The governments in New Delhi and Srinagar need to be watchful to ensure that police extortion is nipped in the bud whenever it raises its ugly head in the current disturbed conditions in Kashmir. It is an extremely subversive possibility, for the anger and resentment it causes among young people can spur fresh eruptions of stone-pelting and other kinds of disruptive demonstrations.
Conversations with a range of political activists, lawyers, journalists and others in some of the more remote parts of the Kashmir Valley indicate that some elements in the police are extorting money from those whom they suspect or accuse of pelting stones. The rate, according to grassroots activists, has gone up to Rs 30,000.
From 2010 and up to the early months of 2011, those suspected or accused of pelting stones during the summer of 2010 were often rounded up and taken to police stations. In several cases, boys who had had nothing to do with pelting stones were also rounded up and accused of 'pelting' — for no better reason that a police official did not like his manner or attitude.
A common pattern of which people speak is that boys were beaten, humiliated and brutalised for a few days, until their parents paid money to have them released; Rs 20,000 was said to be the typical figure. Fearing retribution, people who talk of this trend insist that they must not be named.
Generally, the police threatened those whom they rounded up with the draconian Public Safety Act, which Sheikh Abdullah had put onto the state statute to replace the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) in 1977. It provides for preventive detention for two years without legal process.
The media, politicians and activists in Delhi had roundly condemned the act at the time; Home Minister Charan Singh was forced to state that the Centre had not been consulted. However, Abdullah went ahead and converted the ordinance into law amid pandemonium in the assembly.
Few of the boys were actually booked under this black law, but a large number were brutalised in police stations that winter. Some were sodomised. Extortion was widespread.
A former supreme commander of a major militant group, who generally keeps his ear to the ground, makes a startling revelation in an off-the-record conversation. He says that militant commander Burhan Wani, over whose death in a police encounter on 8 July the Valley has been in ferment, had helped pay for the release of several of the boys that winter.
That sounds far-fetched, for Burhan had only become a militant in October 2010. He would have been very junior in the militant ranks. However, given the young man’s undisputed dynamism, it is possible that he claimed some money from Hurriyat leaders and sent those sums for the release of those whose parents could not pay the demanded amounts.
Whether that is true or not, there can be little doubt that round of brutalisation-cum-extortion generated much of the resentment into which Burhan tapped to motivate young men to join his ranks. Apart from that season of extortion, police corruption and cynical unresponsiveness in the normal course are a major cause of youth alienation in Kashmir.
Police corruption and extortion are common across the country, and in many other countries too. However, there are few places where they have such a destabilising impact as in Kashmir. It is anti-national in a far more immediate and costly way than it is elsewhere.
Omar Abdullah, who was the chief minister of the state in 2010, did not see this danger. When I brought the trend, and the inherent dangers, to his notice in September 2011, he was dismissive. The police had booked very few boys under PSA, he said.
As for Kashmiri boys, they used to throw stones in the 1980s, said he, they had simply gone back to it after a phase of gun-wielding militancy. He seemed sublimely unconcerned about the possibility that stones could lead back to guns - as they have, and will further.
Current chief minister Mehbooba Mufti no doubt knows what happened that winter. It happened a lot in Anantnag, which she now represents in the assembly, and she had kept touch with the ground situation at the time.
She would be well advised to ensure that laws are implemented with due process. Allowing the maintenance of order to become an instrument of extortion could pave the way for much more trouble for her government, which still has four years to rule, and for her political reputation.