Why Kashmir’s local policemen have become rebels’ new targets

Shopian, Indian-administered Kashmir – The killing of three more local policemen in Indian-administered Kashmir has underlined growing tensions between rebels and police.

At least 37 policemen have been killed by rebels so far this year, according to official figures, compared with 32 in all of 2017.

Relatives of 38-year-old Nisar Ahmad Dhobi, 28-year-old Firdous Ahmad Kuchay, and Kulwant Singh, 35, said they were taken from their homes and shot dead in the early hours of Friday by suspected members of two armed groups, in the villages of Kapran and Batgund in southern Kashmir’s Shopian region.

A police statement promised further investigation into Friday’s killings but blamed “the complicity” of Hizbul Mujahideen, the largest rebel group, and Lashkar-e-Taiba, often said to be responsible for attacking Indian security forces in the disputed Kashmir region.

The bodies of the policemen, who had worked in various districts of Kashmir but were visiting family in Shopian, were found in an orchard.

The brother of a police constable, who was also abducted, was released, Kapran villagers told Al Jazeera.

Dhobi’s wife Ruksana Akhtar said: “I resisted and told the gunmen to spare my husband, but they did not listen. They told me he will be back in 10 minutes. In 10 minutes, I heard gunfire from a short distance and he was killed.”

Singh’s mother, 70-year-old Pushpa Devi, said her son should have been given the chance to resign, referring to a “resign or die” ultimatum by Hizbul Mujahideen, which had days earlier warned Kashmiri police officers to stay away from counter-insurgency operations.

Jammu and Kashmir state police chief SP Pani described the killings as “barbaric”, adding that they show “desperation on the part of the militants, not a chink in our system”.

As Kashmir witnesses one of its most violent phases, rebels increasingly target police officers, who they accuse of “collaborating” with India’s “occupying” forces.

Recently, policemen were advised to take extra security when visiting their homes, where they were told to spend no more than two hours each time.

The focus on policemen comes as police detain relatives of prominent rebels.

The role of police is to primarily deal with law and order. Unfortunately, they are being pushed to fight militancy. The government is making a Kashmiri fight another Kashmir.

Shiekh Abdul Rasheed, independent legislator in Jammu and Kashmir assembly

On Wednesday, an audio statement surfaced on social media in which Hizbul Mujahideen commander Riyaz Naikoo, whose 70-year-old father has been picked up by police, demanded local officers quit.

“You forced us to kidnap your kin to make you feel what we feel when police harass our families,” Naikoo said.

Shortly after Friday’s events, reports said several policemen announced their resignations in video messages posted on social media, but the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs in a statement denied they had quit, describing the news as “propaganda by mischievous elements”.

In August, Kashmiri rebels abducted 11 relatives of policemen, after police detained family members of prominent fighters and allegedly set ablaze two rebel leaders’ homes.

The policemen’s relatives were released after one day unharmed, but Hizbul Mujahideen warned of “an eye for an eye” if government forces did not stop harassing rebels’ families.

“The families of militants should not be touched, whether it is by the army or local police officers. It puts our families at risk too,” a senior police officer told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.

How has policing changed?

Policing in Jammu and Kashmir has transformed over the last 30 years.

In the 1990s, when the rebellion against Indian rule was at its peak, local police did not participate in counter-insurgency operations, which were handled by a separate force – the Special Operations Group (SOG). That outfit included policemen who volunteered to fight rebels, as well as former rebels turned counter-insurgents.

In the early 2000s, the SOG was disbanded and its personnel restructured in the police to give the counter-insurgency a more local face.

“The role of police is to primarily deal with law and order. Unfortunately, they are being pushed to fight militancy which has brought them in confrontation with the militants.

“The government is making a Kashmiri fight another Kashmiri,” Shiekh Abdul Rasheed, an independent legislator in Jammu and Kashmir assembly, told Al Jazeera.

Records say more than 1,500 policemen have been killed in Kashmir since the armed rebellion began in 1989.

“My son worked with the police, because we are a poor family of 12 members. Only he had a permanent job. Had he been warned, we would have begged him to resign,” said 70-year-old Malla Begum, whose son police constable Muhammad Yaqoob Shah was killed outside his home on August 22.

On the same day, Fayaz Ahmad, a trainee constable in Kulgam, and Ashraf Dar, a police officer in Pulwama, were also killed.

For police, the situation is different. They are from the same society. I feel this is going to be terrible in the next few months. I don’t see any solution until a political resolution is made.

Rahul Bedi, defence and security expert in New Delhi

Ajai Sahni, executive director at the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, says local policemen are vulnerable.

“It has happened in Assam, Punjab and other states. A counter-insurgency operation is successful because of its police, which become the face of it,” he told Al Jazeera.

The senior police officer who spoke to Al Jazeera anonymously said while his colleagues in Kashmir were “terrified” to visit their villages, the Indian army had no such fear and were much less at stake.

“An army officer comes from outside Kashmir. We live in constant fear, worried about our families and ourselves. Most police officers don’t even visit [their] homes,” the officer said.

The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) provides immunity to the Indian army in Kashmir, and other conflict zones in India, against prosecution over allegations of torture, rape or extra-judicial killings.

An Indian army soldier stands guard during a gun battle in Khudwani village, south of Srinagar, in April [Mukhtar Khan/The Associated Press]

Both India and Pakistan, who administer separate parts of Kashmir, have fought three wars over the region.

India has stationed nearly 700,000 troops in the areas it administers, making it the world’s most militarised conflict zone.

Kashmiri rebels demand freedom from Indian control or a merger with Pakistan.

From 2017 until today, in the largest ever initiatives against the insurgency in Kashmir, a record 350 rebels have been killed.

According to official figures, the number of armed rebels active in Kashmir crossed 300 this year, the highest in a decade.

“Young men are being forced to take up guns because of the injustice and oppression that continues,” said Nazir Ahmad, a Shopian resident.

Shortly after the three policemen were killed on Friday, Mehbooba Mufti, former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, wrote on Twitter: “Clearly, with the rise in kidnapping of police personnel and their families, Centre’s muscular policy is not working at all. Dialogue, the only way forward seems to be a distant dream for now.”

Experts warn the situation in Kashmir will only worsen in the absence of political outreach, which India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has replaced with a “muscular” approach to the uprising.

Rahul Bedi, a defence and security expert in New Delhi, told Al Jazeera the tit for tat between militants and police will continue.

“The army in the region is insulated. They have AFSPA and equipment, but for police, the situation is different. They are from the same society. I feel this is going to be terrible in the next few months. I don’t see any solution until a political resolution is made,” he said.

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