As the Toll Mounts, Local Resentment Against Kashmiri Policemen Grows

A sense of anger and frustration is brewing among the people of Kashmir. Many hold those serving in the Jammu and Kashmir police responsible for the deaths of civilians in the valley. Danish Ismail/ REUTERS
19 July, 2016

On 15 July 2016, a contingent comprising members of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the Jammu and Kashmir Police (JKP), stood beneath the Bagh-e-Mehtab bridge, which is on the national highway, and connects areas on the peripheries of Srinagar to the city. We encountered these men at Chanapora, a suburb of Srinagar, while they stood at the foot of the bridge and restricted public movement across it. During the course of the past week, Kashmir has witnessed violent and sustained protests over the killing of the Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani. As of today morning, 47 Kashmiris had died, and over 2,000 people had been injured. Hospitals in Kashmir have declared a state of medical emergency. That morning, the state government had announced that the valley would be placed under a curfew. The security officials near the bridge were determinedly executing these orders.

The civilians at Chanapora did not venture near these men; they either took detours or avoided stepping out of their homes altogether. While we were there, we found a constable sitting on the stairs that lead to the top of the bridge. He waved a baton at us as we approached him, indicating that he wanted us to turn back. After we made several attempts to initiate a conversation, the constable finally agreed to speak to us, albeit anonymously.

The constable said he hailed from Trehgam—a village in Kupwara district, located in north Kashmir—and had been deployed at Chanapora for the past six days. He was a 42-year-old man, tall and heavily built; his voice was coarse and befitted his appearance. The CRPF men deployed there asked us to leave immediately, but he managed to appease them and salvage the situation.

The constable told us that he did his job honestly and prided himself for it. “A few dozen boys throw stones at us here every day, and that terrifies the entire area here. If we do not stop them, they will go on vandalising everything in a frenzy,” he said.

According to him, the protestors in the region were demanding a right they were already in possession of: freedom.

“Are not they free enough to come out on the roads and throw stones at us?” he asked us, as he explained the rationale behind his stance, before adding that he believed Kashmir belonged to India.

A sense of anger and frustration is brewing among the people of Kashmir. Many hold those serving in the Jammu and Kashmir police responsible for the deaths of civilians in the valley. Their anger is fueled by the lack of mercy they believe the policemen—most of whom are Kashmiris themselves—have displayed in dealing with protestors.

Last week, in a joint statement released on 12 January, separatist leaders such as Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Mohammad Yasin Malik, criticised the police for their role in committing atrocities against the people in the region. They said that the policemen, “a part and parcel of the Kashmiri nation and society,” had become, “an instrument of repression at the hands of Indian authorities in killing and injuring their own children and young men.” In their statement, the leaders also insinuated that many people in Kashmir were in favour of ostracising the policemen. The statement noted, “People are so angry and disillusioned” with the policemen “that they are asking the leadership to excommunicate them and socially boycott them.”

Among the people of Kashmir, the harshest judgment appears to have been reserved for those who are a part of the Special Operation Group (SOG), the counter-insurgency wing of the state police. The members of the SOG have earned themselves an infamous reputation for their brutal approach towards protestors, and for their role in killing militants in the valley, including Burhan Wani.

This atmosphere of distrust is only exacerbated by the presence of more than 23,000 special police officers—local youth recruited to assist the police—in the region. Earlier this month, the state government reportedly announced that these special police officers would be inducted as regular employees into the police, based on—among other things—their “counter insurgency performance.” Kashmir Life, a weekly magazine, reported on 2 July 2016, that this announcement is consistent with the government policy that was formulated in 2009. This criterion puts a high amount of pressure on these officers, pitting them, in some cases, directly against locals from the region.

The safety of these security officials remains a matter of concern. On 13 July, for instance, youths in Yaripora, a village in Kulgam district, set fire to the house of Gowhar Ahmad, a man who works with the SOG, whom they accused of having committed atrocities against civilians.

The constable at Chanapora told us that it was important for people in the region to devise peaceful methods of protesting. “Stone pelting won’t fetch anything. We are compelled to fire on them when they try to assault us,” he said. He seemed to believe that the on-going protests would fizzle out in a few weeks and that life in the valley would return to “normalcy” soon. “This is not happening for the first time, is it? You will see normalcy in August or even before that, mark my words,” he said, confidently.

As he was telling us this, another police constable, a man in his early thirties, joined us on the stairs. He told us that he lived in Rajpora, a village in Pulwama, a district in south Kashmir—where many people support the militants and their call for the freedom of Kashmir. We asked him if he was happy with his job. “This is not about being happy with a job,” he replied, “but sustaining a family.”

For this policeman, his work was not a matter of choice but a decision made out of compulsion. He told us that he was the only earning member in his family of six. “If I don’t do this, my family will starve back home,” he said. He added that he also wanted Kashmir to be freed, but without guns and stones. Echoing the 42-year-old constable, he said, “My job is to control the protestors and when they throw stones at us to kill us, what options are we left with but to fire at them? If they demand freedom peacefully, we will not touch them.”

The policeman told us that it has been less than a year since he joined the Jammu and Kashmir police. Worried about the safety of his family, he has kept his profession a secret, and has told his neighbours and relatives that he works as a salesman in Srinagar. “If they come to know I am a policeman, they will burn my house,” he said.

A little over five kilometres from Chanapora, near the Bone and Joints Hospital in Barzulla, an uptown locality near Srinagar, a group of policemen manned the roads that lead to the airport. A few of them sat on the edge of a footpath. One of them, an Assistant Sub-inspector (ASI), told us that he hailed from Kulgam—a district in south Kashmir where many protestors have died, and several more have been injured.

The ASI said that last week, after protests erupted across Kashmir, he brought his family from Kulgam to a relative’s house in Srinagar. He told us that he did so because he was sure that the protestors would burn his house and harm his family, since everyone in the area knew that he was a policeman. “It is taboo to be a policeman in Kashmir. We are Kashmiris first and then policemen, but our own people have turned against us,” he told us, before continuing, “Their enemy is India, not us. They should understand this.”

Crowd control, the ASI told us, was a part of a policeman’s job. Their actions were not motivated by spite against the public, he added. “If we do not stop these boys, these CRPF men will kill them. We are only mitigating the harm,” he said. Like the constable, he seemed to believe that the current protests would be short-lived. “Come August, you will see all these boys picnicking in Pahalgam and Gulmarg,” he said, pointing to a group of young men who stood far away.

Responding to the separatist leaders who have urged policemen in the region to refrain from using force against their own people, the ASI argued that the leaders were not aware of the ground reality. “They should rather appeal to the youth to not pelt stones on their own people. That can save both the sides and no one will be forced to open fire and no one will be killed,” he said.

Since 9 July, more than 90 people have been admitted to hospitals at Srinagar with eye injuries that were caused by the indiscriminate use of pellet guns by the security forces. The doctors at these hospitals have said that most of these patients might lose their eyesight. The use of pellet guns, unprovoked beating and harassment of those on the streets, and attacks on ambulances and hospitals have further alienated the policemen from locals in the region.

A 20-year-old protestor in Bhag-e-Mehtab, a locality in uptown Srinagar, said that he had seen videos of policemen inflicting violence upon patients and their attendants in hospitals and ambulances, on Facebook. “They are Kashmiris too, but they have become renegades. They kill their own people. They are our first enemies,” he said.

In Qamarwari Chowk at Srinagar—an area that is particularly volatile at the moment— we met an SOG official who hails from Rafiabad, located in Baramulla district in north Kashmir. He took us near a shop, away from the other policemen the CRPF personnel, before he started speaking to us. He told us that he knew the protests were justified, that Burhan Wani was a rebel, and that he identified with Burhan’s cause. While he mourned the deaths of the young men who had been killed, he said that it was his job to deal with the protests. The SOG official told us that he has not been part of a gun battle so far. If he were ordered to enter one, he said, he would have no option but to obey.

The number of people who have died and are injured because of the clashes between the protestors and the security forces continues to increase every day. All communication channels, including newspapers, have been banned in the valley, and strict restrictions are being imposed on the movement of people. The stories that escape the curfew these days are disturbing; they speak of brutalities committed by the police and the CRPF. In such a situation, the policemen are caught in a conflict between their livelihoods and their position in society. They have become, as the 20-year-old protestor at Bagh-e-Mehtab called them, the “first enemies.”