There is no difference between night and day in the Kashmir Valley. The shadows started deepening decades ago, and Kashmir still lives in a state of eternal twilight. The guardians of this gloaming are men like Zahid (not his real name). He is a jawan in Jammu and Kashmir Police, which has been fighting a pitched battle with separatists and their armed thugs since the 80s. He faces threats both from his own people and India’s enemies—stones, petrol bombs and the deadly spit of AK-47s wielded by young men like Burhan Wani or the terrorists Pakistan sends to spread death in the Valley. Men like Zahid have families back home who exist in a constant state of worry. Many of his colleagues are prone to psychological disorders.
But they have no choice. Kashmir, darkened by years of strife, protests, curfews and killings, offers little scope for employment. This is their story.
Zahid is manning an entry point on a road in Srinagar, hedged by concertina wires laid to restrict movement and prevent demonstrations and protest rallies.
“These are tough times for us. We are over-burdened. I have never seen such a situation since my joining the police force,” he says on the condition that his identity won’t be revealed.
Zahid’s family is from a small village in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district, which is one of the worst hit in the over two-month-long unrest in Kashmir. He is on duty for over 15 hours each day. He says everything was fine in the Valley till July 8. “Srinagar was full of tourists and people were busy going about their normal chores. But all of a sudden, normalcy got derailed after protests following the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani in an encounter on July 8.”
He remembers the events of July 12, when a mob attacked the Damhal Hanjipora police station in Kulgam district in south Kashmir. Two policemen were captured by the mob, which carried away 70 semi-automatic and automatic rifles. The policemen were released after severe beatings. Most police stations in south Kashmir are deserted. Some have been gutted by fire. Zahid recounts the plight of Ghulam Hassan, an inspector posted in Aishmuqam police station in Anantnag. “When the mob came, he was ordered by the CRPF commanders to stay inside. They made fun of him, saying J&K Police couldn’t control their own people. He felt humiliated. This is why many in the police are not enthusiastic about doing their job.”
Zahid states, “When violence begins, at best not more than 50-60 policemen are deployed in sensitive spots, and they have to face mobs of 3,000 to 4,000. Just a slight provocation is needed for the stones to start flying.”
Then they have no recourse left but to open up with pellet guns. “These guns have killed many people,” adds Zahid. “We have to shoot at our own people. We don’t like it. What else can we do? We have to protect ourselves. But most deaths are at the hands of the CRPF.”
There are two kinds of cops on duty in Kashmir. One group that is genuinely anti-militant and the other because they need the job. The first group has to be most careful. Zahid speaks of his colleague Atif, who hides the fact that he is a policeman from his neighbours. He lives in central Srinagar.
“Atif carries two identity cards. One of them shows him as a PWD worker. He keeps his real identity card in the office. Protestors stop him and if they knew is a cop, his life would be worth nothing.”
He tells us of a young policeman who was his batchmate. They graduated from the police academy together. This young cop, since he was only two months on the job, was assigned traffic duty. “Someone came up behind him and shot him in the head. Just because he was wearing a uniform. He didn’t even carry a gun,” says Zahid.
And this was before Wani was shot. Instances like these create a bond among policemen fighting the same cause, whether they like or not.
Members of the pro-militant group hide their emotions from their senior IPS officers. They are in the profession because they couldn’t get another job. Most of them are former stone pelters who spent their formative years as protestors and later had no choice but to join the police force, which they had been targeting earlier. “Is there a greater irony?” asks Zahid. There is not much humour in his tone.
One of them, Saabiq, is from a village near Zahid’s. Saabiq’s brother is an invalid, unable to get up from his bed after a rubber bullet rendered his legs unusable in the conflict of 2010. His father is a shopkeeper. With the unrest going on for years, there is not much business left. He has a wife and family to feed. His wife got pregnant recently.
“Saabiq doesn’t like it here, but he has to look after his family. What hurts him the most, and even many of us, is that we have to fire on Kashmiris. He has a Facebook page, which is not under his name. Here he posts his frustration and anger. I’m afraid someone some day will catch him,” says Zahid.
In some cases, stone pelters-turned-cops have fled with their rifles. Some of these guns are seen being held up by militants at protest rallies. After the Wani encounter, some of these cops joined armed training camps in Tral to train Kashmiri youths aided by Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad commanders.
Zahid says things are worse now because the public distrusts the police. Even during relatively peaceful times, it was the people who distrusted the police. No policeman told his neighbours what he did for a living. They never wear their uniform when they go to work, especially these days.
If any of them are suspected of anti-Kashmiri activities, their life is forfeit. Zahid tells of what happened to Saahir, an inspector living in the city. Between 9 pm and 10 am, mobs of protestors have taken to roaming around the streets. They only have violence on their mind. Saahir was driving to work wearing a kurta pyjama when his car was stopped by a group of 30-40 masked men.
They smashed his car windows, yelling at him for venturing out at all.
Policemen in the Valley wake up at 5 am. “By 6 am, our deployment is decided and we take our positions on roads,” he says. They remain on duty till 9 pm. “We leave our posts only in the evening when people are preparing to go to bed.”
Zahid says they are overburdened. “In the last two months, I have visited my home only thrice but did not stay even for a day. I went in the evening and left in the morning. I could barely spend any time with my wife and son.”
Asked how he feels when people are being killed and injured in security forces’ action, he says, “They are our brothers and sisters. Unfortunately, we have to use force on our own people to maintain law and order. However, we use force only in extreme situations. If we don’t, we will be lynched by the mobs. We use pellets and bullets only when our lives are under threat from violent crowds.”
He says the atmosphere towards the police has changed in the Valley since July. “There is a lot of difference in peoples’ approach and behaviour towards us. They consider us their enemies now and even old friends have become enemies.”
Zahid says some of his friends and colleagues in the force advised him to be careful. “Some even suggested I quit the job. I try to convince them that I am just working and have no ill will towards fellow Kashmiris,” he explains.
His family members are worried about him and plead with him to take every precaution while moving out. The houses of some fellow policemen were burnt when their identity was exposed. Many of them do not go home at all, or live only in secure places. It hurts Zahid that his own people can kill or maim him if he falls into their hands.
“When I leave home, I make sure it’s still dark and nobody is about. I look around every nook and corner for groups of armed young men,” he says.
The most endangered are the lives of the men in the J&K Police Special Operations team, who carry out anti-militant encounters. He recounts the tale of Bahir, who had joined the Special Operations team. He relocated his family to a place where nobody knew them, because exposure meant certain death, not just for himself but also for the family.
“This is how we live, with death around the corner any time, anywhere. But our political leaders have no concern for our welfare. They just use us and discard us,” Zahid rues.
He says he is not a politician to comment on the veracity of the “azaadi” demands. “I am just a policeman who needs my salary to put food in my family’s mouth. I just follow the government’s orders to maintain law and order. It is for them to look into the demands of Kashmiris.”
He is, however, angry with the Army and the paramilitary. He protests that “the CRPF can do what they want and get away with it. Most shootings are by them”.
He is also angry that paramilitary personnel get heavy allowances for being deployed in the Valley. “A CRPF jawan gets at least `5,000 as allowance while we get only `75. This is sheer discrimination and injustice towards us,” he says. “But our leaders don’t care.”
Read more: Others on the edge
Zahid says the relationship between the police and the CRPF is delicate. “They inform us they have learnt about the area where a 20/20 match (slang for stone pelting) has started so that they can go and use force to teach the youngsters a lesson. We try to impress upon them the importance of exercising restraint, as the situation in Kashmir is very delicate. We ensure that they don’t use excessive force,” he says proudly.
What is different between now and 2010 when stone pelting made national news?
“The Hurriyat was more amenable then,” says Zahid. “Not this time. They are depending on Pakistan to help. And it is J&K Police which bears the brunt.”
He was a rookie when the stone pelting protests broke out. He was posted on security detail outside separatist Hurriyat leader Saeed Ali Shah Geelani’s palatial home.
“He was supposed to be on house arrest, but lived in comfort. Anyone could go in and see him, and come out without being accosted. All we were told to do was note down the visitors’ names.”
What was the worst thing about the job?
“Each time anyone came out of the gate, especially anyone of his family, they would abuse us and spit on us. We couldn’t say or do anything because they can collect a mob in a matter of minutes and there would be a situation.”
The toll of young separatists falling to bullets is rising as the Valley continues to burn. Two policemen have also been killed, and over 10,000 others have been injured in clashes between security personnel and protestors, which have passed into the third month of unrest. What stands between the Valley and total chaos are the unsung men in uniform like Zahid. Their story, too, is the story of Kashmir.
(Names of policemen have been changed to protect their identities)