baramulla, 604 from Bandipore, and 357 from Srinagar. People have applied even from worst-hit south Kashmir, including 562 from Anantnag, 474 from Pulwama, 640 from Kulgam and 221 from Shopian.

The last date for submission of application forms has now been shifted from August 30 to September 6.

A top counter-insurgency officer who doesn’t want to be named says separatists and people feel that police stand between them and azadi. “Police as an institution have acted as a buffer, absorbing the shock. You know, before police were involved, anti-militancy operations were indiscriminate. We changed it and made them intelligence-driven,” says the district police chief, who joined the force more than 15 years ago. “This has reduced collateral damage. If we are sidelined, the collateral damage would increase, and that is their (the militants’) intention.”

The police officer also warns, “If they start targeting us, we would also start targeting them. It is tit for tat.”

A policeman hits back in Batamaloo A policeman hits back in Batamaloo.

SP Harmeet Singh, who has been named by protesters, however, is confident that the police force will survive these attacks on them. The 2001-batch officer, incidentally, belongs to Tral, the native town of Burhan Wani. “They want to demoralise the police, and that won’t work,” SP Singh says. “Police are a disciplined force and we believe we are doing right, in the larger interest of society.”

But as the deputy superintendent of police with the scared daughter says, they are no longer sure of that distinction. “I am not bothered about what the separatists say, but I have to answer my own conscience when somebody is killed,” he says. “Personally, I haven’t killed anybody, but I also know that people who have done wanton killings are my own fraternity. Tomorrow, I may have to extend legal protection to them. Then wouldn’t I be doing the same thing? Be a part of those killings?”

Repeating that the thought of resignation often crosses his mind, he adds that what stops him is that he would leave one side, and probably wouldn’t still be accepted by the other. “After some time, everyone would carry on with own lives. I could well become the next Ahad Jan.”

Ahad Jan was a policeman who rose to instant fame when he hurled a shoe at then chief minister Omar Abdullah during the 2010 street protests, in which 120 civilians were killed. Reinstated following intervention by Omar, the 61-year-old “hero cop” retired last year and is now fighting the case against him alone in court.

A policeman hanging around a Sopore shopfront, watching his colleagues chase protesters, voices the unsaid fear of his comrades in uniform. Asked why he wasn’t trying to quell what the government says are just 5 per cent of the people of Kashmir, the policeman who is in his 50s and a resident of Bandipore, that was under curfew for 50 days, sighs, “I don’t want to get entangled into this. There was a time when I would chase protesters too. But one day, I caught one of the protesters, removed his mask, and was stunned to see my son. I let him go.”

‘I told his colleagues not to come’

Mohammad Shafi Lone used to always worry about son Afroz Ahmad “wasting his time” playing cricket and football. Shafi was delighted when Afroz was selected as an SPO three years ago, after passing the basic physical test. Shafi works as a labourer, and Afroz’s job, he hoped, was their way out of poverty.

On July 10, Afroz, 24, became one of the two police officers killed in the protests in the Valley since the killing of Hizbul commander Burhan Wani. The other was Mudasir Ahmad, killed in Kulgam, when, according to police, militants hurled a grenade towards them.

Family of Afroz Ahmad, one of the two policemen killed in current unrest Family of Afroz Ahmad, one of the two policemen killed in current unrest

“Afroz was our only support,” a weeping Shafi says. “I don’t have any land to fall back on, I only had my son. Now it is only god.”

Shafi and wife Shameema also have two daughters, the younger of whom is doing a bachelor’s degree. An SPO is paid around Rs 3,000 a month.

There are conflicting versions on how the SPO was killed. While police say Afroz was killed when protesters pushed his vehicle into the Jhelum river at Sangram, villagers say his vehicle met with an accident.

The Lones are in the dark too. “We heard there was a procession, but we can’t say anything we don’t know of,” says a wary Shafi.

However, it is clear whom he would rather believe. After Afroz’s death, Shafi didn’t let police visit their house.

“Afroz was loved by every officer,” says the father. “They wanted to come and visit us, but, to be honest, I told them not to come. The situation was not good, and I didn’t want some other children to get killed.”