Catch-22: Targeted attacks on cops in Srinagar could be part of larger strategy

The attacks against three policemen in Srinagar need to be carefully analyzed. There are tell-tale signs that a carrot and stick strategy might be subtly coming into play to weaken the morale of the Jammu and Kashmir police force — if not a large-scale gameplan to try and neutralize the force.

If the killings constitute a hard-knuckled warning, a recent ground-level discourse in the Valley about ‘our’ policemen could comprise the carrot part of the strategy. Such talk might have been deliberately spread to try and pose a choice for policemen to stand for or against Kashmiris. The discourse held that, ‘in their hearts, Kashmiri policemen feel the pain of common Kashmiris.’

Special Operation Group of Jammu and Kashmir Police Personnel. PTI

Personnel of the Jammu and Kashmir police force. PTI

It is pointed out as part of that discourse, most members of the counter-insurgency Special Operations Groups (SOG) are ethnic Gujjars or Pahadis – although this preponderance has gradually been less true over the past decade and more – and that ethnic Kashmiris are sympathetic to the freedom movement.

Pertinently, the Hizb-ul Mujahideen statement that claimed responsibility for the recent killings stated that the policemen who were on traffic detail had earlier been part of the SOG.

Perhaps no less pertinent is the fact that this was hotly contested by the deceased policemen’s families – a tacit acknowledgement that killing SOG members might be defensible in their eyes. Indeed, the SOG has been in the forefront of the counter-insurgent war, and their methods have often been unpalatable.

To lower the morale of a local police force can be a key strategy near the start of a new, high-intensity phase of militancy. The local police was barely functional for three or four years from 1990, when the previous phase of high-intensity militancy got going. There was even a police revolt, during which the JKP was disarmed. It was only after 1995 that the police force came back into its own. The SOG modules were at the cutting edge.

A militant campaign to target serving and retired police men and officers now could take a heavy toll on morale. There is a danger that this could cause a spiraling cycle of revenge killings, which could cause panic after a point.

Another danger is that continued targeting of policemen would lead to far heavier arming of the police force, including those on traffic duty. This too could lead to problems, in light of the experience of uncoordinated, badly aimed firing on an almost daily basis during the summer of 2010 – often in contravention of Standard Operating Procedures (SOP). Already, we have seen a sad breach of SOPs by even some (arguably much better trained) Army personnel during April.

The high-profile controversies over differentiation between local and ‘outsider’ students at the National Institute of Technology in Srinagar (last month) and over proposals to rehabilitate Kashmiri Pandits and to settle retired Army personnel in the Valley could give opportunities to increase insider-outsider stress in the ranks of the police force – and thus contribute to lowering morale.

It was widespread public anger over the perception that land transfer to the Sri Amarnath Shrine Board in 2008 was meant to allow ‘outsiders’ to own land in the Valley that set off the unsavoury events that have snowballed into a new militancy. It would be foolhardy to ignore the deeply-felt sentiments, which border on paranoia, around Kashmir’s sense of ethnic exclusivity.

Not only the members of the police force, a wide range of officials and politicians in the Valley shared the anger and distress that animated the 2008 agitations. Not the least among these were leaders and cadres of the now-ruling People’s Democratic Party. Resettlement of retired Army personnel has similar potential. It could become a Catch-22 even for those in the establishment.

On the other hand, it could energize anti-state activists more than most issues – particularly if it is presented as an assault on Islamic identity. Already, almost simultaneously with the killing of the three policemen, the three main rival leaders of Kashmir’s separatist struggle – Mirwaiz Umar, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, and Yasin Malik – agreed to work together to counter such ‘anti-Kashmir’ moves. It is worth noting that Pakistan has been trying for some time to bring them together but its efforts have hitherto faltered.

It would be important for its own sake to take steps to ease the insider-outsider animosities that have been increasing in the Valley. It is even more critically urgent in light of the rising tide of militancy.

Updated Date: May 26, 2016 18:00 PM

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