SRINAGAR: Fatigue shows as shadows on Muhammed Arif’s face. He is up at 5.30 am, groggy from yesterday’s work. He quickly puts on his combat fatigues and a bullet-proof jacket over it and slips his head into a Kevlar helmet. He heads to the armoury and picks up an Insas or an AK-47, whichever he is assigned this day, stuffs two extra magazines into the jacket, and picks up a polycarbonate protective shield. He is now ready.
What does the street have in store for him today? He and his platoon head off to downtown Srinagar in the rickety truck that, like his barracks, is reinforced with mesh and grill from all sides. They are dropped off near Safa Kadal where he stands his post, on his feet the entire day till evening, sometimes into the night. This is the life of a CRPF jawan in Kashmir today. This is Arif’s life and thousands like him in the force.
“I was in Jharkhand fighting the naxalites. Life was tough,” says Arif. “Two months ago, we were transferred here. It is equally tough here. You never know when a mob will gather or when a passerby will try to smash your face.’’ He is a Jammu native, from the district of Reasi. The phones in his barracks are down but the senior officers lend him their phones occasionally and he gets to speak to his family once in a while. “They are worried. They watch TV. My children ask me when I’ll be home. I don’t have an answer,’’ says Arif. Vinod Gujjar, a jawan from Madhya Pradesh, told me that when they set out after breakfast, they are not sure when they will get the next meal. “It all depends. When the stones come, there’s no time for lunch. On some days, it is just one meal a day.’’ On some days, Fridays especially, the stones come like angry bees from all sides.
On some days, Fridays especially, the stones come like angry bees from all sides but the standing instructions to the soldiers are to act with restraint.
The stone pelters belong to all age groups. Some are boys, hardly 6 or 7. Mimicking the big men, they cover their faces with a handkerchief and throw pebbles at the jawans, shouting slogans they have heard. ‘Hum chahatey kya? Azaadi!’, ‘Hum Pakistani.’
Sometimes it’s just play and the jawans laugh the kids away. Sometimes a glare is good enough. “But the real trouble starts when older youngsters assemble,” says Vinod Gujjar, a jawan from Madhya Pradesh.
The stone pelters use signals to assemble, such as a shrill whistle or a stone flung at an electric pole. Often, the mob swells to 500 or 1,000 in no time. Then the men bunker down for a long engagement.
Initially, the jawans fend the stones with their polycarbonate shields. If the mob is moderate, they are warned and then charged to scatter them. If the crowd is larger, the tear smoke shells (with a range of less than 150 yards) are fired.
“But these guys have become immune,” says Arif. “They put wet rags to cover their face and eyes. We also have chilli grenades, rubber bullets and plastic pellets ready. The last resort is to use a pellet gun.
The jawans are bitter about the unpopularity of the pellet guns in the media. “All those who say the pellet guns are lethal should come here and face some stones. One hit and you’ll drop dead,’’ says Arif with some resentment. A senior officer tells me that the pellet gun used in downtown Srinagar is a number 9. The lesser the number, the more lethal it is. “We have no. 7s and 8s with us but we don’t use them. Only no. 9,” says the officer.
And when used, the pellet gun is aimed at the legs. But what about all those facial injuries then? Each pellet gun cartridge contains 600 pellets. Sometimes, the charge hits the ground and the pellets bounce up into the protesters’ faces, the officer explains.
Here in downtown Srinagar, the protesters use women to signal the movement of the security personnel. Keerwan, a jawan from Karnataka, explains the riot mechanics to me. “Those people you see on motorcycles are the ones who come with money, hand it over to the stone pelters who distribute it among themselves,’’ he says, keeping an eye on a passing woman wearing an abaya (head scarf and black gown).
The stones are sometimes so forceful, the protective shields break or the helmet grills bend. Bullet proof windscreens have been smashed. The stone throwers’ intent is to kill,’’ he says.
An average day for the jawans is 14-15 hours. Ducking into a lane to relieve oneself is a risk. So washrooms have been built into the mobile bunkers.
When the phones and Internet work, they might get a few minutes to talk with folks back home, says Anil Sharma, an assistant commandant, who got married in January.