“Until now, we have taken a soft policy against policemen,” remarked Riyaz Naikoo, the chief of Kashmir’s largest separatist militant outfit, the Hizbul Mujahideen, in a video circulated days before three Special Police Officers (SPOs) were abducted and killed in south Kashmir on 21 September. “But this soft policy has repeatedly given us negative results. Now, we have to take big steps.”
In the nearly 11-minute-long video circulated on WhatsApp, Naikoo said the Indian government, following the 2016 unrest, has been offering various incentives to Kashmiri youth to induct them as SPOs. “We have no sympathies with them,” he said, calling these young men, mostly from poor families, as “silent killers” of the separatist movement.
Faced with backlash from the State, the militants have turned to carrying out low-risk attacks on security personnel on leave at their homes, particularly the lower rung personnel of the Jammu and Kashmir Police, in a bid to destabilise the vital force. Only last month, nearly a dozen policemen and their relatives were abducted in retaliation to detention of militants’ families. They were released unharmed but with a stern warning: We don't have jails to imprison you, only bullets.
Police at the forefront
The Jammu and Kashmir Police has consistently been the only working organ of the state government—for the most part—when State machinery is paralysed during times of turmoil. In a state marred with poor administration and unpopular legislators afraid of visiting their own homes, much less their constituencies, the police is also the only visible form of government and acts as a buffer between an angry people and an administration perceived as inaccessible if not ineffective, and corrupt.
The police continues to bear the brunt of the public anger and in recent years, has become the prime focus of the separatists’ ire, both verbally and physically. Much of it is rooted in the handling of the 2016 unrest in the wake of Hizbul commander Burhan Wani’s killing. The widespread use of pellet guns and the chaos that followed gave rise to exaggerated reports of the damage caused. Two years on, the plight of these pellet victims and the government’s failure to rehabilitate them serves as a constant tool in the hands of separatists to highlight the State’s "oppression".
Since 2016, public's perception of the police has drastically changed. It is being seen largely as a counterinsurgency force with a single motive: To crush the militancy. On its part, the state police has played a vital role in counterinsurgency. There is a consensus in the security establishment—and also the general public—that most intelligence inputs for counterinsurgency operations are generated by the police. This is also a recurring motif of the militant propaganda that is aimed at justifying these killings and subverting the police’s writ. The separatists have achieved great success on this front.
Since the turmoil began in the late 1980s, its proponents have argued it to be a political conflict in nature. However, its religious currents—which were always visible—remained limited. Though the killing of policemen, targetted or otherwise, is not new to the Valley, today, militants have repeatedly termed serving in the police force as "un-Islamic". Corresponding with a growing acceptance of extreme interpretations of Islam, particularly among the youth, who now consider members of the police force as infidels serving a taghooti nizam (secular government), the killings have received a new social sanctity.
Militants under pressure
The security establishment stepped up the ante in late 2016. Within a year, many top militants had been eliminated. By mid-2018, the militancy had lost most of its known figures. The Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed’s top leadership, too, was decimated early this year. Security officials are of the opinion that this led to a growing pressure on the militants to show their presence, just as it did in the wake of Wani’s killing.
Consisting largely of local recruits, unable to receive proper arms training and faced with a weapons crunch, militants have found a low risk but maximum results strategy in targetting off-duty security personnel based in the Valley. “The militants also 'report to someone' and needed to show results,” said a senior police official. “It is not easy to target an on duty army soldier. It is much easier to kill an unarmed local policeman. It spreads terror locally.” Whether or not these men play a role in counterinsurgency, their killings receive similar media attention and the message is put across effectively.
In the aftermath of several bouts of attacks against the police, each time a few policemen have tendered their resignations. However, senior police officials said this may not be enough to shake the force. Besides, the Jammu and Kashmir Police, as per estimates of its officials, is about one lakh strong. In the past, sarpanches have resorted to symbolic resignations in the face of militant threats, only to resume political activities after the State achieved some success in pushing back the militancy.
However, even as the levels of violence remain lower than the late 1990s and early 2000s, police officials said “frustration” runs high among the militants. Moreover, such killings are a “routine matter”, the senior police official said, albeit “on a much larger scale”. The police official dismissed the spate of attacks as inconsequential in the long run.
In 1999, he added, within the span of one hour, six policemen were killed on a busy stretch of Srinagar, from Residency Road till Jahangir Chowk, where the Assembly and the civil secretariat are located. At some point in the early 2000s, perhaps 2002, he added, 40 policemen were killed in Srinagar district alone.
The police force has withstood such threats in the past, and it is very likely that it may still withstand the pressure despite the changing dynamics. The bulk of the police force, after all, consists of local Kashmiris.
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Updated Date: Sep 22, 2018 00:01:35 IST