By Safeena Wani:
When headed home, Kashmiri men working with the police ditch their khaki uniform and put on the garb of a tailor, a gardener or a mason. The department has assigned them these new identities. Not for an undercover operation to identify and nab troublemakers. It’s a guise so that they can’t be identified and nabbed. It’s unsafe for a family if word goes out that one of them works with the police.
The people of the violence-hit state have been up in arms against central government-controlled armed forces like the army, the BSF or the CRPF for a long time. Of late, their anger has spilt out on their own brethren who are a part of the Jammu & Kashmir police force, that has a total strength of 74,913 in 224 police stations. These policemen are no longer seen as Kashmiris. Rather, they are now identified with the Indian government, which, for the Kashmiris, is an occupational regime.
On April 14 and 15, suspected militants barged into the houses of seven policemen in three villages (Hajipora, Landoora, Chotigam) of Shopian district in south Kashmir. In two cases, the policemen were at home; they were asked to announce their resignation, tender an apology and raise pro-azaadi (secession from India) slogans from the public address system of the local mosques. In central Kashmir’s Chadoora, a police official’s car was set afire in March.
These happen to be two of the many such incidents that have happened in south Kashmir in the last year. Militants have ransacked the houses of many policemen and warned them to quit the police. Consequently, J&K Director General of Police SP Vaid has advised policemen to avoid visiting their homes for the time being.
The latest incident, and the most high-profile one, transpired on May 10 when three militants abducted and killed a young Kashmiri army officer in Shopian district. The assassination of Lieutenant Ummer Fayaz, 22, who hailed from Kulgam district, sparked an outrage. So much so that police recruitment drives in south Kashmir reportedly saw an “overwhelming response”, with 3,000-odd Kashmiris showing up to join the force.
The killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani at the hands of Indian security forces on July 8 last year is believed to have triggered the outburst against the police. In his last video message, Wani had warned the police to refrain from anti-militancy operations. The outpour of public anger that followed his encounter put police on the militants’ radar.
The day after his encounter, rampaging locals in south Kashmir destroyed scores of police camps. In Bijbehara’s Hassanpora, protesters set fire to a police camp of the Special Operations Group. Even the homes of some Special Police Officers (SPOs) were set on fire. The raging flames gutting a police officer’s home in Gopalpora signified the people’s rage, which now saw the state police as no different from the spiteful army it used to hate.
Former engineer and Wani’s successor, Zakir Musa, is seeing to it that this negative perception of the police doesn’t remain just a passing outburst. In the past year, he has issued multiple videos, taking forward Wani’s approach of warning police to stop pursuing the militants.
The gravity of disapproval of the police can be gauged by the antics of an elderly man who, after Friday’s congregational prayer last summer, rose to tender a public apology for the ‘violent conduct’ of his son, a policeman who was involved in an operation in Kulgam. Separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s diatribe against an assistant sub-inspector for shooting protesters in Anantnag with pellets instilled such fear into his family that they fled their Bemina residence and met Geelani at his house in Hyderpora to apologise. Geelani refused to even meet them.
The angry lot has warned senior police officials through graffiti. In restive Sopore, the police chief Harmeet Singh was threatened through graffiti. Another piece of graffiti, in Srinagar, targeted deputy superintendent of police Yasir Qadri for his alleged involvement in the murder of a youth in Batamaloo.
On phone, Yasir said there was evidence to prove his innocence, adding that the case was awaiting the autopsy report. Nonetheless, he has had to go into hiding. When this reporter visited his Srinagar home, a young man opened the door and slammed the door shut without saying a word when asked about the police officer or his phone number.
Their neighbour Naseem Bagh said the family has left the house after the Batamaloo killing. He said only their son lives in the house sometimes. “They whitewashed the wall to cover up a graffiti that said, ‘Yasir, the murderer’,” he said.
The aftermath of Wani’s encounter is not the only reason people are against the police. Fancy, a middle-aged woman who sells fish on Srinagar’s famous Foreshore Road, described how, last year, the police would ask vegetable vendors and fish sellers like her who do their business on a stretch of the road to come every day. She said the police wanted their presence so that the locals would desist from pelting stones in their direction.
She said that through the day, local boys would hurl stones at the policemen and after the sun set, policemen would knock down doors and beat up the youth after ransacking their homes. According to her, it was police’s heavy-handedness against a fruit seller, his family’s lone breadwinner, that turned people against the department.
She alleged that a Deputy Superintendent (DySP) arrested the fruit seller, beat him up and seized his three-wheeler. For weeks, his family couldn’t see him and upon visiting the police station, they would be told that he’s not in police custody. Fancy said it was only after the locals threatened to torch the police station that the DySP conceded that the fruit seller in Koth Bilawal jail in Jammu.
Khursheed Ahmad, 31, who was posted as an SPO at Bijbehara police station in 2008 accepted that the locals are hostile towards the police. “Police is actually the government,” he said. “When they hate the government, they hate us too, naturally.” Like his colleagues, he too visited his home last year with an alternative identity.
Amid mounting hostilities, two policemen in north Kashmir’s Rafiabad had publicly announced their resignation last year. However, the state’s one-lakh-strong police force hasn’t seen any noticeable decline in its rank and file.
The police rank and file has dismissed the phenomenon as a ‘passing outburst’ triggered by the encounter of a ‘darling militant’. However, hostilities against police continue to prevail. A senior officer explained the public anger: “Burhan managed to coalesce the anger in Kashmiris against the police and other security forces. So, it was natural for the people to behave the way they did.”
As the valley continues to simmer, members of J&K police force find themselves caught between the aspirations of the people and the demands of the profession.
Safeena Wani is a Srinagar-based independent journalist and a member of 101reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.
Images: Paula Bronstein/Staff/Getty Images