Policing the Border Inside: Kashmir

Much of the daily work of repressing rebellion in separatist-inclined Indian Kashmir is done by local Kashmiri policemen, rather than the Indian Army. As Kashmiris, their sympathies are often with the rebellious youth. Hardnews investigates the strange double lives of Kashmiri policemen on the Indian side of the Line of Control.

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 bears 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 abound in the media of Jammu and Kashmir Police personnel beating people, chasing protestors or firing tear gas, what the conflict has done to the everyday lives of Kashmiri policemen remains an underreported aspect of the Kashmir tangle.

“We are Kashmiris, and our hearts 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 beenposted 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.”

Widespread protests rocked the Kashmir over the last three years.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 into direct confrontation with the people in a region where pro-freedom sentiments run deep.

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

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

In his dimly lit office 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.”

At times, their family members accuse them of committing “excesses.” “Although it makes your heart ache, 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.

The cops shared that their children and other family members face public outrage; they could not join protests because of their relationships with the police officers. As a result, other Kashmiris often see them as collaborators.

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 were damaged or ransacked.

This was not all. When the agitation was at its peak, especially in 2010, policemen 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 in civilian clothes and carrying fake identity cards.

Apolice 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, the officer with a crew cut said, all he has been doing since thenis 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 oftenstruggle with nightmares. “Ever since eight-year-old Sameer Rah and another child, MuzaffarBhat, 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,” remarkeda police officer, who is also 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 the police allegedly chased him. “Incidents like these tormented me from inside. I would think long hours whether to carry on or give up,” the officer shared.

He said the police were demonized as an institution due to the nature of their work, and that if he could findan alternative jobhe 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 spoke 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 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 violations, 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 to the conflict.

Names of police personnel have been withheld on request.

Wasim Khalid