The metamorphic of Jammu and Kashmir Police from a law-enforcing agency to a counter-insurgency force coupled with the recent killings of policemen at the hand of militants may suit the State apparatus as it pitches Kashmiris against each other, but in the long run, it is the defeat of the State

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In the afternoon of  8th of June, 2016 young Hizb Commander and poster boy of the “new wave of militancy” Burhan Wani, issues a warning to state police personnel not to fight against militants and simultaneously asked people to identify all the elements who are hand in glove with state police in any such operation. Exactly a month later, on 8th of July, late afternoon, the state police obliges by eliminating him in a brief encounter along with two of his associates.

While the wing of J&K Police who carried away this clandestine operation may be all euphoric and busy distributing the bounty that young Burhan carried on his head, little do they realize they have bred more hatred among the common masses that incidentally comprises of their close aides, well-wishers, friends, and relatives. However, the problem with euphoria is that it is always short lived.

Prior to Burhan’s statement last month, many people had taken to social media condemning killings of the policemen.  Although all of them earned public sympathies—at least from certain sections of society but the death of Burhan has changed the situation on the ground. Many people believe that young HM commander had never received any special arms training or otherwise, he could have been easily arrested but that was not to be. The very statement that encounter lasted for some 50-55 minutes speaks volumes about the combatant expertise of young man.

He is not the first militant to be killed by the state police and may not be the last one but the incident has set the ball rolling and who knows where it will stop.

On 23rd May 2016, at his father’s funeral, Ishfaq Nazir, 25, son of head Constable Nazir Ahmad Mir asked militants to give him one reason why his father was killed. He was innocent and pro-people, he told local news agency CNS. While Burhan’s message somehow answered his question, however, the big question remains why are policemen becoming a target of militants, despite the fact that majority of them are not working as counterinsurgents.

Anti-militancy activities and the atrocities did on people by police is seen as the reason for these attacks—be it in Tral, native place of Burhan or in Karim Abad, the native village of former policemen turned militant and close aid of Burhan  Naseer Pandith.

Naseer Pandith was killed in an encounter with government forces. His funeral was attended by more than one hundred thousand people. The slain ex-cop’s father believes that the attacks on policemen are justified because they have been committing atrocities. His argument was supported by a local teacher, who said, that he has been used as human shield by police when later were searching for militants in his native village. However, when asked what was Naseer’s take on this, as he was himself a policeman. He said Naseer had sympathy for policemen. Ipso facto he becomes militant after being subjected to torture by a head constable in Pulwama Police Station while fighting a case against drug mafia, who according to him were working in league with police. After his release, he headed to Srinagar instead of going home. Naseer decamped with service rifle to join militant ranks. There are many good policemen who had sympathy with Naseer and who are not committing atrocities, but there are others who fight militancy. It is due to the latter, that former are bearing the brunt. Militants have no choice but to target them, he added.”

While Naseer Pandith was a cop and could have been a target of militants just as so many have become of late. But then all the policemen on streets were not a target of militants. Naseer was not the first one to become militant. Since 2010, seven cops have joined militant ranks in Jammu and Kashmir, the government said on 21st June 2016. While three of them including Naseer have been killed in encounters, three more have been detained and one is still at large.Prominent among them is Abdul Rashid Shigan a police officer, who according to his department was involved in many high-profile killings. He was alleged to have played a role in target killings and most of his targets were politicians from mainstream parties, policemen worked against militancy and suspected informers etc.

Former Governor of J&K S. K Sinha in a speech at Aligarh, in 2012 went to the extent that half of the police force was sympathizers of militants. Interestingly, this belief is prevalent among a larger section. More than 100 police personals are facing charges. In the intervening period from 1990 to 1993, hundreds of policemen went on strike against the state for giving a free hand to the military. And this is also the fact that post-1990, many joined police forces to save themselves from the wrath of military crackdowns—siege and identification parade to flush out militants.

Since when did police become a target of militants?

Police as a counterinsurgency force came into existence when STF (Special Task Force) was formalized in 1996, though a special cell of police was actively involved in the anti-militancy operations even prior to it. The force consisted of police officials who volunteered to work, especially people from Jammu, parts of Poonch, and some surrendered militants— locally known as Ikhwanis.

Since the days of its inception, STF was accused of killing, raping, torturing innocents and creating a wave of fear among the masses. The atrocities committed by the special force were reported by local, national and international media. Even Amnesty International filed a report on the miserable condition of prisoners who were subjected to third-degree torture inside cargo—one of the infamous interrogation centers in Srinagar. People still get goose bumps while passing by this centre.

When Mufti Syed came to power in 2002, he took many populist measures presumed to ease the sufferings of people; disbanding STF was one of them. Mufti convinced the central government that STF has become notorious in the state and it was high time to assimilate them in police Stations rather than concentrating in camps. He believed it will work in two ways, one that it will be seen as a populist decision and two that due to the presence of erstwhile STF personnel in police stations the entire unit will get involved in the counterinsurgency operations. The announcement came as a big sigh of relief to the entire population especially the peripheral regions of the valley.

This was a turning point in state’s counterinsurgency strategy. STF was not totally disbanded. All the SHO’s were directed to participate actively in anti-militancy operations. District SP’s were directed to eliminate militants in their respective areas. Thus a force meant to prevention and detection of crime and maintenance of law and order was turned into a full-fledged counterinsurgency force.

In comparison to a selected few hundred in STF, now a force with one lakh plus strength was combated to fight militants. This was not just a fight between two armed forces now, but a Kashmiri was pitched against a Kashmiri and a Neighbor against Neighbor each playing a different role. State’s “Iron kills iron” policy was at work. Over the years Police department recruited more people. The recruitment was not just done to increase its base but it was also aimed at “mainstreaming” the “radicals”. For example, soon after 2010 protests police organized a special recruitment drive in downtown area to streamline the stone-pelters—young boys who use stone as a weapon of resistance to fight state forces.  Likewise, many on–the-spot recruitment programs were organized in many districts, especially in volatile places.

After partially disbanding STF, its erstwhile STF officers who had been promoted from constables to inspectors as a reward for the work against militancy, were posted as SHOs in various police stations.

These officials came with their own SOPs and outlook. They were mentally prepared to implement home minister’s policy of combating militancy through police. Combating operations became a lucrative job on many accounts—it fetched medals, money and out of turn promotions. Police officials including SHO were given source fund; rewards for killing and possible departmental promotion up to the rank of Deputy SP etc. Many SHOs were not only working to follow orders but were convinced to work against militancy for perks. This directly pitched police against the militants.

What followed was the cascade of events. Most of the anti-militancy operations especially in urban areas were done by the police, independently or with the support of the army and paramilitary forces. Some of the prominent militant commanders such Abu Qasim, Irshad Ganai, Nasir Pandith and now Burhan were Killed by Police. Police came on forefront and Police lock-ups were no longer meant for criminals and other local crimes, militants were locked there too. Police became the target of militants irrespective of rank and file, for them, everyone donning the uniform was a combatant.

During the protests of 2008, 2009 and 2010, Police was in direct confrontation with the tens of thousands of protestors all over the valley and in some parts of Chenab. In all these protests, hundreds of people died, innumerable received minor and major injuries, and thousands were jailed — and the hatred against police only grew.

Twenty-five years of turmoil has consumed more than one lakh lives including 6000 plus police personals that died in anti-militancy related activities and target killings especially in the last couple of years. While police men were targeted before the year 2000 as well, but people eliminated were mostly the ones with a track record of having worked directly or indirectly against militancy. Since militancy was at its peak, so the proportionate of causalities were ought to be high. Of late there is a paradigm shift on the attacks on policemen. In recent killings, which include an incident in Qazigund, on 12th January, militants attacked the policemen traveling in a taxi, who locals say, have no track record of counterinsurgency.

As the state gives police credit for bringing the situation under control, what becomes evident is that for militants every policeman on the road represents the state. The death of policemen at the hand of militants may suite state apparatus as it pitches Kashmiris with each other but in the long run, it is the defeat of state.

Police might be well equipped to deal with militancy. Caught between the devil and the deep sea, they are in a dilemma and hence unable to strike the balance between societal pressures and professional responsibilities. In the ensuing process, however, they have forgotten the basic policing. Very few police officers are equipped to deal with civil and criminal cases. The FIRs produced in the courts are so unconvincing that even dreaded criminals get away scot free. Protests for water and electricity restoration are dealt in a manner as if they are anti- state or pro-Azadi. They seem to have shelved the fundamentals of basic policing.

 Burhan is no more, but his death may have just opened a can of worms for the state machinery, his absence from the scene will have far reaching consequences on the volcano called Kashmir. If his presence meant a poster boy of new age resistance, his death means an inspiration to hundreds of young boys who believed Burhan to be the strong voice of oppressed. The state police may become a target of the new breed of militancy that will leave no stone unturned to avenge the killing of their young hero primarily and secondarily keep the torch of resistance alive in whatever way they can. There may be spurring in the spill-over of radicalization in the valley, from east to west and north to south, including the garrison town Kupwara which is the most militarized district of conflict-ridden state. More worrying will be the fact that increased local participation in large numbers in militant funerals including foreign militants as well means sympathy for these young men is only growing more and more and in the days to come  police may find it very hard to handle large crowds. The biggest challenge to police will thus not only come from the militants but also from the local populace.

Dr. Peer GN Suhail is a Srinagar-based Policy Analyst and Director Centre for Research and Development Police—CRDP, Srinagar. He can be reached @suhailkopor@gmail.com

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