Kashmir: Estranged by their khakis

What is it like to be a policeman in Kashmir today? 

Wasim Khalid Srinagar 

He is at the forefront of confrontations in the volatile state of Kashmir. Be it a public protest demanding civic amenities, stone-hurling youth raising their voice for ‘freedom’, or militants engaging them in a gunfight, the policeman has to bear the brunt of it all. Dressed in khaki, automatic rifle slung from his shoulder, today the cop can also be seen carrying a cane and a shield, more often than earlier – thanks to a surge in unarmed mass protests. 

Even as images of Jammu and Kashmir Police personnel beating people, chasing protestors or firing tear gas canisters abound in the media and the public psyche, what the conflict has done to the everyday lives of Kashmiri policemen remains the least-talked-about aspect of the Kashmir tangle. 

“We are Kashmiris, and our heart may be with our people, but our hands are operated by the State,” a police officer in his mid-thirties said, explaining the dilemma he has to routinely face as part of his job. “As action against stone-throwers, protestors and militants is sanctioned by the State,” he added, “we have to go against them.” 

The officer has been posted in Batmaloo and the Old City – Srinagar’s volatile localities – for the last two years. His job involves taking action against ‘pro-freedom’ protestors and separatist leaders accused by authorities of ‘instigating the masses’. 

The last three years in Kashmir have been rocked by widespread protests. Many saw the 2010 protests as an ‘intifada-like uprising’. Mostly trained to confront gun-wielding militants, the police now have to deal with a shift in focus from counterinsurgency operations to maintaining ‘law and order’. This has brought them in direct confrontation with the people in a region where ‘pro-freedom’ sentiment runs deep. 

According to a local human rights group, The Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, an estimated 187 unarmed people, mostly young men, were killed in police action in the last three years (2008-10). More than 8,000 people were injured. 

Despite the tough nature of a cop’s job in Kashmir, beneath the khaki uniform there beats the heart of a human being – and a Kashmiri. He, too, has a viewpoint on the conflict, on his role, on his conflicting identity. He suffers, mourns and introspects in silence. 

In his dimly lit office in a police station in downtown Srinagar, a police inspector confided, “I was in a dilemma. As a Kashmiri, it’s difficult for me to fight against Kashmiri protestors.” The officer expressed his helplessness in dealing with problems arising from State policy, though sometimes the policy itself may not be morally justified. 

“For instance,” he explained, “the State wants an individual to remain inside a lock-up just because he is regarded as a threat to security. Even if he has not committed any crime, we have to concoct charges to put him behind bars.” 

Militant activities have been on a decline in Kashmir, but since 2008 the police have had to face a bigger challenge, for which they are ill-equipped. “Earlier there was militancy. But now it’s on a decline. The real challenge comes from unarmed protestors. We don’t want to beat them and have to take precautions to prevent killings,” said a soft-spoken police officer, who is a Kashmiri Pandit. However, confrontations with unarmed protestors have often turned bloody, leading to a spiral of protests.

The policeman, too, has a viewpoint on the conflict, on his role, on his conflicting identity. He suffers, mourns and introspects in silence

A 39-year-old sub-inspector, sitting at a polished wooden table piled with files in a police building in uptown Srinagar, did not hesitate to admit that it is easier to fight an armed insurgent than to face children and youth. “Before acting, we have to think a hundred times. Panic has sometimes forced the police to fire straight into crowds of protestors. It happened because they were not trained to deal with such a situation,” the officer said. 

Due to their continuous face-off with the people, the police have only attracted public outrage. A tall, brown-eyed 34-year-old officer who served in Kashmir’s Pattan area, which witnessed around 10 killings last summer, said they are in the line of fire. 

“The khaki uniform represents our occupation. They throw stones at us to register their protest as if we are the only symbols of the State around. We are seen as stooges of the Indian government, the tools of its oppression, and ostracized from Kashmiri society,” he fumed, adding that irrespective of his position, a policeman is often regarded as a ‘traitor’ in Kashmir. 

His friend, a 42-year-old deputy superintendent of police, said the policeman remains almost an outcast figure in Kashmiri society. “Nobody trusts us. We are not regarded as Kashmiris. They always suspect us while talking or sharing experiences with us in social gatherings. We have been isolated in the society for being policemen,” he explained. 

Many of the policemen who spoke with this reporter blame the State for their tarnished image among the people. In a region ridden not just with conflict, but also with corrupt and inefficient public administration, the cops are burdened with being the State’s panacea for all ills. “In Kashmir the police make things run. Leave aside pro-freedom protests, we are ordered to use force even against people demanding better healthcare, or residents demanding electricity and better roads,” the officer said before immersing himself in a thoughtful silence. 

Moreover, working long hours under stressful conditions, the policemen have little time to see their families. And whatever little time they have, they prefer not to talk much about their day’s experience. A superintendent of police in south Kashmir’s Anantnag area said that whenever he is with his family, although he can be seen cracking jokes with his wife or playing with his kids, he is actually introspecting deep in the heart about gory events. 

“It always upsets me,” the 45-year-old officer said. He took a long pause before adding“And then I reminisce about the hangman of Carl Sandburg’s poem, The Hangman at Home (What does the hangman think about / When he goes home at night from work?).” 

At times their family members accuse them of committing ‘excesses’. “Although it makes your heart burn, they are not to be blamed. They are Kashmiris, after all, and share the political sentiment of the majority. You can’t help it,” the officer admitted.

 

Sometimes the family members, too, have to face public outrage. The cops shared that as their children and other family members could not join the protests because of their jobs, they were seen as collaborators by other Kashmiris. 

Indeed, to be a policeman in Kashmir clearly means putting one’s personal security at risk. “Behind our backs, they are after our blood. They are not our companions. They don’t talk to us,” rued a cop deployed in north Kashmir’s Baramulla district. 

According to police, from June to October 2010, 2,844 policemen were injured in clashes with stone-throwing youth. Nine police stations and 24 police posts were ransacked, damaged or set ablaze by protestors demanding ‘freedom from Indian rule’. Seventeen police vehicles were also set on fire. Records reveal that 26 houses belonging to policemen were burnt down, and eight of their personal vehicles damaged or ransacked. 

This was not all. When the agitation was at its peak, especially in 2010, policeman could not travel alone for fear of being beaten up by the crowds. Those who took the risk to go home on their own made sure to hide their identity by dressing like a civilian and carrying fake identity cards. 

A police officer serving in north Kashmir’s militancy-ridden Sopore region said that when he joined the force in early 2008, his aim was to fight social crimes. Instead, all he has been doing since then, said the officer with a crew cut, is confronting ‘pro-freedom’ crowds and fighting against militants. Police records reveal that more than 1,503 cops were killed in the last 20 years of insurgency, and more than 16,010 sustained injuries. 

Besides the danger of death and injury, cops in Kashmir often have to struggle with nightmares. “Ever since eight-year-old Sameer Rah and another child, Muzaffar Bhat, died, I have been having nightmares every night. I see them before my eyes,” a 30-year-old officer told this reporter in Srinagar. 

‘The real challenge comes from unarmed protestors. We don’t want to beat them and have to take precautions to prevent killings,’ said a police officer, who is a Kashmiri Pandit

Both incidents occurred during the 2010 mass uprising. Rah was allegedly beaten to death by CRPF personnel, and Muzaffar died by drowning after he jumped into a stream while he was allegedly being chased by the police. “Incidents like these tormented me from inside. I would think long hours whether to carry on or to give up,” the officer shared. 

He said the police was demonized as an institution due to the nature of work, and that if he finds an alternative job, he would leave. “I do not adhere to any particular ideology. I am not here with conviction. I am a cop so that I can sustain myself and my family,” he explained. He did admit that there are others who join the police out of conviction, but many end up revisiting their “ideological beliefs”. 

Most of the policemen this reporter talked to said they joined the force to find employment. More than 5,97,000 youth are registered as unemployed in Jammu and Kashmir. Being a conflict-ridden region, there is always an acute shortage of job vacancies in the private sector in Kashmir. Moreover, people still prefer to work for the government sector because of the long-term job security it offers. 

Records at the police headquarters reveal that more than 5,000 youth were recruited in 2009 and 2010 by raising five battalions of Indian Reserve Police (IRP). The police department has requisitioned the formation of 10 more IRP battalions, which is awaiting approval. 

‘Panic has sometimes forced the police to fire straight into crowds of protestors. It happened because they were not trained to deal with such a situation,’ said a police officer

There is little chance that the confrontational role of the police in the region will end as long as the political conflict lingers on. Rather, the role of the police in the conflict will increase as calls for demilitarization and scrapping laws like Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which gives immunity to personnel of the Indian army in cases of human rights violation, gain momentum. 

“With greater responsibility coming to us, the friction with the public will also be more,” said a 42-year-old deputy superintendent of police. He was standing near Bakshi Stadium in Srinagar to oversee security arrangements for the Republic Day function. “India is strong economically and emerging as a soft power, so it is not difficult for the army to hold this territory militarily. It is highly unlikely that the conflict will end soon,” he added. In fact, most of the policemen who talked to this reporter seemed to share this pessimism about any early resolution of the conflict.      

Names of police personnel have been withheld on request.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2012