Ode to Kashmiri policemen, softest targets of the insurgency: Barkha Dutt | Opinion | columns | Hindustan Times
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Ode to Kashmiri policemen, softest targets of the insurgency: Barkha Dutt | Opinion

In the sharply polarised Kashmir valley, where jingoists and separatists have hijacked the discourse, squeezing out every inch of nuance, I cannot think of a single group that is more endangered by all sides than the Jammu and Kashmir police.

columns Updated: Jun 30, 2017 20:07 IST
Director general of Jammu and Kashmir Police S P Vaid laying a wreath at the coffin of slain DSP Mohammed Ayub Pandit in Srinagar, June 23, 2017. Pandit was lynched by the mob outside Jamia Masjid.
Director general of Jammu and Kashmir Police S P Vaid laying a wreath at the coffin of slain DSP Mohammed Ayub Pandit in Srinagar, June 23, 2017. Pandit was lynched by the mob outside Jamia Masjid. (PTI)

As the Kashmir Valley erupted into turmoil after the elimination of Burhan Wani, local militant of the Hizbul Mujahideen, I met two local policemen in Srinagar’s Army Base Hospital. Both had been injured because of stones thrown at them during clashes with agitators on the street. It took me a while before I could persuade them to share their stories; the condition was that they were to be filmed against the light in a silhouette, so their identity would be hidden in the shadows. And that I was to not use their real names. In some ways, this expression of acute vulnerability was the precursor to the horrific, shameful mob lynching of Ayub Pandith, on the holy night of Shab-e-Qadr outside the city’s Jama Masjid.

For the past year, of all the security personnel operational in the state, it is the Valley’s police officers who have been most imperilled by the relentless conflict. That the men I met wanted to mask their identities must never be seen an absence of courage; on the contrary these men are the hardiest, bravest, most hands-on officers, anywhere in the world. When ten terrorists were able to lay a siege to Mumbai on 26/11 for three days, despite the presence of the elite National Security Guard, I remember a police officer from Kashmir calling me to say they should have summoned a team from the Valley — so experienced are they at smoking out militants and rescuing civilians from encounters.

But at the same time, Kashmiri policemen are the softest targets in this 27-year-old insurgency, trapped between the service to their uniform and the rage of the street. Because they are drawn from the same community that is often locked in bitter battle with them during agitations and protests, they are attacked, violently, by both militants and civilians. In the sharply polarised Kashmir Valley, where jingoists and separatists have hijacked the discourse, squeezing out every inch of nuance, I cannot think of a single group that is more endangered by all sides than the Jammu and Kashmir police.

Inside the hospital one policeman told me that when he travelled to the city from his village which was two hours away he made it a point to wear civilian clothes that did not out him as a cop. Else, he would be in the line of fire on the highway where protesters had blocked entry and exit points. He only wore his uniform when he was at duty in Srinagar. “They hate us,” he told me, “they talk to us about Azaadi; we talk to them about law and order.”

Because communities are close knit in Kashmir, multiple ironies make the situation even more complicated — like homes where one brother is a police officer and another relative a militant. The mob that lynched Ayub Pandith shouted slogans in support of Zakir Musa, the terrorist who replaced Burhan Wani briefly as the head of the Hizbul Mujahideen and who called for a caliphate in Kashmir. But, Zakir’s father is a civil engineer employed with the government, and one of Zakir’s co-travellers, militant, Ishaq Parray/aka ‘Newton’ is from a family where his brother-in-law is a serving police officer. Yet, videos released by Zakir Musa openly threatened Kashmiri men with death if they chose to sign up for the police force. The police officers I met told me they would never flinch from their “duty’ but they worried for their families. “In some cases people have torched the homes of policemen. Our worry is for them”.

The biggest casualty of the Kashmir conflict has become the contestation of grief; lost lives are mourned and commemorated depending on which side of the ideological trenches your war is and how much whataboutery you are willing to indulge in. Mercifully, everyone rose in unison to unequivocally condemn what happened to Ayub, recoiling from its chilling ugliness. But there is merit in calling out the strange doublespeak of a Kashmir policy where policemen who are reviled by the secessionists are then expected to protect them.

In 2016, pro-Pakistan Hurriyat representative Syed Ali Shah Geelani specifically named an individual police officer in South Kashmir whom he held responsible for eye injuries caused by the use of pellet-spray guns during clashes with protesters. A terrified family, worried about repercussions to them, then went and sought ‘forgiveness’ from Geelani — who snubbed them and gave no guarantees of safety.

Police officers spoke to me of protesters who are no longer scared of tear gas shells and situations where backed by a crowd of a few hundred people, even women have surrounded the post of an individual officer and snatched his weapon. “They look at us with suspicion, they abuse us, and they loathe us. What can we do? We tolerate it,” said a 34-year-old police officer to me, “Ya pathar, ya gaali —Either a stone or an expletive — that is my life; I am used to it now.”

Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and authorThe views expressed are personal